Thursday, April 27, 2017

100 Days

Friday will mark the 100th day of the presidency of Donald Trump, and commentators up to and including the President himself are busily marking that milestone.  The idea that a President should accomplish great things during his first 100 days in office goes back, of course, to Franklin Roosevelt, who was sworn in on March 4, 1933, and whose first hundred days therefore extended into the month of June.  To review exactly what FDR did during that extraordinary spring, I turned to one of my favorite childhood books, The American Past, by Roger Butterfield, a beautifully illustrated survey of the nation's history from the Declaration of Independence through Hiroshima--that is, from the first great crisis of our national life through the third one.  Rather than waste time paraphrasing, I shall simply quote.

"On March 9 Congress met in special session and passed Roosevelt's Emergency Banking Act [declaring a bank holiday to stop a financial collapse] in four hours.  On March 10 he sent up an economy bill to cut federal salaries and veterans' benefits; Congress passed it March 11.  On March 13 Roosevelt asked for legal beer [preliminary to repealing the 18th Amendment], and Congress quickly complied.

"On March 16 Roosevelt proposed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), to end farm surpluses [and a catastrophic fall in farm prices] by paying farmers to produce less.  On March 21 he offered his relief program, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to give $500 million to the states for direct relief; the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), to put 250,000 jobless young men to work in the forests at $1 day; and the Public Works Administration (PWA), to lend and spend $3,300 million [sic-$3 billion] for building projects. . . .

"On March 29 he recommended a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to protect investors against dishonest stock fluctuations.  On April 10 he proposed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  On April 13 he called for the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) to slow down mortgage foreclosures.  On April 20 he took the United States off the gold standard [effectively devaluing the dollar, as the French franc and British pound had already been devalued.]  On May 17 he asked Congress for the biggest New Deal agency of all--the National Recovery Administration (NRA)--to put industry under self-imposed 'codes of fair competition' [and recognize the right of labor to organize for the first time.\ In June he accepted a Congressional plan for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to insure all bank deposits up to $5,000 [the Glass-Steagall Act.] On June 16, exactly 100 days after Congress convened, all of these measures (and many more) had been enacted."


The GI generation ranged in age from 8 to 29 during this frenzy of activity, much of which was designed either to give them immediate help in the form of a job or public assistance (the PWA, the CCC, and the FERA), or to protect them against the financial catastrophes that had struck their parents (the FDIC, the AAA, and the SEC.)  This was only the beginning of the most extraordinary period in the history of American government, which extended all the way through the Second World War.  By the time that war was over the GIs ranged in age from 21 to 41, and it is no accident, obviously, that for the rest of their lives they respected what the federal government could do and looked to it for security and, when necessary, assistance.  Today, the GIs range in age from 92 on up, and their influence, sadly, is at an end.

This unbelievable flurry of activity had short- and long-term roots. In the short run, the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression had left 25% of the population unemployed and was now collapsing the entire banking system.  As a result, Roosevelt had won the 1932 election by a landslide and disposed of majorities of  313 to 117 in the House and 60-36 in the Senate.  Moreover, more than a few of the Republican members belonged to that now-extinct species, Republicanus Liberalis, and voted for much of the New Deal legislation.  But one reason so much far-reaching legislation could pass so quickly was that the ideas behind it had been percolating among progressives for decades.  Roosevelt's own Missionary Generation (born 1863-1883) deeply believed in the idea that reason and science could moderate economic injustice, help to plan the economy, and secure a better world.  This was their chance and they took it.  Another reason, as I discovered writing No End Save Victory, was that the Missionary generation had been educated (and educated their juniors) in the economical use of the English language, and these laws were, by contemporary standards, extraordinarily short, simple, and clear.

Turning to the present, I suspect that many other readers will not have been able to read that list of legislation without noticing how much of it has become a dead letter.  The most notable casualty of our time was the Glass-Steagall Act, which unleashed financial institutions and allowed them to create a new financial catastrophe in 2008.  It has not been restored.  No effective mortgage relief was passed for those who lost their homes in that crisis.  Labor's right to organize has been under attack for decades and the percentage of unionized workers has been cut more than in half.  The family farmers whom the AAA was passed to help have become a politically insignificant fragment of the population.  We no longer seem to want more of the public power that the TVA provided.  We have nothing like the PWA, and eight years ago, at the height of the new economic crisis, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey blocked  a third rail tunnel under the Hudson River--a decision that is now having catastrophic consequences for New York commuters.  Nor do we have any national service program comparable to the CCC--instead we force young people to mortgage their futures by taking out student loans.   (My GI parents, by the way, received superb educations at the University of Wisconsin  during the 1930s for about $1000 a year in today's dollars.)

These changes are not accidental.  The Republican Party has been eagerly unwinding the New Deal since the Reagan era, and the Democratic Party has done very little to stand in the way.  The question before Donald Trump, in fact, is how quickly and exactly how he can finish the job and return us to the free-market economy and concentration of wealth that the nation experienced in the late 19th century.  (Just this morning, a professor at Claremont McKenna University praised the President for trying to take the Republican Party down this path on the op-ed page of the New York Times.)   What has held him back, it seems to me, are two things.  The first is a debate within the Republican Party about how far to go in that direction, which is in turn related to a debate on fiscal responsibility.  A significant number of House Republicans really do not want to increase the federal deficit, which has been a check on plans for new tax cuts.  But yesterday, the Administration marked its first hundred days by unveiling sweeping new tax cuts will balloon the deficit again (as under Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II), claiming that economic growth will provide the lost revenue (as it never does.)  Several prominent Re[publicans immediately fell into line, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform--one of the architechts of our new gilded age--went into ecstasy.

The second obstacle is a different debate about how much crueler it is possible to be to the lower half of the population, much of which voted for Trump.  Because the Administration was unwilling to deprive as many Americans of health care as the Freedom Caucus wanted, they could not repeal the ACA at all.  But the momentum for repeal is far from halted, and that caucus has now produced a version of repeal that they can accept.  This will in any case be less important to our future than the tax plan.

We live in a destructive rather than a creative period in the history of American government.  Among my own Boom generation who grew up in the world the New Deal created, right wingers have eagerly dismantled it while left wingers, with very rare exceptions, haven't cared.  We have lost the belief in a national mission to plan and create a fair and robust economy.  We have not been able to reach a consensus on immigration, which had already been achieved by essentially blocking itt 1924.  Income inequality has reached the levels of the1920s and our political campaigns are now so expensive that it is easier for the wealthy to control our politicians. The question before us is not whether we can reverse course, but whether the situation can stabilize before even greater inequality and another economic crash make things much worse.  The damage has been done, our legacy has been squandered.  As I argued back in July 2010, Barack Obama lost the last chance to reverse course in the first year of his Administration.  (As if to ram the point home, the press is now reporting that ex-President Obama is about to accept a $400,000 fee for an address on Wall Street.)  A conservative majority now controls the Supreme Court, and is likely to get bigger during the next four years.

Donald Trump still faces the nation with a crisis because of his manifest incapacity for the biggest job on earth.  The interview he did last week with the Associated Press has gotten remarkably little attention, perhaps because no one wants to face the implications of his incoherent ramblings and unprecedented grandiosity.  He and his team are also threatening us with major wars.  But there have been no 100 days comparable to those of the New Deal because he is not reversing course on economic issues, but rather continuing down the path the country has been on for most of the last 40 years.  Our politics aredominated by corporate power, while the lower economic half of the population has no confidence in the leadership class and has been divided on racial lines.  Yet history suggests that it may still last, in broad lines at least, for many years to come.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Trouble on the left

Just as it is the duty of every patriotic historian to be harder on his own country than any other--a tradition that began with Thucydides the Athenian--it behooves every politically active person to be critical of his own side.  This is not especially difficult for me today, since the academic left and the ideology it has espoused for at least 30 years is so foreign to my own beliefs, but some may wonder why I am taking the trouble to do it.  One reason is the increasing evidence that that ideology is now firmly established in the nation's newsrooms and plays in important role within the Democratic Party.  Yet it has been politically disastrous and is increasingly at odds with the fundamentals of our civilization as I have always understood them.  If there is not a change on the Left, the Democrats will have great difficulty ever returning to power and will not be able to do much good if they do.

As David Brooks reminded us all this morning, the tradition of western civilization included universal principles of law, justice, and increasingly since the 18th century, of equality.  (To paraphrase Orwell, since I seldom agree with David Brooks, it gives me all the greater pleasure to record my agreement with him on this occasion. It believed that both natural and human science could improve life on earth.  Here in the United States, western civilization, having corrupted itself by importing African slavery, fought a huge civil war in the 19th century to abolish it and established legal equality among the races--even though it took a century to make legal equality a reality.  Women also received political rights in the first half of the twentieth century.  In the middle of the century the world fought a titanic ideological war among liberalism, Communism, and Fascism. The imperial powers retreated from colonialism in the second half of the century.  By then, aspects of western civilization--the rule of law, equal rights for citizens, and attempts to raise the general standard of living--had become a model for virtually the entire world.  The initial post-independence regimes in previously colonial territories were based on some form of western ideology, from liberalism through communism.

The new ideology that now dominates academia was developed by men and women who were children during the great crisis of the 1940s, but spread more widely by my own generation.  It denies the autonomy of ideas and really denies their importance as a motive force in civilization.  Instead, it sees civilization--and ideas--as nothing but a power struggle among different groups, defined by race, by gender, and by sexual preference.  And thus--to get immediately to the heart of the matter--rather than portray western civilization as a triumph of certain ideas that was, to be sure, mostly invented by white men, it portrays western civilization as an instrument used by white men to establish and maintain their domination over other groups--and which, therefore, has to be undone, in fundamental respects, to create real justice.

Let me take another paragraphs to introduce my own perspective.  I became a comparative historian at an early age, not only comparing different countries in the same period of history, but comparing different periods of modern European history.  A comparative perspective, it seem to me, is a good antidote to overly positive or negative views of human nature, since its judgments can be based upon reality.  Now unless one returns to the most primitive hunter-gatherer societies, there seems to be little doubt that western civilization has been less oppressive, on the whole, than any other developed civilization.  That is why movements for racial equality, equality between men and women, and, most recently, gay rights, originated in western civilization, and why such ideas have advanced the most in the most westernized countries.

Now let us go to the new orthodoxy.

The new orthodoxy holds that any attempt to see ourselves as equal citizens in a civic realm is at bottom a fiction designed to preserve the hegemony of white males.  It argues that every one of us is defined by our membership in either a dominant group (straight white males), or an oppressed or "marginalized" one (including all white women, all gays, and all nonwhites.)  Not only that, but everyone of us is morally and emotionally linked to the perceived historical role of those groups. Every straight white male, bears the guilt for the oppression of all other groups, whatever his personal history may be, and every woman and every nonwhite actively suffers from the scars of oppression.  And such oppression is expressed not only, and not merely, through specific, identifiable disadvantages in wealth, income, and opportunity, but through language and culture.

Last week, students a Claremont McKenna University in southern California successfully blocked the audience from hearing a talk by the conservative commentator Heather MacDonald, who is a critic of the Black Lives Matter.  The letter a black students' group wrote to the President of Claremont McKenna moved me to do this post, because it stemmed logically from the ideology whose origins I have just described   The letter replied to a critical statement by the President of Claremont McKenna, arguing that however one felt about Heather MacDonald's views (and I personally disagree very strongly with some of them myself), the Enlightenment value of free speech had to respected.  Here are a few excerpts from that letter.

"Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth--’the Truth’--is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.

"The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?

"Advocating for white supremacy and giving white supremacists platforms wherefrom their toxic and deadly illogic may be disseminated is condoning violence against Black people. Heather Mac Donald does not have the right to an audience at the Athenaeum, a private venue wherefrom she received compensation. Dictating and condemning non-respectable forms of protest while parroting the phrase that “protest has a celebrated” place on campus is contradictory at best and anti-Black at worst."

Now I am not suggesting--as the authors of this letter probably would--that this letter expressed the views of most black students at Claremont McKenna, much less elsewhere.  While few black people (and few white people) regard the United States as perfect, many of us are still proud to be Americans.  What makes this letter important is that it expresses an extreme version of what has become mainstream ideology on campus.  Humanity, according to this ideology, is divided into oppressors and oppressed who are defined by race, gender and sexual orientation.  (Class occasionally gets a reference, but economic status is not treated as equally important to these three.)  The oppressors are constantly inflicting great emotional pain on the oppressed, and this must stop.  "Eurocentric values"--that is, the values of western civilization--have always been, and remain, oppressive and suspect.  And those ideas are either the implicit or explicit premise of many thousands of pages of academic writing about "oppressed" or "marginalized" groups that has appeared over the last few decades.

This post is already too long, and I will confine myself to a few fundamental counterpropositions.

1.  The new ideology has sprouted in universities because they are safe spaces whose white male administrators adopted diversity and inclusion as their mission 20-30 years ago.  That mission has become more important than any purely intellectual function, certainly in the humanities and social sciences.  University administrations spend a great deal of time worrying about their facilities (which will affect their U.S. News ranking), their diversity, and the happiness of their minority students.  They spent almost no time trying to develop the best humanities curriculum, and they have given up preserving the heritage of western civilization as a major goal.  

2.   The new ideology has, as I have said, become very powerful in the mainstream media, which accepts the idea, in practice if not in theory, that the problems of "marginalized" groups are more important than anyone else's.  But it has obviously alienated more than 100 million Americans who do not live on the East and West Coasts (and a non-trivial number of those who do.)  After 30 years of political correctness in the universities, we have a self-identified sexual harasser as President and a very traditional white southerner as Attorney General.  Hillary Rodham Clinton in her campaign took pains to make clear that she took the concerns of marginalized groups more seriously than anyone else's.  Quite a few Democratic consultants and commentators look forward eagerly to the day when whites will constitute a minority of the electorate.  The reaction against all of this has been devastating and it was inevitable.

3.  The constant emphasis on the thoughts and feelings of "maringalized" groups--again, everyone but straight white males--is, among other things, a denial of any common value system that unites us all.  When I appeared on a couple of weeks ago, I was immediately followed by a female historian named Arianne Chernok. As you can here, she peremptorily dismissed everything I had to say about Strauss, Howe, and the crisis that the US is obviously going through on the grounds that "there were no women" in the story I had told. This was, to begin with, false:  Hillary Clinton had not only come up in my conversation with host Chris Lydon, but he had played a clip from her famous 1969 commencement speech.  Professor Chernok was repeating the most common claim of postmodernist historians: that traditional "narratives" of history left out women and nonwhites because they focused on political leaders, who were (in the Atlantic world, anyway) white men.  But whether or not that is true, it remains true that we are ALL political beings who live subject to laws and must inevitably be affected by the great political changes that occur every eighty years. Yes, some will in some ways be affected differently than others, but all of us will be affected in the same way by some of the changes that took place.  We do share a common experience that is very important to us all.

And that leaves me to a last, more tentative point.  The emphasis not only on marginalized groups and identities also denies that there is such a thing as "normal" human behavior.  The concept of "heteronormativity" was originally defined as the idea that heterosexuality was the only proper form of human sexual behavior.  I certainly join in rejecting that idea.  But in many instances, I believe, the concept has gone further, so as to deny that there is any biological or other significance to the heterosexuality of most human beings.  15 or 20 years ago, the American Historical Association cautioned teachers not to assume that their students with either heterosexual or homosexual.  This is connected to the postmodern idea that the heterosexuality of most human beings (a statistical fact) is not biologically determined, but culturally imposed.  Now to repeat, it is vitally important to respect the feelings and rights of those whose sexual orientation is different from that of the majority of their fellow human beings.  But I honestly wonder whether a society can hold together, in the long run, if it does not include some ideas of what constitutes normal behavior, in  a statistical rather than a moral sense, even if we recognize that there will always be people who behave differently and whom we must respect all the same.  One of the biggest functions of crises or fourth turnings as identified by Strauss and Howe is indeed to create or reaffirm a value system, both politically and personally, according to which most of us--never all--will live.  And historically, when societies cannot do this by consensus, some one does it by force.

In my opinion, the constant encouragement of young people in particular to define themselves by race, gender and sexual preference is making it much harder not only to find common ground across these barriers--which I regard as essential to our national survival--but also much harder for them to discover the most important thing about themselves.  Many of us have become obsessed with electing a female President--but no one was ever obsessed with electing a male President, because that was a given.  Because it was a given, the citizenry (male and female) could focus on the difference between the men they might elect, a difference defined by their party affiliation, their views, and what they might accomplish.  The emphasis on race and gender as qualifications for anything implies that there is nothing wrong with our institutions that could not be fixed by redistributing the rewards they offer along gender and racial lines. But there is, in fact, a great deal wrong with all our institutions that cannot be cured that way, but will require leadership that sees things more broadly.  And there is very little evidence indeed that simply increasing diversity at or near the top of powerful institutions actually changes the behavior of those institutions.

Great historians, I like to say, do not argue with history.  What has happened over the last few decades ot left wing thought must have been in some sense inevitable--but that does not make it right.  We need a rebirth of a vital center that can call on everyone.  Events, I think, will eventually force us to move in that direction.  The question is when.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Did General McMaster Pass his own Test?

When General  H.R. McMaster replaced General Ray Flynn as National Security Adviser just a few weeks into the Trump Administration, commentators made much of the book he had written as a doctoral candidate 20 years ago, Dereliction of Duty, and what it boded for his tenure.  Published in 1998, that book argued that the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-1960s had failed to give Lyndon Johnson their honest opinion of what was needed to win the Vietnam War, and that that had led to catastrophe.  As it happens, I was finishing my own book on the origins of the Vietnam War, American Tragedy, at that very moment, and I did not see what McMaster had in the same sources.  The problem, I thought, was not that the Generals didn’t tell President Johnson what they thought, it was that neither the military nor the civilians had a realistic idea of how to win the war.  No one, however, could argue with the principle that he was advocating: that it was essential for military leaders to give their civilian superiors honest and sound military advice.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that General McMaster, Secretary of Defense (and retired general) James Mattis, and Joint Chiefs’ Chairman General Joseph Dunford—by law the President’s principal military adviser—managed to pass that test during the crisis over chemical weapons in Syria.  Ironically, their retaliatory strike and the ways in which they have defended it are extremely reminiscent of one of the most unfortunate episodes of the Vietnam era, the first major air strike on North Vietnam in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident in early August 1964.

On August 2, 1964, American destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf were attacked by North Vietnamese p. t. boats, who it turned out were acting without authorization from higher authority.  Officially the destroyers were making a routine patrol; in actual fact they were coordinating with a South Vietnamese paramilitary strike against the North, partly to test North Vietnamese radar.  Such attacks had been taking place since early that year, and the Joint Chiefs had anticipated that they might lead to North Vietnamese retaliation and full-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War. Johnson was now preparing for his re-election campaign against hawkish Barry Goldwater, who had already been nominated, and his National Security team had already been waiting for some time for a pretext to introduce a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of military force in Southeast Asia.  In the days after the attack Johnson authorized another South Vietnamese operation against the North and another patrol for August 4, and on the morning of that day, he discussed possible retaliation against the North with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The patrol on the evening of August 4, it was later established, did not encounter any North Vietnamese opposition, but at least one destroyer initially reported sonar contacts suggesting that it had.  McNamara and Johnson swung into action without waiting to make sure what had happened, sending an air strike against the base from which the August 2 PT boats had come.  Johnson asked for his resolution authorizing war, and received nearly unanimous support from the House and Senate.  The US took a giant step towards the war that Johnson and McNamara had already anticipated after the election.  In the first week of March 1965 it began in earnest.

We must now face the possibility that the Syrian crisis, like the Tonkin Gulf strike, is based upon misinformation.  Professor Ted Postol of MIT, a hard boiled skeptic for whom I have great respect, has gone on record that the photographic evidence we have does not support the idea that the gas was dropped from a plane. It does not seem at this point at least that the Administration’s leaders see the strike as a step towards a larger war.  But what is most striking is the very similar way that the two strikes have been justified: as “signals” designed to intimidate and deter the enemy from undertaking further hostile acts.  

The idea of using military force to signal one’s intentions, and thereby to affect the behavior of adversaries without resorting to full-scale war, was elaborated by an economist, Thomas Schelling, in his book Arms and Influence, which appeared less than two years after the Tonkin Gulf incidents.  This was the era of the Cold War, when American strategists were searching for alternative strategies to an all-out nuclear exchange, and Schelling claimed to have found one. Both the Cuban missile crisis and that retaliatory attack after the Tonkin Gulf incidents, he argued, were “signals” that had persuaded, and might persuade, adversaries not to challenge American power.  He praised the quarantine of Cuba in 1962 and the 1964 bombing as “proportional” moves that would allow an adversary to rethink his strategy without risking all-out war.  That was music to the ears of American policymakers—but unfortunately, we now know, it did not reflect the facts of those cases.

The reason that Nikita Khrushchev decided to remove his missiles from Cuba, we now know, was that he could not stop the American invasion of Cuba that would have begun within just a few days if he did not—nor could he risk nuclear war against an overwhelmingly superior United States.  We have also learned that the effect of the Tonkin Gulf strike on the North Vietnamese was disastrous.  Until it occurred, Ho Chi Minh—the most diplomatic of all the Communist leaders of the twentieth century—had hoped to work out a deal with Washington that would have avoided war.  But Ho and his government knew what the American people did not—that the second attack for which we had retaliated had not taken place—and he decided, correctly, that the Americans were determined upon war, and that he would therefore give it to him.  The strike did not in the least deter Ho: it encouraged him.  With the help of Chinese and Russian allies, he eventually prevailed.

It now turns out that the Trump Administration’s decision to warn the Russian government about our impending strike turned it into a completely symbolic act.  The Russians in turn warned the Syrians, who evacuated the airfield, from which they have now resumed conventional attacks.  The Russians have also reaffirmed their solidarity with the Assad regime and stopped the exchange of information with the US government about military moves.  Although Assad may avoid further chemical attacks, the incident will do nothing to change the basic course of the conflict in Syria.  It will only put more pressure on the Administration to take further action as Assad continues to consolidate his power against the rebels.  And indeed, high officials are already talking as if Assad must be removed--something they lack the means to make happen.

In 2017 as in 1964, the foreign policy establishment has applauded the Administration’s use of force to show American resolve.  This in my opinion is the kind of illusory gain that military leaders should warn civilians against.  President Obama refused to take similar action against Syria because he did not believe American military power could affect the situation for the better.  With Russia firmly behind Syria, that situation remains unchanged.  Symbolic attacks only foster the illusion of American power—the illusion that led us to the greatest foreign policy tragedy of the twentieth century in Vietnam.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

A note to radio listeners and New York Times readers!

Those of you arriving here thanks to the New York Times story on Bannon or to Chris Lydon on will be particularly interested in this post.  Note that it was published in December 2015. It was written months earlier, well before the Trump campaign took off--but at this moment I'm inclined to stand by the conclusions.

Other readers will enjoy the interview that is now available at

Democracy at work

I had been planning this piece all week but this morning, reading the New York Times, I found that an author and former Congressional staffer named Steven Waldman had beaten me to it.  I shall nonetheless go ahead as I had planned.  This morning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the "nuclear option" to halt the Democratic filibuster against Justice Gorsuch. I am glad that he took this step towards a more functioning American democracy, and I hope that filibusters on legislation can be eliminated as well.

There are more similarities between today's liberals and conservatives than either side would like to admit, and one of them is an almost complete disregard for process and a devotion to desired results, by whatever means secured.  Democrats complained about filibusters in the Obama years; now they have adopted one to fight the nomination of a fully qualified judge.  But for whatever reason, I think differently.  Filibusters have always been wrong, and they remain wrong.  We will be better off without them--in today's climate, MUCH better off.

The filibuster has a venerable history, but it is truly depressing that in the last twenty years it has become more important than ever before.  During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century it was nearly always used for the same purpose: to prevent effective civil rights legislation from securing the rights of black Americans, especially the right not to be lynched with impunity in the former Confederate states.  Eventually a bipartisan consensus in the northern states allowed the Senate to overcome filibusters against a moderate civil rights bill in 1960, and another far more radical bill in 1964.  In those days it took 2/3 of those Senators present and voting to stop debate and bring a bill to a vote.  Later the required number was cut to 60 votes, or 3/5.

A number of authorities have pointed out that the practice of requiring a super-majority appears to be unconstitutional on its face.  The Constitution specifies that 2/3 majorities in the Senate will be required to ratify treaties, to convict federal officials impeached by the House, and to pass a Constitutional amendment.  These provisions clearly imply that a simple majority should suffice to pass any other legislation or to confirm appointments.  It is very interesting that for so much of our history, Senators accepted filibusters only as a regional weapon against one particular kind of legislation.  As Waldman pointed out in his piece today, while Republicans certainly abominated a great deal of New Deal legislation--including the Social Security Act--they never filibustered a New Deal measure.  Democrats never used filibusters against Republican Supreme Court nominees either, voting two Nixon choices down in 1969-70 by actual majorities, and allowing the confirmation of Clarence Thomas by a very narrow margin.

But by the late  1990s, the Republicans were using the threat of filibusters to kill legislation.  That tactic had catastrophic consequences during the first two years of the Obama Administration.  Had it not been for the unified Republican threat, the Affordable Care Act would have included a full-scale public option such as the House of Representatives passed.  As it was, the defection of just a couple of Democrats was enough to kill it in the Senate.  We would also have passed comprehensive immigration reform, which might easily have kept Donald Trump well away from the White House.  Had our democracy not lost the ability to pass legislation to solve problems, the political class might have retained the confidence of the country. It didn't.

As I have written repeatedly and at length, from 2009 through 2016 Republicans used every means at hand--led by the threat of filibusters--to prevent Barack Obama from passing any legislation.  I was disturbed when the Democrats in the Senate decided that their duty now required them to do the same.  As long as our basic freedoms are preserved--and I do not believe at this point that they are seriously threatened--then a bad government is preferable to none at all.  Judge Gorsuch is fully qualified and personally distinguished.  He will also make a far better justice than most of the men and women that President Trump might appoint.   The Democrats feel that Merritt Garland should be on the court, but it is not the filibuster that kept him off.  The Republicans now control the Senate. The Democrats will have to undo that condition at the ballot box.  To do that they will have to find ways to appeal to the many millions of Red State Americans who have written them off.

Beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, liberals have relied more and more on the federal courts to secure their objectives.  That was how state legislatures were forced to draw electoral districts based upon population, how prayers were banned from schools,  how criminal justice was reformed in key ways, how abortion was legalized, how the death penalty was temporarily abolished in the 1960s, and how interracial and gay marriage were legalized throughout the land.  Inevitably the Republican Party responded by using the courts to achieve their objectives, including the creation of a new individual right to bear arms and the effective end of laws regulating campaign contributions.  This has been catastrophic for American democracy, not least because some of those decisions have never been accepted by large numbers of Americans.  Indeed, one could argue that the Republican Party today is a coalition of Americans opposed to the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education, Americans opposed to Roe V. Wade, and Americans opposed to limits on campaign spending.   Had some of these issues been decided by the political branches I suspect American democracy will look very different.

Having spent several weeks studying and writing about Tocqueville a few months ago, I know how many of the requirements of effective democracy we lack.  We lack any real consensus on many major issues, our people no longer have extensive experience managing their local affairs, and they do not feel anything like the dedication to our institutions that they did for most of the first 200 yars of the Republic.  Yet I will not give up on making our institutions work again. That can only happen, in my opinion, if the legislative process can solve real problems.  It will not be able to do so in the face of routine Senate filibusters, or reflex opposition by either party to the Supreme Court nominations of Presidents on the other side.  Al Smith liked to say that the only cure for the ills of democracy was more democracy, and I still agree.