Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

The Good, the Bad, and the Cowardly in Obama’s ISIL Speech


The Good: 

1) Obama used the verb “destroy.” Hear, hear!

2) Obama spoke of aiding “Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” (emphasis added) Very good, because I’ve argued before, Kurdish independence is inevitable, and we should at this point aid them regardless of whether we think their eventual independence makes further Iraq partition (i.e, into Sunni and Shiite zones) more likely. 

The Bad:

1) Obama promised no American boots on the grounds. Sounds like trainers only.  I’m no military expert, but it seems to me that you need aggressive commando-like American spotter teams to conduct effective air-campaigns in this day and age. And it seems to me you would want to at least occasionally use commando attack teams if you really want to destroy the enemy. The really bad thing here is that this will cause us to lose, but there is also this:  are we going to generally have our pilots pull the death-trigger at the behest of Iraqi teams? That will get dicey when Islamic State forces are operating close to Sunni militia groups also in rebellion against the Shia-dominated government, and the call from some Iraqi Armed Forces team to take out such-and-such a building comes in. 

Air-only campaigns don’t win wars, even on the flat plains of Mesopotamia.  And yes, there is something morally contemptible about them.

2) All of this is coming from Obama. Lies, broken promises, empty threats, etc. have consequences. And lots of them have a lot more consequences. Such as no one’s being able to take you at your word. I really want to believe my president when he says our mission is to “ultimately destroy” ISIL. But we’ll see. 

The Cowardly:

1) The nonsense about ISIL not being “Islamic.” Orwellian junk that convinces no-one. Just like Bush, but with less excuse given what we’ve all seen since 9/11. As others have pointed out, there were other ways of indicating the Islam-inspired nature of their goals while still arguing that orthodox Islam wouldn’t approve of them.  But he went on to say they have no “vision” at all, beyond “slaughtering anyone in their path.” Even Sauron had more vision than that, if I recall, but apparently these ISIL guys are truly mindless slaughterers. So, Orwellian junk that convinces no one, delivered without even a pretense of coherence.  

2) Obama flatly said — sure, in the midst of saying he has already won congressional support for doing this (war against ISIL) — that he has the authority to do this. Period. 

This reflects Obama’s contempt for all matters constitutional. He consistently abdicates his responsibility to use occasions like this to remind and inform the public about the constitutional issues involved. Now, I think he does have the authority to do this, but he needs to explain why. My position on executive war-starting power is the Hamiltonian one, so I’m not a Tim Kaine guy who thinks we need a new-fangled version of the War Powers Act. Nor do I think the War Powers Act is constitutional.  But I want a president who openly says, “Look, here’s a law on the books, and when I can abide by it without compromising our security I will, and thus I will go before Congress as the statute says, and thus seem to need its after-the-fact ratification of my decision to go to war, but this is not one of those cases, so I’m going to ignore this unconstitutional law.” Or, I want one who says, “I intend to obey the War Powers Act, because it’s law, and it’s constitutional.” Or I at least want one who says, “Hey, opinions on the constitutionality of the law are divided, and I’m going to consult Congress as much as I can and make the decision about whether to abide by its timetables only when the deadline comes.” But this blank “I have the power” talk telegraphs contempt for the intelligence of the American people, and for their duty to know their Constitution. Of course, a public that accepted that duty would cause problems for Obama in other areas.   

3) Isn’t it time we had a president who says aloud the obvious fact that when you massacre a bunch of Christians, you’re making it that much more likely that the American public will demand that the U.S. attack you? Right now, this would be a useful thing for certain terror organizations in Africa to hear. 

Full speech is here. Slightly odd that the administration is apparently now insisting on the “ISIL” usage over the “ISIS” one that had caught on.

Where The Lack Of An Agenda Hurts


When It  comes to the GOP running on a national agenda, I wish I could be clearer in my opinions. On the one hand, I think that, as long as Obama’s disapproval numbers stay at 53-54%, the Republicans are in a pretty good position to take over the Senate. On the other hand, the lack of an agenda hurts Republicans in ways that might be obscured by the GOP winning the vast majority of the Senate races that Real Clear Politics currently calls toss ups.

The lack of a broadly popular GOP agenda doesn’t show up on the generic ballot or the poll ratings in red states. It shows up in New Hampshire. Given Obama’s unpopularity in that state, the GOP should have been able to run virtually any unobjectionable candidate and been favored to win. Instead, because the GOP lacks an appealing policy agenda, they felt the need to run a former Massachusetts senator and hope that personality would put them over the top. The lack of a broadly appealing GOP agenda also shows up in our expectations. It is almost impossible to imagine the Republicans winning a forty (or more) state sweep in a presidential election – even though the GOP pulled it off in four out of five elections from 1972 to 1988.

This gets to a further irony regarding 2014. No such popular (in the sense of having actual public awareness and support) Republican agenda exists at the moment. There are proposals regarding health care and tax policy that might become popular, but that would require Republican candidates (and hopefully their allies among the right-leaning Super PACs) pushing those policies.

Since almost any policy change involves winners and losers (or people who fear they might be losers), Republican candidates who embraced a positive agenda would face multiple risks. First, they would have to figure out how to put the pieces of various policy proposals together. Do they want health care reform of the kind favored by James Capretta or the kind favored by Avik Roy? Second, candidates would have to learn how to explain policies in the absence of a playbook. If that sounds easy, remember how Romney got into trouble explaining why he wanted more choice in health insurers?  He ended confessing that he likes being able to fire people. Don’t mock him. He is actually better at running for office than the vast majority of Republican candidates. Third, Republican candidates won’t have a playbook for deflecting the inevitable Democratic demagoguery directed at these unfamiliar policies. Republicans have enough trouble explaining how they won’t steal your girlfriend’s birth control pills. Imagine trying to explain how a tax code with a larger child tax credit won’t be a middle-class tax cut or how Republican health care reform won’t mean having to get your surgery from the world’s drunkest veterinarian.

That doesn’t mean that Republicans shouldn’t run on a middle-class agenda. They should! The long-term rewards far outweigh the short-term risks. Not taking the risks now, means taking them in 2016 when the stakes are even higher. The lack of a broadly popular agenda that can appeal to people who were not socialized to be Republican voters virtually guarantees the party’s long-term demographic decline. That decline will occasionally pause due to favorable circumstances, but circumstances won’t reverse the decline for any length of time. The Republicans are going to have to earn the voters that they are going to need. Running on an agenda today makes it more likely that some Republican senatorial candidate will make a gaffe. It makes it slightly more likely that an elderly Republican senator won’t be a chairman in 2015. We shouldn’t exaggerate the risk. If Obama’s disapproval ratings stay where they are, adopting James Capretta’s health care proposals won’t salvage Democratic chances in the Senate – and if Obama’s disapproval rating comes down a little, maybe giving people a reason to vote Republican might get a few more people to… vote Republican.


Georgia and Karl Marx


First of all, I defer to Pete on all election predictions. A lot depends on the extent to which Obama repairs his commander-in-chief brand over the next few weeks by appearing to be and/or actually being resolute against the Islamic State (aka ISIL).

In Georgia, I will say, the Senate race is trending slightly toward the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. Her victory would be a gain for the Democrats. She and David Perdue are equally decent candidates, and they’ve equally good attack commercials. The one against Nunn focused on her secret memo that was more than somewhat condescending about the credulity of the voters of Georgia. The one against Perdue accuses him of being a rapacious capitalist who laid off a whole town in North Carolina for personal profit. The candidates have fired their best shots; both commercials seemed more true than not.

Perdue is not the kind of candidate who inspires either enthusiasm or contempt. Nunn has been endorsed on TV by the renegade Zell Miller and has a little of that “I’m an old-fashioned Democrat like my statesman dad” thing going for her. She has succeeded some in separating herself from the president. More importantly, the Democrats are pretty darn energized, because they think this is a rare opportunity for a statewide victory. The main thing that can energize the Republicans, of course, is the thought that our guy may be the key to the Republicans running the Senate. And he may really be. So we’ll see whether anti-Obama energy will start to flow across the state in sufficient force by Election Day. Probably but not certainly. Turnout, which will depend some on factors not yet evident, will be the key.

One of those factors might turn out to be the ability of voters to separate the Senate election from the one for governor. More than one expert thinks that the Democratic candidate, Jason Carter, will upset the flawed incumbent, Nathan Deal. Carter is quite a competent and eloquent member of the state senate (and not much like Jimmy), and it is really easier to detach his campaign from anything having to do with the president. Experts can be wrong, and the polls on this race are pretty inconclusive. Deal’s strongest point is the high rating given to our state for attracting jobs. The corruption stuff is old news to Georgians; everyone assumes there’s some truth to the allegation that Deal was escaping from Congress by running for governor. Yet he was easily elected.

The takeaway:  It’s not that I’m giving reasons to vote Democratic in Georgia this time.  Unlike about everyone I know, I actually voted for Perdue in the primary.  It’s also not that I’m predicting a Democratic victory in either race.  As a card-carrying political scientist, I have to advise you, if you insist on betting the farm on these races, that almost all of the available quantitative evidence still suggests a Republican sweep, with the Senate contest influencing voting for governor more than the other way around.  Still, there’s more uncertainty here than you would think by merely looking at recent voting patterns and presidential approval ratings.

On the list of authors who shaped me: There will be no retreat and no surrender. The premise of the exercise — which, I admit, is barely more interesting than a video of someone pouring a bucket of water on me would have been — was to write with as little calculation as possible.

The one punch I may have pulled: I didn’t list Marx. Speaking of Marx (and Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, et al.) applied to contemporary circumstances, you need to skip the long and boring Piketty (which has little to nothing to do with anything Marx actually said) and read the brief and exhilarating book by Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict. It brands itself as promoting capitalist (growth) as a means to achieve social-democratic ends. It really gets us up to date on the classless class of oligarchs of Silicon Valley and their project to rule America through masterful manipulation, and it’s the best polemic against the very idea of “sustainability” ever written. It’s equally hard on “progressives” and WSJ conservatives, and it makes great use of the cheerful dystopian predictions of Tyler Cowen.

One more thing. It wasn’t a list of thinkers I like. I like Russell Kirk and Harry Jaffa. I don’t like Hannah Arendt or Heidegger.

And yet another thing: Here’s my teaching on The Big Bang Theory applied to scientists and the humanities.

The Republican National Committee Is A Legitimate (And Necessary) Target


This Republican National Committee statement condemning Obama for not declaring an executive amnesty for unauthorized immigrants is a classic Michael Kinsley gaffe. It revealed that the RNC wanted both the amnesty and the chance to blame Obama for the amnesty.

This isn’t the first such incident for the Reince Priebus-run RNC. The 2013 RNC autopsy noted that it wasn’t the job of the Republican National Committee to offer policy advice to the party – and then proceeded to argue that the Republicans need to embrace “comprehensive immigration reform”. That is a Washington euphemism for expanded low-skill guest worker programs, and legalization of the existing unauthorized population, while putting off internal enforcement until… forever if they can swing it.

The difference between the autopsy and the statement on President Obama’s threatened amnesty was that the RNC was able to dress up the autopsy as concern trolling. The lobbyists at the RNC were ever so concerned that the GOP seemed indifferent on immigration. For some reason, it didn’t seem to bother the RNC nearly as much that the GOP seemed indifferent about the payroll tax burden on working families or availability of health insurance. Oh, I forgot. Reince Priebus doesn’t do policy.

Ever since the 2012 election, the Priebus-run RNC has chosen not to act as a mediator between the party’s factions on immigration policy. It has chosen to act as an agent of that faction within the Republican party that wants to expand future low-skill immigration even though our current population of low-skill workers (both native and foreign-born) are experiencing high unemployment and low rates of labor force participation.

One of our super-commenters DJF wondered if maybe we are stuck with our current situation. I’m not so sure. On the one hand, the Republican party would benefit from new RNC leadership that displayed more respect for the differences of opinion within the party on immigration policy. On the other hand, the RNC does seem to know that it has to tread lightly. It had to present its immigration agenda in terms of electoral prudence rather than policy preference (or fat lobbying fees). They were using the Peter Venkman defense, “Back off man, I’m a scientist.”

The key is not to give the RNC any benefit of the doubt when it oversteps its bounds. Conservative activists and politicians should be ready to call out Priebus as a divider who is damaging the party in order to aid one of the party’s factions. My suspicion is the we will learn that the RNC is quite sensitive to high-profile criticism. Priebus can have deference again when he earns it by staying within the bounds of being a service-provider for the party, rather than acting as a division manager for Lobby Inc.  



Taking Our Midterms


When looking at the 2014 competitive Senate races, I just can’t get past Obama’s disapproval rating. It is currently 53.8% and I strongly suspect it is that high or higher in the states with competitive races. At this point in 2010, Obama’s RCP average disapprove number was 50.2%. So the numbers are a little worse than in the bad-for-Democrats year of 2010. To get over the hump, Democratic candidates in tough races are going to have to win over quite a few voters who think Obama is doing a bad job. That makes for a favorable playing field for the Republican candidates.

It is possible for a Democratic Senate candidate to win with such electorate. A Democratic candidate might have a strong personal brand (including a preexisting bond with independents who are hostile to the president) and a safe distance for the president’s policy agenda. That was Joe Manchin’s ticket to winning. Even a candidate with a weak personal brand and who is tied to the president’s agenda can win if the Republican opponent is repellant to swing voters. That was Harry Reid’s path to victory. But in how many of the current toss up Senate races do either of these situations attain? The environment is shaping up for narrow GOP wins in the vast majority of the currently close races.

I can think of several caveats:

1. I don’t see it in the numbers, but the Obama disapproval feels “soft” to me. The conservative opposition doesn’t seem to be as energized as in 2010. The right-of-center feeling about Obama seems more smoldering than incandescent. By this time in 2006, swing voters had turned on Bush, and were absolutely not going to give him another chance, or listen to what he has to say. I don’t think that swing voters have given up on Obama.

2. To the extent that Obama’s rising disapproval rating is tied to the perception that he is weak and that he is jeopardizing American interests abroad, visible victories against ISIS/ISIL might help bring down his disapproval numbers and give Senate Democrats a slightly more favorable electorate.


Authors Who Shaped ME


So I’ve gotten a couple of challenges or whatever to list the ten books that have most influenced my life. That would require too much thought, including deep thought about the meaning of “influence.” Instead, I’m going to list — in no particular order — authors from whom I regularly and semi-unconsciously “sample.” Sample, we jazz musicians know, doesn’t mean plagiarize. When someone else writes something that’s obviously true or at least rhetorically powerful, and I repeat it, I’m paying homage to the truth about who we are. And I can’t help but think you — if you know what you’re talking about — will immediately pick up on whom and what I’m sampling. I could go and rant about why I hate footnotes and scholarly writing in general.

On the list: It’s all about prose. It’s not that I don’t read (or watch) and enjoy novels, plays, poetry, TV and movies, and so forth, but I don’t absorb their content in the same way. I’m skipping Shakespeare and the Bible, because everyone who thinks and writes in English obviously owes them a lot. And we Catholics know better than to obsess over what the Bible says without some help.

By listing authors and not books, I can spare myself the pain of trying to remember exact titles.

1. Alexis de Tocqueville

2. Pascal

3. Walker Percy

4. Richard Rorty

5. Nietzsche

6. Joseph Ratzinger

7. Aristotle

8. Alexandre Kojeve

9. Leo Strauss

10. George Grant

11. Carey McWilliams

12. John Locke

13. Edmund Burke

14. Solzhenitsyn

15. Havel

16. Hannah Arendt

17. Chantal Delsol

18. Tom Wolfe

19. Roger Scruton

20. Marilynne Robinson

21. Publius

22. John Courtney Murray

23. Orestes Brownson

24. Pierre Manent

25. Mary Nichols

26. James Ceaser

27. Harvey Mansfield

28. Allan Bloom

29. William Alexander Percy

30. Simone Weil

31. Leon Kass

32. Chesterton

33. Delba Winthrop

34. Plato — pretty selectively

35. Aristophanes

36. Tyler Cowen

37. Christopher Lasch

38. Flannery O’Connor

39. James Schall

40. St. Augustine — last but pretty much the opposite of least

Well, I’m going to stop. This list must be criticized for being very white and American and maybe for being insufficiently Founderist. I really do admire African-American writing and am pretty open to what’s true about Buddhism, not to mention American Evangelical Christianity. But I really and truly am trying to tell the truth about what I think I’ve absorbed as debts for telling the truth as I see it.

I don’t agree with either the deep or the ”normative” views of many or most of the above. I’m pretty repulsed by much of what Bloom, Kojeve, Cowen, and Rorty say, for examples. But I have debts nonetheless. To avoid any misunderstanding, let me just conclude by saying that I owe a lot to Strauss and Straussians, while disagreeing radically with what I take to be Strauss’s “bottom line” about who each of us is.

UPDATE:  This has excited FACEBOOK and EMAIL chatter.  Quickly:  I don’t speak Heideggerian or Voegelinese.  But I should have included Rousseau, as the brains, after all, behind Kojeve and Bloom, among others.  And I believe I said once, and correctly, that Rousseau’s HISTORY is Pascal’s PSYCHOLOGY.   41. Rousseau.    

An Election Is Coming


The only “practical” panel I went to at the APSA was one on the future of the Republican party. Carl has already talked about it a bit. It really was true that our friend Yuval Levin was the only participant who addressed the actual issues in a reasonable and engaging way. When asked about “climate change,” for example, he said the Republicans shouldn’t deny it or demagogically mock the real scientists who have evidence that there are anthropogenic sources of “global warning.” The truth is that it is a long-term threat, but it’s not the most pressing issue facing the country right now. Prudent measures should be taken, but prudence includes chilling out the alarmists. We don’t want to forget that it’s the natural condition of the climate to change, and that our concern for the “environment” should remain anthropocentric and not degenerate into control-freakism. It’s the height of arrogance to really believe that the future of human life — by which we should mean each particular person’s life — is in our hands. The future of human liberty is more our responsibility.

One immediate concern is the November election. Bill Kristol was very helpful in satisfying our desire to discover historical patterns that would allow us to make predictions, while adding, very reasonably, that all such evidence typically cuts in both directions. Beyond that, I don’t remember much of what Bill said, and so the following patternizing should not be blamed on him.

The 2014 election will occur in the middle of the second term of an unpopular president. Not only that, it’s six years after a big Democratic victory. So it’s reasonable to expect a “wave” Republican sweep in the Senate races, something like the Democratic victory of 2006. The singular characteristic of a wave election is that all the close races seem to break in one direction, and the Republicans are within the margin of error of winning 54 seats right now.

BUT the Republicans already had a “wave” anti-Obama sweep in 2010, just as they had a historic anti-Clinton takeover in 1994. That means that this election may well be like 1998 — a Republican disappointment where many defeats are snatched out of the jaws of victory.

The energy level for the Republicans this year might be more like 1998 than 2010. There are several reasons for that: One often noted is the Republicans seem to be “playing out the clock” instead of aggressively campaigning on hot-button issues. They don’t have, despite the best efforts of Paul Ryan, an agenda. Establishment calculation is clamping down on tea-party enthusiasm.

But 2014, you say, is nothing like 1998!  The Republicans mistakenly assumed voters would privilege Clinton’s personal immorality and lying to save him a** over his presidential competence–over the peace and prosperity they were enjoying.  Obama is personally moral but a real tyrant who hasn’t given us either peace or prosperity!

Well, the playing-out-the-clock strategy reminds us of not only of 1998 but of 2012. Romney astounded many astute analysts by seeming to follow this strategy although he was, according to all the available studies, actually behind. But so many Republican enthusiasts, such as Paul Rahe and even our Flagg, just didn’t believe those studies, thinking that they didn’t properly account for the turnout surge from key groups that would sweep Romney into office. Romney’s campaign apparently didn’t believe them either. He was pretty shocked when it turned out he was trounced. The point of all this: There was a fair amount of core Republican energy in 2012 centered on the conviction that Obama is so self-evidently terrible for the economy and America.

So far, I’m not convinced Republicans are doing that well in centering the 2014 campaign on anti-Obama energy. One reason, of course, is the president isn’t running. Another is that the Democrats are succeeding in conducting their own fairly issueless campaign, one that in some cases is fairly successfully detaching Senate candidates from the presidential unpopularity (Georgia?). Their focus is on what those evil Republican oligarchic fundamentalist rednecks (mainly the last two) will do when they get in. It isn’t on defending the good the president has done.

I’m not going to review what Pete and Yuval (and Joel Kotkin) have said about the Republicans having to develop a somewhat populist economic message that’s aimed at the real issue of middle-class insecurity and combined with a social-cultural message about the dignity of ordinary relational life. It remains not enough to say that Obama stinks when it comes to the economy or is tyrannically pushing us toward soft despotism. This development is not going to occur before November.

In 2010, voters were angered by and thought they could stop ObamaCare. Now, arguably, many more think it’s a “done deal,” partly because, as Pete has said, Republicans don’t bother to offer–in campaign mode–a credible alternative to it.  So anti-Obamacare energy had not disappeared, but certainly dissipated.

On foreign policy: Republicans, at their most effective, go with the ”brand” that Obama is a tyrant at home and a wimp in relation to other countries. The Democrats campaigned with great success against Bush’s foreign-policy cluelessness in 2006. But it’s not so easy for the Republicans now. For one thing, it’s natural to want to support the president in whatever efforts he makes to confront Putin or ISIS. For another, the Republicans are stuck with the “crying wolf” problem that comes with allegedly exaggerating prior threats to our national security. They’re also stuck with Rand Paul and his chunk of the Republican coalition. Obama continues to do well in blaming Bush for the mess in Iraq, and it’s hard for Americans to get psyched up about Ukraine. Electing a Republican Senate won’t firm up the president’s resolve, in any case.

My conclusion: If I had to predict, the election of 2014 will be less conclusive than the Republicans would hope, given the president’s unpopularity. That’s disappointing, of course, especially because they have fewer really lame candidates than they’ve had in recent elections. Control of the Senate may depend on the runoff in Louisiana.

Paul Ryan and the GOP Establishment


Paul Ryan at his best is amazing, and that makes Paul Ryan at his worst that much more disappointing. Ryan has played an enormous and positive role in the construction of a truly post-Reagan policy agenda. On controversial and key issues, Ryan has shown both courage and the willingness to do his homework. Very few Republican office holders have demonstrated those qualities simultaneously. That makes it all the more frustrating when Ryan lapses into the clichés and deceptions of the GOP lobbying and consulting classes.

When it comes to shifting the policy agenda, Ryan’s accomplishments have been enormous. Ryan was able to make premium support Medicare reform not only the agenda of the national Republican party, but also as a component of center-right political identity. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Ryan’s Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering,” it was Gingrich who was called out as the phony conservative — even though Gingrich had a decades-long reputation as a bomb-throwing conservative ideologue. Gingrich’s suggestion of primarily focusing on cutting Medicare fraud was vapid, but it would have gone over just fine prior to Ryan. Ryan was able to change the Republican and conservative position on Medicare in a positive way.

What was more improbable, was how Ryan changed the national politics of Medicare outside the institutions of the Right. Richard Brookhiser had written about “rightworld” — the world of conservative activists, broadcasters, politicians, writers, and wonks. Sometimes ideas become popular entirely within rightworld for a little while and then fade into obscurity without having had any more impact on the rest of America than last year’s fashions in Outer Mongolia. That ultimate obscurity was the fate of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, Mike Huckabee’s FairTax, and Rick Perry’s kinda-sorta-flat tax.

But Ryan got his party to embrace a large and fairly complicated reform of a popular old-age entitlement and this reform was not the reason why his party lost. The result is that premium support Medicare reform is more than a fad, and will very likely be high on the GOP agenda the next time Republicans wield national power. The story of Ryan and Medicare reform is a testament to how courage, intelligence, creativity, and hard work can change national politics.

It is Ryan’s ability to look beyond the short time horizons of the GOP consulting class that makes Ryan so problematic on immigration policy. It isn’t so much that Ryan agrees with the GOP lobbyist and consultant classes on the desirability of Gang of Eight-style immigration reform. Fine, let us have that discussion. The problem is in how Ryan characterizes the discussion.

Ryan talks about how “there is much less daylight between Republicans on this issue than people would like to acknowledge.”

No, sorry, there is much more daylight than Paul Ryan and the Republican lobbyist and consulting classes would like to  acknowledge. There is a lot of daylight on the issue of whether future immigration should be structured to favor skills and English proficiency or whether future immigration should be concentrated in the low-skill sector. It just so happens that all this daylight is between the American public and the Washington-based political elites of both parties. There is a lot of daylight between those who believe that workplace verification and a visa tracking system should precede legalization, and those who think that legalization should come first, while internal enforcement should come never at some unspecified date in the future as the Democratic party and the business lobbies do everything they can to make sure that internal enforcement never gets off the ground.

It is Ryan’s attempt to mislead the public over the issues at stake in the immigration debate that makes him so much like the GOP consulting class — on this issue. There is the same evasion about the size and composition about future immigration flows. There is the same inanity about controlling the border (at least until legalization and guest worker programs are implemented) as a way to avoid talking about how internal enforcement has been put off.

It is great that Ryan sometimes break with the GOP consulting class. It isn’t even all that problematic that Ryan occasionally shares the policy preferences the GOP consultants and lobbyists. The GOP consultants won’t be wrong about everything. But sharing the policy preferences of the GOP consultants does not have to mean sharing their vices.

Tags: Paul Ryan

Holy Mittpost Batman!


Some quick thoughts,

First, some shameless self-promotion. My column over at First Things, I adds my two cents on the idea of whether Romney 2016 is a good idea.

Someday I’ll do a longer post on the Nolan superhero movies, but The Dark Knight no more embraces anarchy than The Dark Knight Rises embraces the dictatorship of the proletariat. While Bane was not as successful a villain as the Joker when it comes to making a impact on the public, Nolan actually gave Bane the stronger case. The Joker’s argument was ultimately speculative (and it failed when put to the test). Bane’s argument had the benefit of being factually correct in that Gotham really was refounded (and Gotham’s class of professional criminals imprisoned) based on a lie.

I also don’t think that it is right to say that The Dark Knight undermines heroism. It does complicate Bruce Wayne’s heroism, but by adding layers to his understanding of the public good and his willingness to sacrifice for others. Wayne was able to bring a measure of public order to Gotham through his vigilante activities, but he also knew that this vigilante-based public order was unsustainable.

Gotham needed the rule of law. When it came down to it, the vigilante was more committed to the rule of law than any of the other male characters in the film – even more than Jim Gordon. Wayne and Gordon agreed that Gotham needed a founding myth that celebrated the man of law (Harvey Dent) rather than the man of lawless (even if just) violence. This sounds like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but Dent turned out to be no Ranse Stoddard. Wayne ended up acting out the roles of both the man of the law and the man of just violence even as he chose to allow himself to be seen as a murderer.

This is even more poignant when one considers that Nolan’s films are influenced by Ancient Greek thought. By all rights, Bruce Wayne had a claim for being the foremost founder of Gotham ’s new regime — maybe the highest honor that a citizen can claim in pre-Christian thought. Instead, he chooses to allow himself to be seen as a monstrous criminal so that the people might better embrace the law. This is the equivalent of George Washington choosing to frame himself as a traitor in order to consolidate the constitutional regime. Even George (who cared a great deal for his reputation) might have had second thought about embracing such disgrace.

But, since Nolan’s superhero movies are partly a running argument with Plato, it turns out that the noble lie is a fatal weakness rather than a bulwark of a stable polis.

Okay, it turned out to be more of a Batpost.

The Declaration of Independence Vindicated by The Big Bang Theory


So I’ve been attacked elsewhere for being indifferent to the effect popular culture has on our culture and civilization. My only point was that, in a democracy, TV and movies (and music, Carl’s department) are bound to be a mixed bag. We conservatives criticize liberals for viewing everything through “politically correct” lenses. We shouldn’t make the same mistake ourselves. For more on the infamous 20 movies, I refer to Carl’s balanced comments in the thread.

Here’s part of my comprehensive teaching on The Big Bang Theory.

I really do think the show is theologically subversive. It finds both truth and willful self-deception in both scientists and fundamentalists.

I have a lot more to say on the way show ranks forms of science and scientists, and I hope to get that out soon.

Finally: You should drop everything, go to Amazon Prime, and watch Whit Stillman’s pilot The Cosmopolitans. The show will be made only if the popular acclaim is sufficiently enthusiastic. If you want popular culture to be highly civilized and have a great sound track, then you want to see this show live long and prosper.



Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 101: Common Sense for Conservatives about Popular Music


Somewhere between thinking about how to introduce my Rock Songbook series to NRO readers, and noting the negative reactions some of them had to my daring to only half-praise The Ramones, I’ve had a few thoughts about healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards popular music in our day, particularly on the part of conservatives.  

Here’s several common conservative attitudes that aren’t adequate for engaging with or learning from the musical situation of our times:

  1. Ignore and generally look down upon popular music, because classical music is so superior.
  2. Ham-handedly apply the age-old teaching that music impacts morality, say, in a way that condemns nearly all dancing, or all rock or hip-hop.
  3. Find, celebrate, and encourage instances of popular music that have conservative lyrical messages.  (For a classic NRO instance, see this post by John Miller)

I do have a certain respect for the old-fashioned sturdiness of the first, although it is becoming a rarer stance.  Here’s some more common conservative stances, although these ones are also held by many liberals.

  1. Judge artistic accomplishment in popular music solely by its own suggested rubrics.
  2. Judge the value of any cultural product simply based on what pleases one.
  3. Expand this to everyone:  “different strokes for different folks.”
  4. Adopt a commercialist “market can’t be wrong” attitude:  whatever sells the most is usually the best.
  5. Adopt a bohemian “market is always wrong” attitude:  whatever sells the most is usually the worst. 
  6. Deny the age-old teaching that music impacts morality, particularly through its elicitation and imitation of emotional dispositions. 
  7. Divorce one’s judgment of musical/lyrical accomplishment from one’s judgment of moral, cultural, or political impact. 
  8. Deny that genre exists:  “You shouldn’t try to categorize music!”
  9. Deny that any but arbitrary status-game boundaries exist between popular music and fine arts music (by the latter I generally mean classical music—of all cultures–, and quite a bit of jazz). 

None of these attitudes, these pat theories, help you grapple with the importance that popular music has had in our culture, or with the place it will likely have in your own life.  Obviously, I won’t be able to deal with each of them in the body of this post, but I will say that becoming skeptical about them is the “101” of my Songbook’s overall teaching. 

My approach here will mainly be to show why 9, 2, and 4 are incorrect, but first, let me say that I don’t think much of the apparently insouciant stance towards rock music that a lot of conservatives, especially the Gen-X and Millennial ones, have adopted, in which we say “Yes, I’m a conservative, but of course I still fully dig the awesomeness of ________ (insert name of some rock group here).”  That particular stance combines attitudes 4, 5, and perhaps 10.

For unless one’s “conservatism” is of a very libertarian sort regarding personal morality, one cannot avoid some measure of discomfort with rock’s largely unavoidable reputation for aggressive hedonism and general rebelliousness.  “I really love The Ramones,” you’ll say to yourself, or perhaps for you its Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith, Mazzy Star, Ty Segal, or to choose a non-rock example, James Brown, “but I sense that as a conservative, I can’t love _______  all the way—that I would be a fraud to act as if I’m fully on board with the whole Ramones (or Hendrix, etc.) vibe.”  All I mean to say here is that many conservatives often feel odd or conflicted about their tastes for rock and pop music, and to suggest that some of what I do in the Songbook can help them think more clearly about that.   

That is, the thing to do with the odd feeling is to explore it.  If you just ignore it, accepting it as yet another absurdity of modern life, well, you might wind up looking as culturally daft as Paul Ryan did when he shared his love for Rage against the Machine.  

What will be initially most helpful is to spell out why attitudes 9 and 4 are wrong.   Again, 9 refuses to consider the classical argument that music affects morals (an argument which, do note, is not necessarily in favor of much of the music we call classical).   

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: rock , Plato , Aristotle , The Ramones , virtue , Caron Holloway

Movies Rarely Destroy Culture or Civilization


Two quick comments:  Pete’s post below called to mind Yuval Levin’s brilliant and engaging presentation at the APSA on what the Republicans should say and do now.  Nobody else comes close to touching Pete and Yuval for astuteness on public policy.  And, in the spirit of compromise, I will be partly democratic and partly aristocratic and say that, for Paul Seaton, sixty is the new fifty.

So I got an e-mail wondering how I could be associated with NRO, given how, well, over-the-top film critic Armond White has been on this site. White listed 20 films that “effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence. They constitute a corrupt, carelessly politicized canon.” I think he might be at least overreacting in every case, although I haven’t seen quite all the films. I dissent most firmly on the eight listed below:

The Dark Knight (2008) is one of the more philosophical superhero movies.

12 Years a Slave (2013) might be a bit overwrought and uneven in terms of characterization and conversation, but it’s pretty darn good in displaying the moral violence — the spiritualized despotism — caused by the monstrosity of race-based slavery.

Frost/Nixon (2008) provokes thought about the conflicted and somewhat lawless Nixon, even if it overrates the importance of the Frost interviews and Frost generally. Finally, a bit boring because you don’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

Knocked Up (2007) is a vulgar, strangely edifying, pretty funny, somewhat unrealistic pro-life movie.

The Social Network (2010) is a devastating indictment of the wimpy narcissism and small-mindedness at the personal foundation of Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg is portrayed as an a****** wannabe — not even an a******.

 The Hangover (2009) is a funny, ridiculous buddy movie with no deeper teaching. I could recommend it if the ten grossest minutes had been left on the cutting-room floor.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is extremely well made and all about what’s good and what’s bad — not to mention miserable — about a country on the make. It is shamelessly romantic, but so what?

Lincoln (2012) takes a few liberties with history, but it certainly has nothing to do with Obama. Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb portrayal of Lincoln’s singular greatness — reflected, for example, in his singular manner of speaking — makes up for any and all deficiencies, including possible contemporary subtexts. And the acting is good all around. You also learn something about the messiness of the legislative process.

Although everyone at NRO is against political correctness, we agree to disagree on books, movies, and so forth.

The Waste And The Risk


The NR editors are right that Republican congressional candidates should focus more on making a positive case for themselves. Republicans are missing a major opportunity on tax policy. They might also be missing a chance on health care policy, but it is not clear that Republican candidates would have any idea how to seize that opportunity even they so desired.

Some scaled-down version of Robert Stein’s combination of an expanded child tax credit and cuts on investment income should be low hanging fruit for Republicans. It makes the economy more efficient and it shows that the direct benefits  of cutting taxes don’t all have to flow to high-earners. Such a policy would not be the first choice of some conservatives and it would get eye rolls from the Wall Street Journal, but those conservatives would not start voting for pro-Obamacare Democrats, while swing voters would have a new reason to vote GOP.

The politics of health care reform is more tricky. On the one hand, some positive conservative policy that addresses coverage in necessary if Obamacare is going to be repealed. All those people who have gotten health insurance through Medicaid expansion and credits through the exchanges aren’t just going to be left hanging.

There is no single consensus Republican alternative to Obamacare, but the major problem is that Republicans lack a set of best practices for talking about market-oriented health care reform. This is partly a product of history. Health care policy was never a big part of the conservative heroic age of the 1980s and 1990s in the same way as tax cuts, defeating communism, Giuliani’s crime fighting and reforming welfare. Health care was what Democrats wanted to talk about. The job of conservatives was to stand up against socialized medicine. If Republicans had to say something about a positive health care policy, they would likely talk about tort reform, mumble something vague about getting government out of health care (though not out of Medicare of course) and then try to change the subject to capital gains taxes or missile defense or… anything really.

This means that Republican candidates don’t have a playbook for how to talk about what a post-Obamacare health care system they might want. Look at Romney. When he tried to talk about “choice” in health care insurers, he ended up talking about how he likes being able to fire people. One way to look at the story is that Romney was an awkward, out-of-touch rich guy. But Romney was actually far more articulate in talking about health care policy than any of his Republican primary opponents (with the partial exception of Rick Santorum). Romney is probably better at talking about health care policy than any of the current Republican Senate candidates and even he flubbed it.

It would be great if several Republican candidates took the lead in explaining something like the health care plans produced by James Capretta and Avik Roy, but most Republican candidates don’t know where to start and don’t know how to avoid the landmines. This is where the institutions of the center-right are failing. For all the money that is spent on bludgeoning the public with redundant thirty second ads, Republican donors could work with the policy intellectuals to test (through both opinion polling and focus groups) how best to explain market-oriented health care reform and how best to answer the most obvious liberal objections to those reforms – and then share those findings with candidates. Candidates would be more likely to support positive reforms if they had a set of strategies for explaining those policies to the public. As it is, we are left counting on the courage, and policy sophistication of candidates locked in close races. We should encourage them to show more courage, but a better center-right institutional strategy for promoting health care reform will make it easier for the average Republican candidate to stand up for a positive alternative to Obamacare.    

More on Our Founders and Ceaser (and Paul Seaton Is Sixty Today)


Thanks to Carl for his synoptic overview of the APSA Meeting.

Jim Ceaser was in fine form in his comments in response to all the deserved praise of his life and work. It’s true enough that he didn’t answer directly my question concerning whether, in his opinion, more of The Federalist should have talked up the veneration that time bestows on everything as a key to sustaining good government and a good Constitution. He did invent the category “rational veneration,” which, I think, goes along with his other conservative categories “rational patriotism” and even “rational faith.”

Now Federalist 49 doesn’t really make veneration seem rational; it’s a quality acquired by anything that’s old and hard to change. I notice, for example, that I’m being venerated a lot more these days.

It’s rational, however, to venerate anything that’s good or beneficial, to want it to benefit from every human inclination that resists change. The progressive challenge is that it’s only rational to venerate the Founders and their Constitution if what they gave us is good and remains relevant to meeting our needs or securing our rights. We Founderists deploy veneration to fend off the progressive challenge, but finally we also have to show that veneration is deserved.

In another sense, “rational veneration” can be even more conservative, though. We might want to exercise a preferential option for the traditional or customary, given that the forces of change are distorted by rather blind ambition and abstract and untested theory.  ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Ain’t broke is a much more lax standard than running smoothly or functioning flawlessly. Stick with whatever has tolerably passed the test of time.  As long as the car still moves, keep driving it as is. (I really do live by that “insight,” which I also apply to the relationship between physicians and my physical body.)

Jim explained that one reason veneration can’t be a big theme of The Federalist is that Hamilton and Madison really thought of themselves and wrote as radical innovators. They were experimentalists, in some large measure, when it comes to pushing the envelope concerning the human capacity for self-government and to reconciling democracy, liberty, and good government. Their theme: ”It is broke, and it needs a radical, unprecedented fix.” Those conservatives moved by caution and veneration probably voted against the Constitution.

Jim highlighted the fact that the authors of The Federalist “branded” themselves as Founders in conversation with other great Founders. They wanted the Constitution and the resulting way of life they built to endure longer than even Rome, and they wanted the fame accorded to great Founders. Founding, from that view, means cutting off destructive forces from both the past and the future. America begins as the first polity built on reflection and choice in the unprecedented appeals to Nature and Nature’s God, in the Declaration of 1776, and is “implemented” by the consciously and rationally designed Constitution of 1787.  Jim mentioned along the way that teaching that there was nothing much good here prior to 1776 remains the project of today’s Founderist political scientists. Tocqueville, he added, corrected that excess by highlighting the fact that all our actual democratic political institutions began with the Puritans. Tocqueville went too far in the other direction, but it’s worth noting that most actual historians think more along his lines.

Jim also talked about how the Founderist conception of American progress — articulated so well by Lincoln and Coolidge — is of improvement within the framework designed by our Founders. Their “restful” principles are the foundation of egalitarian and technological progress rightly understood. That definite view of who we are and where we should be going opposes an amorphously restless or “indefinite” view of progressive transformation in which the destiny of the particular individual with natural rights and all that is lost in some reverie about our collective destiny (see the Transcendentalists, Whitman, progressive technocrats, etc.).

Narratives about vague, indefinite perfectibility, Tocqueville tells us, are characteristic of democracy as such. And a limited view of possible improvement that come with a fixed idea of human nature is characteristic of aristocracy. So the veneration inspired by Founderism these days is an attempt to give America a kind of aristocratic narrative. That narrative would be facing various forms of critical and democratic assault even if Hegel had never written or Woodrow Wilson had never studied in Germany.

As Jim said, the very phrase “American greatness” — insofar as it depends on the greatness of particular American individuals — opposes itself to every trend these days in our country’s highly democratic scholarly study of history. Why should we privilege the Founders? There’s no denying that they were more elitist than we are. In Tocqueville’s view, all we Founderists are employing the aristocratic “teaching method” in presenting the American political narrative. We are, of course, just and truthful to do so, insofar as we are correcting the stupid and reductionistic theoretical excesses of our time.

So I’m going to stop here, just before I get to Jim’s inspirational and truthful conclusion concerning higher education, in which he quickly but instructively sampled Heidegger a bit about the true, technological danger facing us. Neither Jim nor I can remember his especially memorable “takeaway” final sentence. Let me know if you do.

One more point: Our friend PAUL SEATON turns SIXTY today. Shall we be democrats and lie by telling him that sixty is the new forty? Or shall we be aristocrats guided by the relatively fixed truths about the nature and destiny of every particular man and woman and remind him that sixty is still sixty?

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


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review