Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

APSA 2014 Tidbits


I just returned from the 2014 APSA, that is, the convention of the American Political Science Association, held this year in Washington, D.C.  It was good times and top-secret plotting with my fellow bloggers Peter Lawler, Flagg Taylor, and Ralph Hancock, but here are some conference tidbits that I can share:

1) Overheard a delightful anecdote from an old war horse of the profession, political-parties and elections expert Gerald Pomper. Pomper, attending an APSA in the late ’60s, was asked by a hippieish-looking young fellow in the hotel’s elevator who all these people with name tags were. Pomper explained that this was a convention of political scientists and that 6,000 were in attendance. Apparently the hippie had never looked over a college catalogue, for he asked with wonder, “There are political scientists?!? Why haven’t all of them discovered a way to end war yet?”

2) You hear lots of witty stuff over the course of an APSA, but the funniest joke I heard was told by my wife, and at my expense. No, I’m not going to tell y’all what it was!

3) Had a chance conversation with Leon Craig, emeritus professor of the University of Alberta, and author of books on Thomas Hobbes, Shakespeare, and one of the better books on Plato’s Republic.  He’s sort of a Straussian advocate of manliness, of Spartan virtue philosophically refined — I might advise those interested in such to go to his books before the better-known one by Harvey Mansfield, but only if they’re prepared to march side by side with Craig in his meticulously close readings of the relevant texts. 

Anyhow, he had just had a roundtable on his book about Hobbes, so I asked him to explain its main arguments. Part of them involves an ingenious interpretation of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Craig holds that Hobbes actually presents two versions of the state of nature, one that exists among primitive tribal man, and the one that exists when order breaks down among Western man. The really ugly state of nature that Hobbes is most famous for portraying, the one where life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” is the second of these, and what The Heart of Darkness does is show you what happens when the two meet.

4) Now as we were staying elsewhere, we missed the big APSA excitement, which was a series of nuisance fires being set by someone at 1:00 a.m. in the main hotel for the convention, the Marriot Wardman. The fire alarm called everyone out of the hotel, clad in whatever they had the possession of mind to grab as they hurriedly left their rooms, and for three or so hours, there they remained. It was remarkably pleasant weather, but you gotta feel sorry for folks who had a panel the next day, particularly if they had imbibed more than a couple. 

Still, I found something rather humorous about it, because for most of us the APSA is all about impressing others — everyone without tenure or without far-left pretensions is dressed in his or her professional best, everyone has rêsumês or two-minute book plugs at the ready, the latest field-relevant buzz words and references are at the tip of the tongue, and eyes dart over the moving crowds looking for old friends but also scanning the name tags to size up whether someone you haven’t met yet might be professionally useful to you. So imagine all these thousands of political scientists, all of whom had appeared so impressive only a few hours earlier, stumbling out groggy and name-tag-less onto the hotel lawn in their bathrobes and bed heads! If you can’t laugh at that, you just don’t know what comedy is for.

But it couldn’t be funny for all — the night-shift Marriot workers had a nightmare on their hands. They inevitably gave conflicting announcements amid confusion about the situation, and did their best to mollify their guests by distributing blankets and pastries, as the firemen and police did their job. (The latest rumor/info I heard was that an arsonist set chairs on fire in several different concrete stairwells, and seems to have set another fire later on, aggravatingly just after the first all-clear announcement had sent a number of exhausted folks tramping back up to their rooms.)  Similar problems faced the APSA organizers — should the whole conference be canceled? Which morning meetings and sessions should be canceled? Etc.

So what happened with this crowd of political scientists suddenly thrown together on terms of raw equality? Did seminars on the meaning of justice or at least brainstorming sessions about how to best advise Congress spontaneously develop given this unexpected nocturnal conclave of the most erudite political minds in the nation? 

Well, nothing so high-minded happened, but according to my source, while there was at least one brutish instance (urinating on a wall), no state of nature broke out either. Still, what did happen nonetheless lends credence to Hobbes’s and Craig’s theory. For apparently, as the tiresome night wore on, quite a few of the political scientists let their inner Larry David off the leash and began voicing bitchy complaint after complaint, continually second-guessing the decisions made by the hotel staff and the APSA organizers, or even floating unflattering theories for why those decisions were being made. My source says the regular hotel guests in the crowd, folks presumably paying full price for their rooms, were by contrast models of patience.

5) Kevin Morby is a new rock-music favorite — we caught him in Richmond on the way back from APSA. Mellow/depressive ’60s-ish stuff that some political scientists could apparently use a little more of in their musical diet.

6)  Pieter de Hooch is a new Dutch-masters favorite — we saw his paintings at the National Gallery, which no trip to D.C. is complete without a few hours spent in.

Do lists annoy you, now? Well, look, I’m just following the advice of my betters. I didn’t have much time to talk with my fellow blogger (and former teacher) James Ceaser, given the packed house at a roundtable celebrating his life’s work (see Peter’s post, and my point 11, below. for the best stuff from that), but he was able to quickly quip to me that while he liked my recently published “The Five Conceptions of American Liberty,” that really I should do better, and find more than just five.

7) You can sure feel the money, and the power, in D.C. Off the Mall, I was happy to see so many women and men dressed so fashionably, even if in casual mode, strolling in the near-perfect weather. I miss that sometimes with the people in my current hometown, Newport News, who don’t have the money or the sophistication for such. A very un–Labor Day comment, I admit. 

8) Another side of the D.C.-area economic boom: We stayed with an older couple in Fairfax, Va., and they told me that when you look at the home-sales notices, again and again you notice a white-sounding name for the seller, and an East Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Ethiopian name for the buyer. We went to one of the area Ikea stores, and it was packed with customers, with around 40 percent of them being non-white/non-black.

9) New books that caught my eye: David Alvis, Flagg Taylor, and Jeremy Bailey, The Contested Removal Power, 1789–2010; Sotirios Barber, Constitutional Failure; Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically; Daniel Mahoney, The Other Solzhenitsyn; Joseph Chan, Confucian Perfectionism; Andrew Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc Plattner, Will China Democratize?;  Richard Epstein, The Classical Liberal Constitution, and, of course, Totalitarianism on Screen, edited by yours truly and Flagg Taylor. 

10) Had an interesting conversation with my old friend Jeremy Mhire, Straussian Aristophanes and Plato scholar with a great-looking new book out on the former. It was about the ways liberal-arts educators might use STEM-student interest in what might be called “cyber-space studies” to lure them into an appreciation for American civic education (rightly understood) and Great Books liberal education, grounded in an effort to realize good “cyber-citizenship.” Jeremy is thinking about this given his involvement with Cyber Discovery.

11) Jim Ceaser confirmed that his car’s license plate is FED 49, in reference to his favorite Federalist Paper, at the roundtable I mentioned earlier.  He didn’t really answer Peter Lawler’s query about whether he wished that more of the Papers, and of Founding-era thought in general, had emphasized the topic of veneration.  He did provide a good defense of the rational motive for venerating our Constitution, which makes it less than blind veneration, after all.   

12) No more time to really fill you in on an excellent roundtable on the future of the Republican party, with Bill Kristol and Yuval Levin among others, but I’ll just mention here, mainly for our Pete’s sake, that Kristol sketched a likely scenario for Republicans not taking the Senate this November, without claiming to know what would occur one way or the other. Kristol was very impressive in general, and he graciously complimented my essay when we briefly met (see, Jim, five was just right!); but even more impressive was Yuval.  I can’t summarize why — to do so would require me to reproduce the same needed wisdom of the hour presented in such a succinct, winning, and spontaneous way.

Happy Labor Day!


First off, HAPPY LABOR DAY! I read in the Washington Post on the way home that New York is the best state because it has the highest percentage of unionized employees — well over 20 percent of all workers. Meanwhile, the southern states are the worst states — because in most of them less than 5 percemt of all workers are unionized.

That judgment is probably more wrong than right. My Georgia is ranked at the top of the states for friendliness to business, and the jobs and economic-growth numbers do reflect that fact. Still, there’s no denying that comparable jobs — even accounting for the standard of living and all that — pay less in Georgia than in New York.

Some porcher conservative recently sent me the following as fact, and right now I have no reason believe that it isn’t: Forty years ago, the top American employer was General Motors, and the average wage was about $50 an hour in today’s money, with fine benefits. Today, America’s top employer is Walmart, where the average wage is about $10 an hour, with no benefits worth talking about. We postmodern conservatives do worry some about the so-called proletarianization of the middle class. And so we allow ourselves a measure of selective nostalgia for the clearly unsustainable (in the 21st-century competitive global marketplace) industrial unions. (We’re completely against public-employee unions of all kinds.)

Not only that, we say HAPPY LABOR DAY in admiration of people who do “real work,” remembering that there is a strong mental (as well as, of course, physical) component to jobs such as motorcycle maintenance and construction, and that many others do indispensable work that requires not only skill but the personal concern — called “caregiving.” We admire the people– as much better than us — who can really say “we built this.” And we know that a lot is being lost when people who do real work must subject themselves to being scripted or micromanaged by the “intellectual labor” of experts located in undisclosed locations — think Walmart and the Amazon warehouse to begin with here.

So we postmodern conservatives have more localism and porcherism in our souls than do libertarian economists. I was glad to hear that Jim Ceaser has moved a bit in this postmodern and conservative direction in his brilliantly engaging comments at the APSA. He actually praised the “agrarian” southern poets John Crowe Ransom and Wendell Berry for telling some truth against the unbounded concern with power or productivity of purely liberal theory. That’s not to say that Jim has gone ((or, for that matter, that I have gone) very far down the road toward Berry’s farm.

We don’t have to become Marxists or porchers to realize that increases in efficiency and productivity sometimes come at the expense of the personal dignity of women and (especially) men who, like us all, need worthwhile work and the responsibilities of relational love to live purposefully significant lives. We don’t go as far as the Marxists or the porchers, because we don’t see that tradeoff as inevitable or even anywhere near always the case.

One reason we postmodern and conservative professors can find common cause with other kinds of struggling middle-class employees is that we see the expert/administrative effort to proletarianize us with “best practices” scripts designed by efficiency-and-productivity experts, online education, the withering away of tenure and “faculty governance,” the focus on “measurable outcomes” oriented around skills and competencies, and “the culture of assessment.” That doesn’t mean I’m in favor of unionizing professors. Said unionization, where it has occurred, had the effect of playing into the hands of administrators who want to regard professors as industrial workers.

We postmodern conservatives certainly aren’t ready to replace Happy Labor Day with Happy Free and Independent Contractor Day.

I meant to say only a word or two about LABOR DAY and then go on to talk about my “work” at the American Political Science Association Meeting. More on that next time, with reports on True Grit (which was followed by a postmodern and conservative breakfast that included, in Carl’s case, true grits), hailing Ceaser, and the future of the Republican party.

Well, one more thing: Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish has included quotes from three postmodern conservatives to show the diversity of opinion on the political soundness of Marilynne Robinson. The quotes — from Paul Seaton, Carl, and me – differ in terms of emphasis but really aren’t evidence of any deep disagreement.

Tags: labor day


Why 2014 Looks Like a GOP Wave in the Senate


I agree with Sean Trende that, even though the polls in most swing Senate races are very close, the Republican Senate candidates should, absent freak occurrences, win most of the competitive races.

Another way to look at it is in terms of presidential job approval. At this point in 2010 (a very good year for the GOP), Obama’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating was 46 percent and his disapproval was 48.1 percent. Obama’s current job approval is 41.8 percent and his disapproval is 52.4 percent. At this point in 2010, the median respondent was ambivalent (neither approving nor disapproving) of Obama while today a clear majority disapproves.

And As Trende pointed out, most of the competitive states have Obama approval ratings that are comparable to, or lower than his national approval rating. That means that the voters who will decide the election will overwhelmingly ones who think that Obama is doing a bad job and it is doubtful that the median Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, and Colorado Obama disapprover is a pro–tax increase abortion enthusiast who is frustrated that Obama didn’t ban all guns and establish single-payer health care by executive order.

It is possible for a Democrat to win in that kind of environment primarily by distancing themselves from Obama. Joe Manchin did it in 2010, but I don’t think that many of the Democrats stuck in very close races will pull of the same trick. They don’t have the same strength of standing as moderates (especially incumbents who voted for Obamacare, their opponents are generally better fits for the state than Manchin’s challenger and those states have a more recent history of sending Republicans to the Senate.

All bets are off if Democrats can produce an entirely different electorate than that of 2010 through their voter turnout operation or if Obama can lift his job approval ratings but, as things stand, The Republicans should be better off than you would think from looking at the head-to-head polls.

What Lingers In Our Memory


This Seth Mandel post on baseball got me thinking of the relative decline of Major League Baseball in our culture. What follows is a totally impressionistic account of sports and memory in Eastern Massachusetts:

I’m am too young to remember the 1960s and 1970s, but you catch glimpses of what sticks with people when sports comes up. Growing up, it seemed that, for most Boston area sports fans, the two Stanley Cups won by the Big Bad Bruins were a bigger deal than all thirteen NBA championships won by the pre-Larry Bird Celtics.

The two World Series defeats by the Red Sox seemed like at least as big a deal as the two Bruins Cups. Fisk’s Game 6 home run (famously described by Robin Williams) in an ultimately losing effort was at least the equal of Bobby Orr’s triumphant dive.

I think that gives a good sense of the hierarchy of the time. All else being equal, the Sox were first in local affections (and resentments). The Bruins were second. The Celtics were a distant third, and the recently founded Patriots were a very distant last place.

This Sox hegemony lasted at least through the 1980s. The Larry Bird-era Celtics not only won championships, they also acquired a much bigger local and national profile than the more successful (in terms of championships) Celtics teams of the 1960s and pretty good Celtics teams of the 1970s.

But even though the Celtics teams of the 1980s were winning three championships and made two other NBA Finals (While the Sox of the 1980s only had the one losing World Series run), Red sox ace Roger Clemens wasn’t that far behind Bird in popularity.

Today, the Patriots and the Sox  (in that order) are the most popular teams in the region.  While the recent performances of the local teams has something to do with the results (the Celtics are terrible and even mediocrity is nowhere in sight), the Boston sports area has caught up to most of the rest of the country in that the NFL team is more broadly popular than the MLB team. But for all that, David Ortiz is about as big a star around here as Tom Brady. I don’t think that is true nationally – even though Ortiz has won (and been key to winning) championships more recently than Brady.  

Tags: Tom Brady , Larry Bird , Bobby Orr , David Ortiz

What Is American Conservatism? (Or Ceaser Studies and True Grit)


Let me begin by expressing my admiration, once again, for Pete’s efforts to vindicate by improving upon the noble efforts of Paul Ryan’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to our relatively minimalist system of entitlements. At least Paul is really thinking about the sustainability of both our middle class and a genuinely conservative (and therefore classy, freedom-loving, and somewhat populist) party in our country. And not only is Pete thinking along those lines, his thinking is better than coherent — it’s complicated in the properly empirical and so authentically conservative sense. As our Mr. Ceaser says, conservative creativity is “the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas.” Paul Ryan, sign Pete up!

And I’ve been thinking a lot about the contribution Jim Ceaser makes to conservatism today.  I realize that what follows is a rough and rambling draft, and it’s too much “insider baseball” to be of interest to many readers.  Sorry.  Won’t happen again.

Conservatism, according to JWC, is about the highest and most  noble goal of defending the American republic through a philosophy that recognizes that even the original liberal theory that informed the American founding has huge “sustainability issues.” It’s unsustainable because it’s too abstract; it can’t defend as reasonable the attachment citizens have to their nation as more than a contract for personal convenience or the devotion people have to their relational Creator through churches or synagogues. It also can’t defend “the classical and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.” Original liberalism, in fact, was too much about attacking the classical conception of virtue and “elevating utility at the expense of nobility.” It wasn’t, in fact, republican enough. It also wasn’t aristocratic, in the precise sense, enough; it’s inability to articulate a properly human “hierarchy of standards” points in the direction of modern liberalism’s cultural alliance with relativism, “which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought.” We can say that undermining of moral virtue through utilitarianism and later compassion leads rather inevitably to the undermining of intellectual virtue. Can we say that Locke, for example, is strong on the freedom front but weak on the relational front, the places where you begin to develop adequately empirical accounts of love and loyalty, charity and generosity, as well as our joyful shared openness to the truth about all things?

Ceaser, for that virtuous reason and others, says that American conservatism sees the need to do much better than did original liberal theory’s tolerant coolness in supporting biblical religion. Biblical religion, he says, is “the main source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint.” It’s also the source of our belief “in something beyond material existence.” I might add that biblical religion is an indispensable theoretical source of our devotion to equality. Jim wants to talk up the universal, abstract, timeless natural rights of our Declaration as standing theoretically without any such support. I’m not sure whether he really thinks conservative philosophy can really rest satisfied with that claim. Ceaser does say in his more theoretical writings that the theory of classical political philosophy is, well, less theoretical or abstract than liberal theory, and that there’s a decline of true political philosophy or political theory in the direction of scientism and relativism that begins with, say, Descartes and Locke (or maybe even in St. Augustine) and gets worse and worse until we end up with today’s twin vulgarities of rational-choice theory and nonfoundationalism.

A Christian, however isn’t really completely on board with the straightforward narrative of decline and fall. What’s good and true about Locke is his rejection of classical natural theology and civil theology and his corresponding elevation of personal identity, the person as more than merely a natural or political being. Locke really is stronger on the freedom and on the equality fronts than Plato and Aristotle, even if he is weaker on the relational front. So Christians can support the Declaration theoretically against those who believe that the elevated status given to individuality — to the person — in modern thought is simply some kind of theoretical decline.

How does conservative philosophy really think about the status of liberal theory as theory? Jim, in a memorable article dissing Tocqueville for dissing the Founders and neglecting altogether the Declaration of Independence, seems to agree with Tom West’s view that the Founding and the Declaration should be regarded as theoretically flawless, and so the various American movements away from the founding in thought and deed are to be regarded as theoretical errors that endanger both the truth about and the practice of American liberty.Tom’s approach is to have discovered or created a kind of Lockistotle, to have shown that Locke and Aristotle are theoretically identical. Their difference in approaches and doctrine can be explained by a change in the circumstances they faced. Jim, as far as I know, hasn’t embraced the allegedly natural being Lockistotle; his view really is that liberal theory, in its unrealistic abstraction, is, in practice for sure and seemingly in theory too, unsustainable.

Jim deploys eloquently and in meticulous and innovative detail the three-modern-waves narrative of Leo Strauss as explaining the development or, better, devolution of American political thought. But one problem with wavism, from the point of view of American conservatism, is that for Strauss the move from Locke (or natural rights) to Rousseau and Hegel (or history) to Heidegger (or radical historicism or nonfoundationalism) is a working out of some implications of errors about nature and liberty present in Locke’s thought.

Consider, for example, that Patrick Deneen, a card-carrying wavist in his own way, has concluded that the history of America is the unfolding of the abstract idea of Locke over time, and Patrick — following the lead of Alasdair MacIntrye more and more — has reached the conclusion that the foundational American idea is technology. It is, from my view, disappointing and even dangerous to see conservatives coming to embrace what Jim rightly calls theoretical anti-Americanism – the anti-Americanism, Jim explains in his book I enjoyed the most, Reconstructing America, that reaches its highest self-consciousness in the thought of Heidegger.

One problem of thinking of America in primarily devolutionary terms is that you abstract from the blessings for equality and liberty that flow from technological progress, and you miss the progress toward justice for all that has flowed from the more consistent application of our founding principles, including, of course, the liberation of blacks and the liberation of women to be free and equal citizens and economic actors. And one problem for American biblical believers thinking too much in devolutionary terms is that they end up forgetting and not being properly grateful for how Lockeanism properly understood in America has protected the freedom of the church as an organized body of thought and action. The threat to religious liberty today can be explained only by the movement to nonfoundationalism, which facilitates rather than opposes effectively the perception that America has become technology and nothing more or obsessed with nothing more than the health, safety, and the groundless freedom of the people alive right now. We have to add, in truth, that this  movement toward nonfoundationalism was itself facilitated by the tendency of even original liberal theory to be rather self-obsessive, but that theory, at its best, still intentionally left room for each of us to think of himself or herself as more than a material or political — but still a relational — being. The American founding does presuppose the existence of a Creator, of a personal and relational God, at least at its best, even if our brainiest founders were undeniably cool toward — if not downright indifferent about — the possibility of the real existence of such a God.

So it’s actually more clear than ever that we real American conservatives — we defenders of the American republic — need to defend theoretically the proposition or self-evident truth that all men are created equal by nature and its implication that all men and women have inalienable rights. Jim, of course, does so by highlighting the political dimension of the thought of our founders — especially in The Federalist. Part of that dimension, of course, is their genuine concern for justice and not just the effective balancing of interests. Their great work as statesmen was guided in large measure by, but can’t be reduced to or captured by, purely liberal theory. I’ve heard Jim say more than once that he’s a “Federalist 49″ political scientist, and he’s even talked about having a bumper sticker printed up to that effect. He see the indispensable support of tradition or the veneration “time bestows on everything” even to sustain a government and a constitution that any reasonable man would affirm. Veneration these days is promoted by thinking of our Founders and their Constitution as worthy of our deep, republican, even civil-theological devotion. But I’m not as sure that veneration requires viewing their theory uncritically or as as lacking in nothing as  the revelation found in the Bible. Jim might say, after all, that it would be better if more of The Federalist were like Federalist 49 and without 49’s too obvious irony, the kind of irony Jim and Tom West struggle so successfully to avoid.

Well, I’ve gone on for way too long. My next step is to suggest some small changes in the conservative strategy for defending the American republic. They will involve taking seriously the theoretical contributions our Calvinist and “Stoic” countercultures make to defending the American republic. I’m especially interested in highlighting the instructive excesses of Southern particularity to counter the liberal drift to abstract humanitarianism (which has been going on for a long time). The aristocratic South is to blamed for its injustice, but it’s also been the most significant American home for the indispensable virtues of magnanimity and generosity, virtues that can’t be properly appreciated by merely reading the praise they’re given by Aristotle.

One neglected resource here, of course, is Southern literature, which, for me, reaches its perfection in Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Another neglected account of sustainable relationships among American Lockeanism, American Calvinism, and the Southern and American (and in this case democratized and post-racist) appropriation of the classical virtues I can recommend Charles Portis’s True Grit. At the American Political Science Meeting this week, you have the opportunity to observe and participate in a discussion of the grit that’s true (found in the novel and the Coens’ film) that will include our Carl, our Flagg, our Ralph (Hancock), and myself. It’ll be at 8 a.m. on Friday in the Omni Shoreham.  We’re still looking for a donor to pay for the after-panel postmodern and conservative breakfast. That could be you too.


Paul Ryan’s Incoherence Is A Good Thing


This Mickey Kaus tweet is too harsh when it comes to the tensions between Paul Ryan’s recent interest in poverty policy and Ryan’s support for Gang of Eight-style expansion of low-skill immigration. But when you look at Paul Ryan’s (and Marco Rubio’s) views on poverty policy reform and immigration, you can tease out five postulates

1. America’s low-skill, low-earning population is struggling both economically and socially.

2. The American welfare state is not optimized for helping this population attain steady employment and form stable families.

3. Reform of this welfare state will be a slow, trial-and-error process.

4. Reform of the welfare state aimed at low-earners will not be cheap, and will possibly include federal wage subsidies.

5. We need to vastly expand the low-skill, low-earner population through immigration – even though America’s current low-skill population has a high unemployment rate, a low labor force participation rate, and has been experiencing stagnant wages for thirty years.

It really is incoherent to both want to subsidize the wages of low-skill workers (presumably because market wages are not high enough to connect them to the labor market) and to increase the population of low-skill workers.

But this incoherence is actually a sign of progress. It was June of last year when a Marco Rubio aide was arguing for a larger guest worker program for the construction industry on the grounds that our current population of low-skill workers “can’t cut it” in the workforce. It was four years ago where Romney spoke, not merely of low-earners, but of 47% of Americans:

And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Ryan has recently disavowed his “makers vs. takers” rhetoric, and he has worked on a reform of poverty policy. Rubio has gone from making news because his aides were trashing low-wage workers to news because he was coming up with a plan to improve the returns to low-wage work.

Ryan’s instincts sometimes lead him astray, but maybe the best of his good qualities is that Ryan responds to constructive criticism by trying to make his plans better instead of crafting weak arguments about why the criticism is wrong. (Mike Lee also has that admirable quality.) Ryan is moving in the right direction. That is the cause of his current incoherence. It would have been more coherent to just give up on our current population of low-skill workers as loser takers who don’t care about their lives, and can’t cut it, and call for their replacement by foreign guest workers. It would also have been wrong. Ryan’s current incoherence is an improvement. Hopefully Ryan’ attains a better coherence that combines his improved thinking on poverty policy, with a better immigration policy.

Tags: Paul Ryan , Marco Rubio , Mitt Romney , Immigration

A New Book by ME


My Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education, and Culture, Rightly Understood is now available as a reasonably priced (very low cost per word) paperback. It contains many of my mini-essays from my Big Think period (when I was the token conservative contributing to a very prominent techno-enthusiast, semi-transhumanist site). There’s lots else besides. Don’t worry, I was funnier and more engaging back then, and apparently my interests and passions were more diverse. It’s perfect reading for the bathroom, stoplights, and academic meetings of all kinds. I would add that it’s perfect reading for bedtime, but it shouldn’t put you to sleep. (That’s the job of all my other books.)

Self-promotion can only be so shameless. So let me ask a random young person on the street what he thinks of the book:

Warning: This book is not for everyone! Nutty ideologues will be put off by the calm common sense in these pages, and highbrow snoots won’t tolerate hearing that pop culture isn’t intolerably debased. But for the rest of us, this unpretentious and conversational book will make clear why Peter Lawler is a beloved teacher. Nobody does a better job than Lawler of revealing the ideas alive in politics and everyday life. Allergic to Crazy zips from Obama to Gaga, from Walmart to Waffle House, from movies to music, from science to celebrities. This collection of bite-sized readings is a delight.

—Adam Keiper, editor, The New Atlantis

Contrary to what Amazon says right now, I’m told it will have copies of this huge number of quick thoughts this week.
UPDATE: Amazon now says IN STOCK.

Ceaser’s 14 Conservative Points


The APSA panel on the life and work of postmodern conservative James W. Ceaser will be next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the Omni Shoreham (in, of course, Washington, D.C.).  You are all invited.

So after considerable reading, I think I’ve found the tightest and most illuminating summary of Ceaser’s conservative public philosophy (or political science?). I’ve reduced what he says in his Designing a Polity (pages 149–51) to fourteen propositions. The numbering is somewhat arbitrary and may or may not deserve JWC’s approval. My “learning style” when trying to get a handle on a complicated and subtle text is to write it out, while imposing on it an order that makes sense to me. That may be at the expense of the logographic necessity intrinsic to the text itself. My next step, of course, will be to think through and engage in friendly criticism of each proposition. You can start doing that right now, if you want:

1. “American conservatism is devoted to conserving the American republic. It can have no higher or nobler goal.”

2. “It is in the end a mistake to think of American conservatism as the same thing as American liberalism, even in the original sense. Conservatism may serve liberalism and seek to preserve it, but it often does so in ways the original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And it does so for original liberalism’s own good.”

3. “The fact is that liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism . . . is the philosophy that recognizes this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away.”

4. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This ‘abstract truth, applicable to all men and at all times’ (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, conservatives are in accord with many of the original liberals,” [versus contemporary liberals' thinking of their principles as both nonfoundational and developmental].

5. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation. . . . [Original liberalism] had difficulty from the first in articulating what the state [and its sovereignty] was beyond a contract, and it could never make full sense of reasonable feelings of attachment to it. . . . Modern liberalism . . . considers patriotism an anachronism and promotes global citizenship and global studies as replacements for American citizenship and education in our own political tradition. The main category of modern liberalism is humanity.”

6. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by giving appropriate support to biblical religion. Biblical religion has been the main source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence. . . . Original liberal theory was in some formulations cool to religion, and it often failed to acknowledge or appreciate how much liberal society had borrowed from its storehouse of religious capital.”

7. “Liberalism does not require . . . neutrality [between faith and nonbelief], and conservatism does not recommend it.”

8. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting ‘the tradition,’ which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.”

9. “Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principle of equality of rights, but they do so in no small part because it makes room for the emergence of inequalities and excellences.”

10. “The tradition also provides a theoretical basis for a hierarchy of standards, allowing conservatives to criticize without apology the vulgarity that pollutes any society and runs rampant in ours.”

11. [Conservatives see that] “original liberalism often had such [hierarchical, anti-vulgar] inclinations . . ., but it engaged too easily on attacks on the classics and, in rationalist exuberance, went too far in elevating utility at the expense of nobility. . . . Modern liberalism, with its focus on compassion . . . allied itself culturally with relativism, which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought.”

12. “Conservatism is the home today for the few remaining proponents of the original liberalism. And rightly so, since the conservative movement is friendly to property rights and markets and is opposed to collectivism.”

13. “But conservatism is also the home for those who believe that liberalism’s defense depends on more than liberal theory. Conservatives of this variety show how the cultivation of tradition, religion, and classical virtue replenishes the cultural capital that sustains liberalism.”

14. “[Conservative] creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.”

Tags: James Ceaser , Conservatism , political science

Marilynne Robinson and Our Calvinist (Puritanical) Counterculture


So thanks to Carl for calling attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the moral, political, scientific, and theological views of Marilynne Robinson (perhaps our best living novelist) by highlighting Paul Seaton’s balanced and smart review of her latest book of essays.

Robinson’s thought really is neo-Puritanical. Paul and Carl, knowing, as they do, the work of Carey McWilliams (the other great contemporary political neo-Puritan), appreciate almost better than anyone what that means. And even when Robinson’s political opinions are at their most annoyingly intrusive and judgmental, they can laugh and say, “There that Puritan goes again.” McWilliams and Robinson don’t always agree, but they both have the rare merit of staying in character.

Now we postmodern conservatives do fault Robinson (and McWilliams — who was nicer about it) for being a naive political liberal. But we are, in many ways, liberals too. It’s hard to say whether we’re conservative liberals or liberal conservatives. Our friend Dan Mahoney has written about “the conservative foundations of liberal order,” but, for myself, I tend to think we go wrong when we stop thinking of “liberal order” as anything other than conservative foundations for the somewhat illiberal (because) relational institutions that make life worth living.

Today I’m thinking about our “foundations” as a prelude to thinking about our James Ceaser’s unrivaled accounts of American foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. There’s going be a panel honoring the work of our JWC at the American Political Science Association meeting a week from today. Jim, I sometimes think, slights the Puritanical/Calvinist dimension of even our Declaration of Independence and the way it has informed our political history. I could be wrong, but I’m going to begin by using Robinson to think I’m right. Jim and I certainly agree that “nonfoundationalism” is a pervasive and demoralizing project, one that replaces the aggressive anti-Americanism of, say, Heidegger with, as Carl has shown us, the imagination of a kind of post-Americanism. More next time on the exact time and place of the panel.

We learn from Tocqueville that the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are, properly understood, interdependent. Tocqueville said he learned that from the original Puritans, who were relentless innovators in politics and were, Tocqueville instructively adds, free from political prejudice. They were the source of our self-governing and egalitarian institutions. They were also the source of a kind of American idealism that sometimes causes government to provide (politically and charitably) for the unfortunate and to attend to public education that goes beyond “basic skills” and in the direction of liberal education for everyone. The Puritans, as Tocqueville presents them, were highly civilized family men and women who became political pilgrims in the service of a political idea, of bringing the ancient city into speech (transformed by the Bible) into being in a vacant (well, it wasn’t really vacant) part of the world. They were liberals — even progressives — insofar as their political opinions and practices were both unprecedented and more advanced (in the liberal and democratic directions) than those of anyone in Europe. Compared to conservatives today and most of the American Founders, they had a more elevated and ambitious view of what government could accomplish on the basis of the Biblical proposition that all men are created equal. (Most of this doesn’t make it into Jim’s “customary” account of Tocqueville on the Puritans.)

The Puritans really cared for souls. But they made the mistake (according to Tocqueville) of being way too politically intrusive, of criminalizing every sin. They tried to translate the legislation found in the Old Testament’s Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, laws made, in fact, for rude and half-civilized people, into laws for highly civilized and enlightened modern Englishmen. Those laws were often bizarre and tyrannical — offenses against both common sense and conscience – even if they were only rarely enforced. But, Tocqueville reminds us, the laws were democratically enacted, and they were driven by admirable qualities of creaturely devotion that are the opposite of the characteristically America vice of individualistic indifference. What was wrong with the Puritans, in Tocqueville’s view, is that they weren’t Christian enough; their Calvinism gave them too political or specifically legislative view of the relevance the Old Testament for their time, whereas Jesus himself meant for the reform effect of his message of about the equality of all men under God to be much more indirect.

From the Puritans’ view — and Robinson’s and McWilliams’ neo-Puritanical view (not to mention Tocqueville’s own view), the leading American Founders tended to understand each of us as less than he or she really is. We’re understood as free beings who work. Our freedom is not understood as for civilization, work is not understood as for civilized liberty; Sunday is not cherished as the day when we hear and reflect about how each of us is a being with a high and singular being not limited by matter or time. So liberty is not understood as for democratic devotion but only for a kind of selfish private satisfaction. Now Robinson does say that Jefferson was a civilized man, but he couldn’t account for his personal — yet social — intellectual joys through his political principles.

By Robinson, we’re reminded of Puritanical moments in American political history slighted by, say, the Founderistic account of American political development. She praises the neo-Puritanical abolitionists (whose liberating views ended up in the McGuffey reader), William Jennings Bryan’s battle against scientistic Darwinism, the liberal Protestant dimension of the civil-rights movement (which can’t be reduced to Lincolnism), and so forth. McWilliams adds that even the devotion described in the Gettysburg Address is a Puritanical add-on to the liberty of the Declaration of Independence.

Robinson’s narrative is about the authentically Puritanical American Left, which wouldn’t, of course, be embraced by most of our liberals today. I wish more of today’s Christian leftists would at least join her battle against scientism, against those who deny the real existence of the wondrous love that’s at the foundation of the truth about human exceptionalism. The ”social justice” emphasis of our liberal churches these days gives little to no attention to the actual theology she’s recovered that once justified generous political progressivism.

Against the empty secularism at the foundation of today’s Oberlin College (mocked so instructively by HBO’s Girls), Robinson reminds us of genuinely neo-Puritanical and abolitionist antebellum Oberlin. There every student and faculty member engaged in manual labor, and everyone pursued a liberal education. Among the students were women and freed blacks. I’m sure, had NPR being around in those days, that its reporters would have been crawling all over the campus praising the social experimentation. But we conservatives can acknowledge that there was much to be praised in terms of justice and in living Saint Augustine’s (and, I’m sure, Calvin’s) admonition that both work and contemplation are for us all.

Having said all that, I agree completely with Paul’s criticisms of Robinson. Her strength is not political prudence, and generosity understood as a kind of  indiscriminate charity is not really a political virtue. Like a Puritan, she’s finds a questionable justification for intrusive, egalitarian big government today in the Old Testament.  (She is good on what charity/generosity is as a Christian virtue.)  American Puritanism has all kinds of, well, Puritanical (prohibitionist) downsides.  She too readily identifies all Republicans with dog-eat-dog exploitation,  and she, with NPR listeners and without much evidence, identifies genuinely civilized, cultured America today with political progressivism. She’s way too hard on the evangelicals, while being way too indulgent of the Congregationalists today. And she, perhaps because of her embrace of Whitman, is way, way too easy on the real heart of political progressivism today, which is evolution toward greater and greater autonomy–or freedom from being bound by any personal, relational authority, including that of God or his wondrous personal love. Our liberals or progressives are, in the most important or admirably Christian sense, less Puritanical than ever.

The Christian Liberalism of Marilynne Robinson


The other must-read piece on religion from the last couple days is from our friend Paul Seaton, with the hilarious title Moses, Calvin, and the Puritans Would’ve Listened to NPR If They Were Around Today.  Don’t let the humor’s edge mislead you into thinking it’s an attack on Robinson.  Rather, it’s an appreciative, balanced, and critically sober consideration of her writings on the nexus of religion and politics, especially those from a new book of hers.  

It’s an important piece for thinking about the liberal Christians in our midst–I mean the ones that are both theologically and politically liberal.  Some of their churches are fading membership-wise, as Rod Dreher notes in the piece linked to below, but we must note that some are holding their own.  One congregation in my Virginia city has a sign that says something like, “We’re Progressive, and We’re Still Thriving!”  I don’t think conservatives, religious or secular, should dismiss these churches as absurd, or as self-evidently irrelevant to the broader cultural conversation.  Most of them are far from being Unitarian in all but name.  In the Episcopal ones particularly, the Bible-studded liturgy is still there, for example, doing its silent work Sunday upon Sunday.  Robinson, a Calvinist, is arguably a product of an earlier time, but it remains significant that our liberal churches provide a religious home for people like her.  It is out of such churches, I dare to hope, that there may come the leaders necessary to reform/moderate/cleanse the Democratic Party, or at least one wing of it, if the hour for that long-needed movement ever arrives.  And she is of course right that there is a deep connection between modern democracy and Calvinism, as our Ralph Hancock has explored.

Paul’s piece has its very sobering moments, however.  Robinson’s love of Walt Whitman’s overall creed is rather disappointing to learn about, and makes me tempted to join one of those churches just so I can find a way to teach a Christian Education class that would delve into “Whether Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass Ought to Be Added to the Canon of Scripture?” 

Tags: Marilynne Robinson , Religion

Read Rod


Man, my own writing’s been bogged-down lately with I don’t know what internal dynamics of confusion and self-sabotage:  a paper on the great Ralph Ellison I’ve been working on is taking forever. Some of that is a reflection of Ralph’s depth, but some of it’s just some kind of a funk.  So apologies for the light blogging.

Anyhow, one blogger who’s been on fire lately is Rod Dreher, over at The American Conservative.  Today he’s got a must-read piece on his “Benedict Option” idea.  A taste:

People don’t want to hear it, but it’s clear that if you are part of a religious community that does not define itself strongly against modern secularist culture, you are all going to lose yourself in it — if not yourself, then your children likely will. It’s just too strong.

If you’ve little patience for reading about Alasdair MacIntyre, and how what he said about the Benedict Option relates to what Dreher makes of it, I can at least sympathize. But what you should read this piece for is the way Rod captures the sense, the worry, present throughout the late aughts and Obama years, but I think to a number of observers becoming particularly vivid over the last three years, that we are in a season of rapidly increasing secularism and abandonment of Christianity (and Judaism).  I’m hesitant to use grand terms like “post-Christian culture” or “secular era,” but something does seem to have shifted.  I’ve always basically agreed with the quote above, particularly intellectually, so that as a Christian I’ve always said “amen” to that sort of sermon; but worrisomely, it feels like I have to agree with it more strongly today that just a few years ago, and feels not like some intellectualized radicalism-longing idea I might take away from my luxury reading of guys like Kierkegaard, but like something that is just immediately obvious.  

But what do you say?

Tags: Rod Dreher , Religion

Being The Nice Guy Isn’t Enough


Michael Brendan Dougherty is right that Paul Ryan’s political evolution is a good thing. Dougherty is also right to wonder if Ryan is right in trying to expand the Republican coalition by emulating “bleeding heart conservative” Jack Kemp. Probably not.  Republicans are going to have to win larger margins among younger and nonwhite voters in high turnout elections. They could try to follow Kemp’s softer approach, but the model should be less Kemp’s largely unsuccessful attempts to win over African Americans and more Reagan’s successful attempt to win over urban, unionized, working-class white voters.

Ryan (along with other Republicans like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio) deserves credit for what he gets right. It was absolutely indispensable that Republicans reconstruct their policy program for the present day, and drop their lack of interest in, or contempt for, people under the earnings median. As long as Republicans had a policy agenda centered on high-earner tax cuts, and a message that called non-business owners either inert matter or active parasites, nothing else they did was going to matter. There is no speech and no public relations strategy that will fix those mistakes.

On the other hand, having a relevant policy message and respectfully explaining it to the voters you want to win over is what you are supposed to do. It amounts to just showing up. You can’t win if you don’t show up. The 2008 Detroit Lions showed up too, but didn’t win any games. A better policy agenda and making an attempt to communicate with non-Republicans are first steps, but, by themselves, will  get you about zero new votes.

The first thing to keep in mind is that even many young voters and nonwhites with right-leaning policy preferences voted for Obama in the last presidential election. Many of these voters have either a personal or ancestral connection to the Democratic party. While these votes might have right-leaning policy preferences, they likely inhabit social networks where most of what they hear about politics comes from liberal sources. Winning these voters is going to take more than a better tax plan and a better health care plan – though those things are crucial. Winning over those voters is also going to mean hitting these voters with how their values diverge with the values of the national Democratic party. Before they are ready to vote Republican, right-leaning Obama voters  are going to need some visceral reasons to oppose the Democrats.        

The second thing to keep in mind is the reaction of Democrats and their media allies. Ryan seems to like being seen as a nice guy. Democrats don’t think it is very nice when Republicans try to expand the Republican coalition. Ryan can try to win over nonwhite voters.  As long as he is ineffectual, the Democrats will mostly ignore him. They might even patronize him as the exception to the racist Republican rule. But when it is starting to look like Ryan is making progress, Ryan is going to wake up and see a commercial where he lynches somebody.  That is just what the national Democrats do. There is no point in expecting better from the party of Harry Reid and Lois Lerner.    

Ryan can’t be (just) a nice guy and make substantial gains among nonwhites and younger voters. Think of every harsh (sometimes apocalyptic)Reagan critique of the Democrats, every Reagan jab, every negative ad, that the Republicans of the 1980s used to win over previously Democratic voters. Those were all a legitimate and essential part of the process of winning over the persuadable.

That doesn’t mean that Ryan and other Republicans shouldn’t listen very carefully to the voters they need to win over. They should listen very carefully. They should craft their policy positions very carefully. Republicans should also work just as carefully on their attacks on the opposition. Jack Kemp had a reputation as a nice guy.  Kemp liked to talk about how many liberal friends he had. Reagan got to be president.

Tags: Paul Ryan , Jack Kemp , Ronald Reagan

Libertarianism and Securitarianism (and Richard Dawkins)


So I’ve written for The Federalist the long version of  the case for thinking of “the libertarian moment” as actually a kind of “selective statism” rooted in what Tocqueville describes as individualism. I’ve already gotten a couple of e-mails asking when I embraced the field of Mormon apologetics. I highlight the Mormons only because Tyler Cowen embraced their way of life as a form of discipline that might allow men to flourish in the rigorous 21st-century global competitive marketplace. My only point is that the Mormons have what it takes to be libertarian for all political purposes, while our only apparently more consistently libertarian hyper-technophiles who put their hope in the Singularity to come do not. Our Silicon Valley libertarianism is a mixture of extreme libertarianism and extreme securitarianism — a mixture, you might say, of Rand and Hobbes. So, increasingly, are our college campuses.

Speaking of the triumph of security over liberty: My apologies to the few who were anticipating my promised trashing of Richard Dawkins for giving women the moral imperative of aborting unborn Down-syndrome babies. The difference between a Down-syndrome kid and one with autism, in his view, is that those who find a place on the autism spectrum are often “enhanced” (Dawkins’s word) cognitively (think Sheldon Cooper), whereas the Down’s kid never is. The former can make a real contribution to society, the latter can’t. I couldn’t help but think, of course, that kids with autistic qualities can sometimes also be burdened with severe cognitive impairment and can’t function socially at all. If we ever develop a reliable prenatal test that diagnoses autism (and we might soon), then, I guess, the moral duty to choose abortion is just as urgent. You never know whether you’re going to get one of those enhanced ones, and so it’s safer and so more responsible to do as Dawkins says: abort and try again. Dawkins makes it altogether too easy to have the “teachable moment” of showing that allegedly civilized public indifference to the fate of this or that particular foetus / unborn baby leads to the eugenic imperative of enhancement. That imperative, of course, undermines our egalitarian conviction about the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every free and relational personal life.

Dawkins’s standard for a life worth protecting, apparently, is “human feelings.” Well, people with Down syndrome typically love and are lovable, joyfully discover the correspondence between words and real things,  are self-conscious, and are moved deeply by the suffering and deaths of other persons. What “human feeling” do they not have? Yet, in Dawkins’s view, a loving mother to be has the duty to pass up an opportunity she’s been given to love and be loved, to act according to the inclination that Darwinians see she’s been given by nature. In Dawkins’s view, Down’s men and women don’t deserve a chance or would not want to live. That conclusion, as every parent of a kid with Down syndrome knows, is contrary to the facts we can actually see on the ground.

Now you might say that I’m being unfair to Dawkins. But consider this: What would a world be like in which people in general thought that a woman who had her Down’s kid out of love had acted immorally? Surely “the state” can’t be allowed to facilitate or conceivably even tolerate that kind of irresponsibility!

There have been so many indignant postings about Dawkins as moral monster that I’m losing the urge to pile on. Maybe the best advice I have for you all is to pay no attention at all to his moral, political, and religious musings. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, at least when talking about those who are members of our species.

There’s nothing that I’ve said that necessarily leads to the allegedly extreme position that all abortion should be illegal. It does support the view that, in order even to preserve a loving mom’s freedom of choice, our default position has to be in favor of life. That way, no mom could ever be blamed for choosing for the life of one of her own — and, really, our own. Dawkins’s position is really, really extreme, although his extremism has the sense, especially when tweeting, of being merely a kind of ineffectual bragging or posing.

Notes On David Frum: Where The Republican Rich (As A Group) Aren’t The Problem


David Frum has an interesting essay over at Foreign Affairs trying to help the magazine’s readership understand the genus Republicanus.  While Frum’s analysis is earnest, and he has some solid points, I think that the magazine’s readership would be led astray in several ways. Today, let us look at the Republican donor class.  The GOP donors are problematic in multiple ways, but they aren’t the problem in several areas that Frum identifies.

1.  Frum places Republican insistence on tighter monetary policy under the category “radical rich”. You could find individual rich guys calling for more contractionary monetary policy, gold standards, etc. But focusing too much on those loud (and sometimes obnoxious) voices is misleading. Romney was the candidate of the donor class and he was the candidate who was the least critical of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. It was Romney’s underfunded Tea Party-branded  rivals who were falling all over themselves to make nonsensical statements like calling Bernanke the most inflationary Federal Reserve Chairman ever. To the extent that there was monetary sanity in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, that sanity was found In the candidate of the donor class.

2.  The same thing is true about the relationship between the Republican donor class and taxes. The original Romney tax plan involved some cosmetic middle-class tax cuts (basically cutting taxes on investment income most middle-class people didn’t have much of) combined with a modest cut to the corporate income tax. It was only later in the campaign, after Romney faced a challenge from Santorum, that Romney proposed bringing down the top marginal income tax rate as part of an across-the board income tax cut.

Romney didn’t do this because he needed the support of the donor class. He already had the support of the donor class and, by the time Romney proposed his revised tax plan, the only viable alternative was Santorum. There was no way on Earth the donor class was going to ditch Romney to back Santorum. Romney’s revised tax plan was designed to show rank-and-file- conservative primary votes that he was conservative – was Reagany – enough for them. See? I’m for a Son of Kemp-Roth tax plan. Isn’t that what you people like?   

The Republican donor class has a lot to answer for, but they were not the cause of the 2012 GOP’s problems on monetary policy, and they were not the reason Romney adopted his plans to cut the top marginal income tax rate.

Tags: David Frum , Mitt Romney

Liberty and Libertarian Convergence


So here’s a provocation by me that explains Obama’s focus on contraception and his tyrannical move on immigration in terms of libertarian convergence theory.  I also bring in the 22nd Amendment. Please be free to be critical. It’s probably always a mistake for political scientists — and especially professors of political philosophy — to think they have any special insight into what’s going on now. But Carl has inspired me to think somewhat more about liberty in the here and now.

Speaking of Carl and liberty, I really like the rather genuinely Whitmanesque long quote in his last post. Yet another criticism of The Dead Poets Society is that Mr. Keating only mentions that “captain, my captain” is, in Walt’s poem, “Lincoln.” It’s pretty funny to tell your students that they should regard you as their Lincoln.  But Keating’s “teaching method” — being are all romantic and rather narcissistic — has no place for the appreciative study of Lincoln. For the very manly Whitman, Lincoln is a martyr who should be the centerpiece of a new American civil theology that properly ennobles the suffering and dying of American citizen-soldiers during the Civil War in pursuit of justice. I’m not for civil theology, of course, but I forgive Whitman, because the main deficiency in his education that distorted his poetry was his lack of knowledge and tone deafness to specifically biblical theology. Absent that knowledge, he failed to reconcile the conflict between the personal experiences of  oceanic universality and of those of deep, lonely particularity. He knew, in fact, that he had failed, even with the help of Hegel. I am for education that includes the study of the great virtues of nobility and generosity as well as, of course, the deeply personal Christian virtue of charity. Lincoln has ‘em all, in some measure.

Carl’s quote isn’t about Whitman’s ennobling of Lincoln and war either. But I do like the emphasis on American hostility to limits, as well as the American affirmation of waste. For we followers of Whitman, there are no limits to what Americans might achieve through a free economy and technological ingenuity.  America “works” only with confidence in economic growth and technological innovation dissolving or at least ameliorating seeming intractable human problems.

Too much old-world concern with limits may be fatal for us. Consider what sophisticated hostility to population growth is doing to us now, for example. And our Porcher friends too often perceive limits that aren’t really there.  I remember, for example, that a few years ago Pat Deneen couldn’t say enough about the looming techno-collapse that would be the result of “peak oil.”

On the other hand, too little concern with limits may be fatal too. Economic growth alone might not be anywhere near enough to keep our failing middle class from continuing to fail. And there might not be a techno way out of every threat posed to our flourishing by man-made climate change and finite natural resources. And there are, of course, natural limits given to us by our invincible natural purposes to what we should do biotechnologically. The idea of limits or moderation is a large part of any life in the service of the one true progress toward wisdom and virtue.  It’s the idea of relational limits, finally, that allows us to use techno-libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, for the loving cultivation of  relational institutions that shape our lives and make our lives worth living.

So when it comes to limits, we postmodern conservatives are somewhere in between Porchers and the wholehog followers of Whitman.

Should Americans celebrate our indifference to waste symbolized by beer cans on the side of the road? Being an incorrigibly messy and wasteful (or deeply left-handed) person myself, I’m open to that, to a point. I certainly think we’ve become too puritanical when it comes to waste, as in wasting paper. Still, it’s the South that’s most about trash on the side of the road and rusty mobile homes in the front yard. And I don’t think Whitman is the inspiration for that.


John Kouwenhoven on Democracy, Waste, and Liberal Education


Here’s some provocative passages from a 1961 book by John Kouwenhoven, a Walt Whitman scholar and an “American Studies” pioneer who theorized a good deal on architecture and handicrafts, with the wonderful title The Beer Can by the Highway:  Essays on What’s American about America.  I got to Kouwenhoven through that most-sane of Emerson’s and Whitman’s disciples, the acclaimed novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison.  Kouwenhoven seems pretty good not great so far—but he’s certainly off the beaten path of most democratic-faith Whitmanian/Emersonian types.  Here’s a few bits from the title essay, which yes, says we shouldn’t despair about the litter we often see on our highways, as it’s a reflection of abundance.  Subtle point he’s making there, destined to be misunderstood by most folks, especially those of environmentalist sensibilities.  But anyhow, the quotations:

What I am trying to suggest is that we may not be able to get rid of the mess without also getting rid of the abundance. 

…some Americans are beginning to feel that it is cruelly wasteful, if not socially dangerous, to educate everybody (as the principle of democracy requires us to do) without determining in advance whether there will be jobs available in which they can use their education.  …General Eisenhower…warned against educating more men and women than can earn a living in the field in which they have been educated, lest they “turn upon” the society which aroused expectations that could not be fulfilled.

…But it is not only democracy’s commitment to education which alarms such people.  They are troubled too by the way it “encourages people to determine their own goals” and to set their own courses towards them… What is the sense of letting people set goals for themselves which the limitations of a disfrontiered civilization will make it impossible for them to reach?  The social waste resulting from this sort of thing…

From this point of view status now appears to be something which society must assure, in order to relieve the tensions of security.  …Hence also the increasing emphasis in labor-union contracts—and college contracts with the faculty—upon seniority, tenure, and pensions.

…From this point of view the beer can by the highway glows with a sinister light indeed, since it is a symbol both of mobility and of a far from reverent attitude towards the decorum of a status-oriented society.   

…I would argue, on the contrary, that a commitment to democracy—and a certain indifference to waste and untidiness—are prerequisite to abundance.

…By a “commitment to democracy” I mean a commitment to the idea that there are no fixed or determinable limits to the capacities of any individual human being, and that all are entitled, by inalienable right, to equal opportunities to develop their potentialities.  Democracy in this sense is an ideal, not a political system, and certainly not an actual state of affairs.

…people who are inventive, ingenious, and other respects mobile are more likely than those who relish or depend upon security of status to recognize potential abundance when they see it.

…Emerson is not in high esteem in these days of “togetherness” and “the organization man.”

…I think that is from men and women who share Emerson’s open-ended conception of man’s potentialities—which is the root and seed of democracy—that we will get that open-ended conception of abundance, that refusal to accept limits to potential wealth or virtue or kindness or talent or love, which will enable us to keep all doors open to our own self-fulfillment while helping others to open doors for themselves.

Well, I reject his way of defining democracy.  I’d prefer to try to define “democratic-republic” anyhow.  And all this limitless potentiality talk…well, you could see what I said in the book on Chantal Delsol, Lucid Mind, Intrepid Spirit about the dangers of indeterminacy.  

But what do you think?

Tags: John Kouvenhoven , Walt Whitman , Ralph Ellison , Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Tension Within The Left


Carl rightly praises Jonathan Chait for criticizing Obama’s threatened abuse of discretionary authority in granting a mass amnesty. Chait is at it again in condemning the bizarre indictment of Rick Perry for threatening to veto an appropriation.

What unites Chait’s two post is the sense that, in politics, what goes around comes around. If Obama makes maximal use of executive discretion now, then a future Republican president will do the same. If Democrats try to criminalize the veto now, the Republicans will target Democratic executives in the future.

That doesn’t mean that Chait is all sunshine. Where norms are decaying (as in the case of the filibuster), he is all in favor of first doing unto others, as they would eventually do unto you. I agree, and think the Republicans should take his advice and dump the filibuster entirely the moment we get the combination of a Republican president and Senate.

But there is another way of looking at these kinds of conflicts.  First Amendment claims are the first refuge of a monster. Freedom of speech is freedom to abuse. Freedom of religion is theocracy. Freedom of the press is enabling Fox News.  Better to do away with it and give the opposition prosecutorial discretion good and hard.  College student need to be protected from speech that might conflict with what they are learning from their liberal college professors. It is an outrage that the House Republicans are trying to impeach Obama – even though they aren’t. After all, I didn’t support the impeachment of Bush – even though I did.

I think that what unites all of these stories is not merely the confidence that what goes around won’t around, but that one side is too virtuous to have to obey the rules and the other too dangerous, and too illegitimate to deserve protection of the laws. The question isn’t, What do the rules (whether norms or constitutional amendments) allow us to do?  The question is, What can we get away with doing right this second?

That what goes around comes around never enters into it, because the tactics are only legitimate when one side uses them.  Chait sees two political coalitions in conflict and inevitable rotation of power between the two coalitions – though not that the two will hold power for precisely equal periods of time.  From the second point of view, politics is a contest between firefighters (the left) and arsonists who want to burn our children.

From this perspective, Obama has to use whatever means necessary to get what he wants now. It also means liberals have the right to retroactively make similar use of authority illegal in the case of a Republican president. If you think otherwise, you probably also think that you should be able to put out a movie critical of Hillary Clinton during an election year. Movies critical of Republicans are fine of course. That’s artistic real free speech rather than hijacking our democracy.

All you need is the right frame of mind and the understanding that … politicized discretion only goes one way.    

Leo Strauss, Preppy Atheism, and Berry College


First, I want to apologize for failing to respond to the very thoughtful comments in the threads. When I post a comment there, it mysteriously disappears. Why don’t I get that fixed? Well, I guess I’m getting around to it. As my wife can can tell you, when a light goes out in the bathroom, I usually give it a couple of weeks to fix itself.

Because it’s been made available for free on Showtime, I actually watched the first 20 minutes of Dead Poets Society again. I now refuse to believe that the prep school portrayed is realistic. Its “four pillars” are “honor, tradition, discipline, and excellence.” Give me a break. And all the teachers are old and boring men, who are pretty much about the discipline. What’s interesting is the school’s atheism: There’s prayer before a meal, but not in the chapel; the pillars are godless, etc. So when the RW character (Mr. Keating, or “captain, my captain”) tells the boys that in the long run you’re worm food, and that’s why you have to “gather ye rosebuds” and “seize the day” while you can, that makes perfectly good sense to them. Keating goes on to tell them that the only thing we know is that we’re here; life is a play that has no point beyond itself, and all anyone can do is contribute a verse. The truth the headmaster tells Keating is even tougher; the boys will hate you later for getting them to believe they can be poets or verse contributors, much less “free thinkers.” Most of them aren’t up to that. Keating’s response is a bit of his own poetry romantically obliterating the distinction between real life and dreams. The next step of my report about my “close watching” would be about Keating’s own solitary sadness, lack of real life, inability to contribute a significant verse, etc.

The allegedly evil suicide-inducing dad in the film is played by Kurtwood Smith, quite a distinguished sci-fi actor and, of course, the manly, lovable (by me), cranky, friendless dad Red Forman on That Seventies Show. Red, of course, was much more self-indulgent and arbitrary in his parenting, and his son Eric never got anywhere near either suicide or success. What’s unrealistic about the DPS character is his thinking that it’s good for his son to go light on the extracurriculars. Doesn’t he know about the résumé-building required to display yourself as a  well-rounded or “interesting” person to those Ivies? (Well, you might respond, admissions criteria have evolved since the Fifties.) Mainly, though, he’s not a bad dad. His tough love is about helping his kid get a lucrative and dignified profession, and then he can let him do what he wants. And the truth he sees maybe too well is that his son is not at a verse-contributing pay grade. He should have, especially in retrospect (of course), done more to indulge his dreams.

So I go to Real Clear Politics this morning to be rattled by how screwed up the world is. I have to admit I’m less concerned with the president’s coming calculated act of tyranny on immigration described well by Carl below than by his general cluelessness when it comes to the various threats facing us throughout the world. In the midst of all the doom and gloom, there’s a point of light in the article by my friend Peter Berkowitz vindicating Leo Strauss.

Why Strauss is front-page news today is unclear. But I certainly agree with Peter that trendy anti-Straussians — while claiming to take courageous moral or intellectual stands – really display willful ignorance. There’s a huge amount to be learned from Strauss, and I can’t take seriously anyone who thinks he’s too good to learn, especially those self-righteous creeps who really aren’t so good or so smart.

The most controversial or misunderstood part of Strauss’s writing is his talking up of the secret or esoteric teachings of philosophers. He made the fact that philosophers and other great writers didn’t say straight out what they really knew to be true less of a secret than ever. Strauss made a big deal of the fact that philosophers — who are really atheists or at least nonbelievers — made a show of agreeing with what the people of their time and place believed about religion and morality and all that. By saying that straight out, Strauss opened himself to the charge of atheism. Anyone who accuses Strauss of injustice is making that allegation.  Strauss corrupted the youth by refusing to believe or pretend he believes in the sacred human rights of democracy or something along those lines. Why was Strauss, to use his own words, so “exoteric” (or obvious) about being “esoteric?”

Atheism used to be a “brand” that would reduce “free thinkers” to impotence or worse. These days, however, most of the preppies are atheists, and what they think the truth really is (when they think at all) isn’t more comforting than what the philosophers of old thought. So almost screaming, in effect, that the philosophers of old were atheists may be the best way to get sophisticates — atheistic conformists who pride themselves in their free thought — these days to take them seriously. Certainly Strauss has been the inspiration of many a Dead Philosophers Society, although they, unlike the Dead Poets Society, imagine themselves meeting outside the cave. And Strauss’s “teaching method” was, in fact, oriented toward inspiring real verse creators and only rarely the genuinely free thinker. He was short on romanticism and shared some (far from all) of the “realism” of the headmaster.

We postmodern conservatives are about a realism that’s something other than Keating’s dreamy romanticism or Strauss’s classical rationalism, because we have a different view about what’s genuinely extraordinary about the life of each human person. But that’s a story for another post.

Here my final words on the DPS: Its filming began at the Ford buildings at my Berry College, which look more preppy/traditional than most prep schools. A bit of Berry made it on screen. But the “location” was moved to some school in Delaware once it was judged too costly to fill Berry with the fake snow required for the winter scenes. The new location, of course, also had the advantage of the scenic lake with all those geese conveniently located down the hill from the hollowed halls. Despite Berry’s look (in places), our college, thank God, isn’t dominated by preppies or atheists, although, due to our tradition of diversity, we have our share of each, including preppy atheists.



Tags: dead poets society , Leo Strauss , Berry College

Scary Stuff


If our president keeps flouting the Separation of P’s,

just what should a good D say? 

Say little, say nothing, or cheerfully reply,


Jonathan Chait writes a piece titled “Obama’s Immigration Plan Should Scare Liberals, Too.”  He supports the policy content of the plan, which would grant “temporary” legal status to up to 5 million illegal aliens, but opposes the manner of its proposed effectuation, which would be an executive declaration followed by non-enforcement of the existing law against those granted the legal status.   For more details on the rumored-to-be-in-consideration plan, which I call “Big Amnesty,” see Ross Douthat’s important editorial against it.  I have noticed only one weak denial that it is in consideration from a White House spokesperson, and there has certainly been no promise from Obama that it is now off the table for good.

Liberals should be scared by this, definitely.  I applaud Chait for saying so.  His piece has a few flaws, however.

First, he never uses the word “unconstitutional.”  Odd, isn’t it?  Well, if you read his piece twice, you’ll notice that Chait actually speaks of this as a debate not about violations of the Constitution, but about violations of nowhere-written-down “norms” of congressional and presidential behavior that he says are needed to maintain our Constitution.  Apparently, none of Obama’s actions (unlike several taken by the Republican House) have so far violated those “norms,” but the Big Amnesty would violate them.  Chait’s framing of things in this way lets him avoid having to say whether Obama’s previous law-suspension actions violated the Constitution or not.  Clever.

Second, his piece is too short, and too drained of passion.  Where are the two-thousand words of outrage against what has been an obscene lack of liberal opposition to this proposal?  Where are the high-toned calls for Democrats to forthrightly support the Constitution?  My self-promoting joking aside, his piece does lack the requisite urgency of tone.  And its timing, coming two-and-a-half weeks after Obama first floated of the Big Amnesty idea, similarly undercuts the feeling that this is something worth being scared about.    

Finally, nowhere in the piece does he demand of Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) an answer to this simple question posed to him many months ago by a Weekly Standard reporter:  “Are there any parts of Obamacare that the president can’t suspend?”  

I bring it up here, because that question that cuts to the heart of the debate.  I think reporters should be asking every Democratic representative and candidate that question.  For clarity’s sake I’d rephrase it this way:

“Are there any parts of Obamacare that it would be unconstitutional for the president to suspend?”   

Senator Kaine’s response to the question was to dodge it, and to excuse his not replying on the grounds that “he is not a scholar.”  Of course, upon other more complex topics regarding executive power he presents himself as rather scholarly, quite concerned with the Founders’ intentions, and ready to answer all questions of constitutional and legal detail. 

Few Democrats will prove willing to answer the question, because even though it might seem to make intuitive sense to allow a president to make a few minor changes to a very complex law so as to allow its main work to be done effectively, they can find nothing in the Constitution that permits such.  In fact, no non-arbitrary rule for limiting such could be formulated for any constitution.  How few is few?  How minor is minor?  How complex must the law be?  Etc.

Thus, the real answer to the question would either be that 1) our actual politics allow every president as many violations of the Constitution as he or she can get away with in the court of public opinion, so that the “not getting away with it” prospect of Obama’s Big Amnesty plan, and the “Republican presidents might now do the same” prospect are the only really scary things about it, or 2) that presidents can refuse to enforce any parts of any law, up to all parts of said “laws.” 

2) means a Republican president could refuse to enforce Obamacare entirely, and any other law they dislike.  If you accept 2), you accept reducing the separation of powers merely to this:  a president can’t exactly pass a law by himself, but out the mass of federal laws on the books, he can “carve out” via non-enforcement suspensions whatever new legal landscape he wishes.  Such non-enforcement suspensions are de facto vetoes, but are not, like constitutional vetoes, subject to being overridden nor prohibited from being “line-item.”   

I don’t see how this ditching of our Constitution’s basic structure isn’t precisely what Eric Posner advocated last week when he offered one of the only serious defenses of the legality of the president’s proposal.  When the bells and whistles of his argument are removed, it basically boils down to this:  when a president decides Congress is “in gridlock” about an issue he believes is pressing, he may suspend the enforcement of laws as he sees fit to resolve said issue, and public opinion will provide the necessary restraint against unlimited use of this remarkable power.  Eric Posner’s truly scary TNR editorial is here, and Ross Douthat’s reply to it is here.  

But here’s the thing:  forthright scholar that he is, Posner is simply illustrating with clarity and consistency the position on domestic executive power that most Democrats actually now hold, whether they can admit it to themselves or not.  Chait would resist the idea that he has to agree with Posner, and that is to his credit.  But nonetheless, he is in a tricky position, for unlike those, such as the liberal scholar Jonathan Turley, who unambiguously denounced Obama’s various non-enforcement suspensions of 2013-2014 as—there’s that pesky word again!–unconstitutional, Chait’s now opposing the proposed Big Amnesty law-suspension has to be squared with his not opposing the smaller instances of the same type of action.  I’m not a Chait-watcher, but I take it that he either played the ignorance card about those earlier violations, as Kaine did, or if that was too ridiculous for him, tried to change the subject of the debate to one about policy, or to one about abrogation of his posited constitution-supporting “norms.”  But the main question, about whether this proposed action would violate and the earlier actions did violate the Constitution itself, is very easy to answer.  No, the Constitution does not allow a president to repeal laws or parts of laws.  And to say or imply that the “little repeals” are allowed, is to logically endorse larger ones. 

The Democratic Party’s dodging all serious talk about the constitutionality of the little repeals may have invited Obama’s scary Big Amnesty trial balloon; and alas, its continued silence even as that omen of constitution-abandonment malevolently hovers over there on the edge of our current affairs, a silence interrupted only by a few disgruntled noises such as Chait’s piece, indicates that Posner’s “okay, president” position really could become the one that the Democratic Party openly endorses from here on out.

P.S.  Mr. Chait, or sure, Mr. Posner, if you happen to see this, what would your answer be to the question put to Senator Kaine?

P.P.S–UPDATE:  Looks likelier now that Chait’s delayed timing in addressing the Big Amnesty proposal was due to his hearing new indications that Obama is going to do it.  That seems to also be what Mark Krikorian is hearing, who has an excellent piece today that walks you through the constitutional issues he compares Obama’s “little Amnesty” action in 2012, his pre-2012 delaying of enforcement, and pre-Obama era executive grants of temporary status, to the Big Amnesty proposal.  The constitutional issues here are slightly less straightforward than with his suspensions of Obamacare provisions, but Mark helps you sort them out.  The guiding question nonetheless remains, ““Are there any parts of Obamacare, or immigration law, that it would be unconstitutional for the president to suspend?”     

Tags: Jonathan Chait , Tim Kaine , Eric Posner , Constitution

Kurds, Contempt, and Citizens


So my conciliatory words on behalf of dead poets managed to replace hatred with contempt. My favorite comment on e-mail begins “You wimp!” Let me salvage my manhood by saying that every word in both of my Robin Williams posts could be true at the same time. I’ll add that the movie is very bad for my profession. Any parent could say, with plenty of reason, that it’s not worth big bucks to have my kid “inspired.” Sometime down the road, I’ll whine that no profession is savaged more by novels, movies, and so forth than that of the professor. Well, maybe we deserve it. I’ve said often enough that most of them do.

There’s a lot of talk in various venues in the last few days about whether young people are really libertarian. Well (obviously), it depends what you mean by libertarian. That controversy could be clarified by the simple insight that the dogma of our time is that nothing trumps keeping the people around right now alive for as long as possible and as free as possible. Only suckers think of themselves as “parts” of wholes greater than themselves, such as families, countries, churches, or species. The same goes with thinking of yourself, deep down, as a responsibly relational being. That “individualism” (see Tocqueville) ain’t the same thing as “libertarianism.” There’s a large role for government, after all, on the health-and-safety front, and, as I’ve said so often, we’re all getting more paranoid, prohibitionist, and puritanical (or highly judgmental and regulatory) when it comes to bodies, even as we are unjudgmental or “accepting” when it comes to souls or what used to be regarded as sin. And, of course, there’s the tendency to want the government to protect us from all forms of bullying — not only with fists but with speech. The libertarian adage about “sticks and stones” has been abandoned, for example, on our campuses and in our corporations.

So I was reminded at the ISI conference of Bertrand de Jouvenal’s distinction between being “libertarian” and being “securitarian.” Today’s young want to have it all. (Let me add quickly that I don’t mean all our young, certainly not those at the conference or those who attend Berry College. I really don’t! I’m pretty much going with what studies show about the young in general.)

But they’re not socialists! A socialist, of course, is inspired by a certain kind of civic devotion that leads to personal sacrifice. A real socialist has more than a bit of the Puritan in him. As Carl often points out, today’s young imagine with the libertarians that we can live in a post-political world; for them, “anarcho-capitalism” is a hyphenated word for fantastic self-indulgence. The good news, I guess, is that they’re not Fascists either. Or even nationalists.

Speaking of nations, I’m open to thinking that many of the messes we see in the world today are the result of mistaken confidence in our power of nation-building. Certainly the allegedly “built” government of Iraq inspires no one’s confidence right now, and there might be a nontrivial argument for wasting no more lives or treasure on it.

But the Kurds, of course, are a real nation (well, not technically) we didn’t even build. Not only that, they like us, and we should admire them as better than us on the personal-liberty and civic-devotion fronts. So the least we could do is help our allies big-time — with airpower and manpower — to fend off an “existential threat.” Who can deny that the Kurds should be our focus in delivering a decisive blow against ISIS, which is the greatest or at least most extreme threat to civilization since the Stalinists (and, of course, the Nazis)?


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