Welcome to The Tuesday, a cheery little weekly newsletter about the existential despair Irving Kristol indicated when he noted that Western civilization is collapsing “but it’ll take a long time, and, meanwhile, it’s still possible to live well.”
The Bloc Party
Right-leaning writers hawking books about virtue and character used to go on and on about the moral dangers of the welfare state, the spiritual deadening caused by dependency, the “culture of victimhood,” passivity, lack of personal agency — and they grew strangely quiet right around the time a bunch of white people in the suburbs and rural areas started dying from opioids and rallying around the banner of Donald Trump, whose populist-nationalist politics offered them both patronage and a barely plausible justification for their embrace of dependency, which is what all patron-client politics ultimately comes down to.
The about-face was remarkable, hence much remarked-upon. When it was young, poor African Americans and Puerto Ricans dying of heroin overdoses in New York City under Mayor John Lindsay (“demand a recount!”), the preferred solution was tougher policing and longer prison sentences, a prescription that held for a generation with the enthusiastic support of Joe Biden, among others. In the early 21st century, when it was young white men from modest-to-affluent backgrounds dying of prescription-painkiller abuse in Governor Robert J. Bentley’s Alabama, the entrepreneurs of Virtue, Inc. did their best imitation of the tweedy sociological liberals they once mocked and began snuffling out “root causes” like so many shiny pink truffle-hunters. (And I don’t mean Der Truffeljäger von Zuffenhausen.) Our progressive friends insist that this is racism prima facie, but, then, they also insist that it is evidence of racism if Mitt Romney orders oatmeal for breakfast.
(He seems like an oatmeal guy, no?)
What it is, of course, is what John Lindsay’s opponent in 1965 (a fellow by the name of Bill Buckley) said he proposed to take on: “interest-group liberalism,” large-scale bloc politics organized around patronage and political protection.
Of course, in the case of the United States, interest-group politics often is racial politics. The GOP’s growing indifference to civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s and the Democrats’ embrace of civil-rights legislation at approximately the same time were two reactions to one political reality: that black voters had abandoned the Republicans for the Democrats, that this was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and that this necessarily would influence political calculations in all sorts of ways, not all of them happy. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reports that Johnson described the situation in the crudest political terms: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness.” Senator Goldwater, an NAACP member and a lifelong opponent of segregation (his activism in Phoenix is an underappreciated story), was making essentially the same calculation at the same time with his advice to “hunt where the ducks are,” more or less giving up on the votes of the 12 percent of Americans who are black in pursuit of the votes of the 88 percent of Americans who are not.
Political coalitions are temporary manifestations of fluid cultural conditions, and part of the friction in democratic politics come from the fact that institutional inertia ensures that the political coalitions often outlast the underlying cultural conditions. There isn’t any obvious reason for the Teamsters to be in a coalition with the transgender ideologues and Black Lives Matter, just as there isn’t any real reason for the proponents of what in the rest of the world is known as liberalism (free markets, limited government, the rule of law, etc.) to be in coalition with the NATPOP elements on the right, which incline toward étatisme, autocracy, and mercantilism.
But political coalitions are funny and unpredictable things. Right now, many on the right are celebrating President Donald Trump’s unconstitutional practice of patronage politics; i.e., his issuing executive orders assuming prerogatives that the president does not properly have. (Rush Limbaugh approves, National Review dissents.) In substance, President Trump’s recent foray might as well have come from Elizabeth Warren: student-loan forbearance, extended unemployment benefits, etc. Conservative radio host Mike Gallagher was typical in mocking the idea that anybody should “give a damn about the constitutionality of this” because — well, because! “That cat’s been out of the bag for a long time,” he says by way of nonexplanation. How is this different from the executive orders from Barack Obama that conservatives denounced? “People are frightened right now!” Gallagher insists. Well. People on food stamps may be frightened of losing them, illegal aliens may be frightened of being deported, soldiers may be frightened of war — but that is not how we expect leaders to go about making decisions, is it? Surely President Obama also was responding to genuine fear and anxiety with, say, DACA, but that doesn’t change the fact that his actions were unconstitutional.
But whose fear and anxiety is being responded to? That, of course, is the skeleton key to democratic politics.
What might it take to get the Right to discover the ancient and hard-won wisdom about the limits of patron-client politics? The Upper West Side in agony might be a good place to start. The indispensable New York Post has published an excellent selection of reporting and commentary about current conditions in Manhattan neighborhoods into which Mayor Bill de Blasio has relocated a portion of the city’s homeless population, moving them from shelters into hotels, many of which have seen their revenue collapse because of the coronavirus epidemic and the lockdowns. One of the benefits of moving the homeless into hotels is that it gives them more privacy, which contributes to individual dignity; one of the problems with moving the homeless into hotels is that it gives them more privacy, which is not the best thing for a population that includes many mentally ill drug addicts who would benefit from more rigorous supervision.
The results are more or less what you would imagine: people shooting up heroin in public, urinating and defecating on the sidewalks, and generally terrorizing the elbow patches right off of the Upper West Siders. Curtis Sliwa, the scarlet stormcrow of New York City, is leading red-beret patrols, no doubt to the amusement of David Dinkins.
Decades of progress can be washed away in a day or two, as Steve Cuozzo reports:
“We’re back to where we were fifty years ago,” longtime area resident Michael D’Onofrio told the Post — referring to the area’s decrepit and dangerous conditions in the 1970s. Don Evans, a restaurant operator and consultant who lives one block away, fumed, “This f—ing mayor. He wants to piss people off.”
Evans, chairman of the Taste of the Upper West Side food festivals, said, “A lot of people on the Upper West Side are away now. They’re going to be shocked when they get back to the city.”
Donald Trump and Bill de Blasio have a great deal in common. They are both New Yorkers (de Blasio having moved around a bit before settling there), both have populist pretensions, and both are really quite extraordinarily bad at their jobs. (The tragedy of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 is that it was not a race for mayor of New York City, a position in which either one of them might have done a pretty good job, or at least a better job than Bill de Blasio has managed.) And both Trump and de Blasio are, in this case, attempting to react to a set of urgent conditions created by the ongoing emergency of the coronavirus epidemic. In a sense, the example of the de Blasio–Trump parallel is even more dire if you imagine the facts on the ground to be the result of the efforts of two men making a good-faith effort at doing the right thing as each understands it. To believe our national situation or New York City’s local situation to be the result of malice would be, in comparison, comforting.
This might be understood as a crisis of democracy. By that, I do not mean that democracy is gripped by a crisis but rather that democracy is the crisis. Coalition-building is a natural and healthy part of democratic politics — that is one of the important functions performed by political parties. But a democracy of nothing more than the arithmetic of bloc politics, without direction or organizing principle, ends up mired in error and chaos. The lesson of populists from Huey Long to Hugo Chávez to Donald Trump is that populism’s politics of “the People” as a valorized abstraction always and everywhere fails the people who actually live and work in the world.
Modern democracy, so far from being universal aristocracy, would be mass rule were it not for the fact that the mass cannot rule but is ruled by elites, i.e., groupings of men who for whatever reason are on top or have a fair chance to arrive at the top; one of the most important virtues required for the smooth working of democracy, as far as the mass is concerned, is said to be electoral apathy, i.e., lack of public spirit; not indeed the salt of the earth but the salt of modern democracy are those citizens who read nothing except the sports page and the comic section.
Democracy is then not indeed mass rule but mass culture. A mass culture is a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual and moral effort whatsoever and at a very low monetary price.
Strauss wrote that in the course of an essay about the purpose of liberal education. The following sentences read:
Democracy, even if it is only regarded as the hard shell which protects the soft mass culture, requires in the long run qualities of an entirely different kind: qualities of dedication, of concentration, of breadth and of depth. Thus we understand most easily what liberal education means here and now. Liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.
The liberal education to which Strauss refers is in part an education in civic virtues, an education for citizenship. It is simultaneously an education for leadership and an education for followership. How to get to 270 in the Electoral College or 51 in the Senate is by no means a trivial question. But those are questions of means. The question of ends may be answered in a limited and short-term way with a candidate’s campaign proposals or a party’s platform. And that is not trivial, either. But there is a still higher question to be answered, one that cannot be satisfactorily settled at the ballot box or by the superficial and truistic language of democratic coalition-building politics. Bill Buckley talked about the politics of “free false teeth.” We might ask: Who gets them? Who pays for them? Who wins the contract for providing them? We might even wonder how various false-teeth proposals poll in the swing states.
But that would be only a modest ambition in the service of a republic that is, at the moment, in need of a more difficult kind of service.
Words About Words
A reader inquires:
I ran across this sentence this morning while reading Maureen Dowd’s column (I know, I know!) about Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984: “I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.”
“Running the country.” That phrase turns up a lot, and every time I read or hear it my back goes up. I want to shout: “No! The president does not ‘run the country’! He or she doesn’t even run the government! The president is, or should be viewed as, the head of the executive branch of the federal government! No more, no less!”
Should I calm down and just accept the phrase as a harmless idiom? Or is it, as I fear, a symptom of how deep the rot goes when it comes to the lack of knowledge about basic civics?
In linguistics, there is something called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or “linguistic relativity,” the idea that our cognition itself is shaped, directed, and constrained by our language. The charming (but totally made up) story about Eskimos’ having 400 different words for different kinds of snow speaks to that — that people who do not have the language to identify 400 different kinds of snow do not actually experience 400 different kinds of snow — snow is just snow. Skiers actually do have different words for different kinds of snow: pack, powder, etc.
A more useful real-world example would involve questions of social reality: For example, in some cultures there is a particular word for the relationship between a wife and her husband’s parents but no corresponding term for the relationship between a husband and his wife’s parents, because these are understood to be fundamentally different kinds of relationships, involving different duties and obligations. In English, a woman’s husband’s mother is her mother-in-law, and a man’s wife’s mother is also his mother-in-law, and the relationships are understood to be more or less equivalent. The absence of a word for the distinct daughter-in-law/in-law relationship in English, the theory goes, prevents English speakers from genuinely understanding the other social reality, even if you explain it to them in English.
My belief is that phrases such as “run the country” have a subtle and powerful influence on how we think about the presidency, and that this interacts (as in the case of Geraldine Ferraro and whichever woman Joe Biden picks as his running mate) with a wider human tendency to seek a commanding father figure (“America’s Dad,” John Kasich calls the president) (imagine me making retching sounds here). I have argued for some time (I intend to write a book about it) that the key to understanding the evolution of the American presidency is idolatry, and that our attitude toward the office is more or less continuous with an ancient tradition of priest-king cults.
I have noted with some dread the increasing prominence of the phrase “commander in chief” as a presidential epithet. The Latin word for commander in chief is imperator, from which we derive the English words emperor, part of a bundle of words that includes empire, imperial, imperialism, etc. Not encouraging.
Though I agree with him about much, I am glad John Adams lost the title debate, and we call the chief executive “Mr. President” rather than “Your Highness.”
“We are waiting for the Zoom meeting to populate.” These are words we say often at National Review now, but they are not quite right. Contemporary English has a habit of butchering certain transitive verb phrases and converting them to quasi-intransitives: “A meeting populates” rather than “a meeting is populated.” A reader writes in with examples, including “A message displays” rather than “A message is displayed.” There are times when this makes sense: We write “I added up the numbers” but also use the phrasal verb, “The numbers don’t add up.” But much of the intransification is ugly corporate tech-speak, and that should always be avoided.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com
Home and Away
If you would like an excellent example of confirmation bias in action, see my recent error about Karl Marx.
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