Tag Archives: politics

Contemporary Feminism Confronts Reality

A number of recent articles, spread out across several publications, have recently tried to stress the degree to which the message of contemporary feminism is having trouble breaking through to the level of popular consciousness. The theme continues to appear every few days as I sift through the news, but two articles in particular have stuck with me. The first was in Politco’s magazine, entitled “It’s Sexism Stupid. Why men are dominating the Democratic 2020 primary.” The article joins the chorus of those lamenting the failure of any woman to catch fire and dominate in the Democratic field the way Hillary Clinton dominated the much smaller 2016 field. The article suggests that, rather than overcrowding in the field or the flawed nature of the female candidates, the problem is “sexism and misogyny—albeit often unconscious, unwitting and the result of implicit bias.” As evidence, the article points to a 2008 study, which found that

gender is a powerful force in inducing voters to defect across party lines. Specifically, when men and women were pitted against each other in head-to-head match-ups for the presidency, a substantial proportion of Democratic voters (12.3 percent) defected to a male Republican, John McCain, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Hillary Clinton.

Similarly, and arguably somewhat less surprisingly, a sizeable proportion of Republican voters (15.5 percent) defected to a male Democrat, John Edwards, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Elizabeth Dole. (This tendency was true for both male and, notably, female voters, and was not balanced out by any comparable pattern of defection toward female presidential hopefuls.)

Another article, which appeared more recently in the Atlantic and struck a little closer to home (literally), was “Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home.” The principal complaint in this article is that, while gender equality gets lots of attention and makes most of its progress in the workplace or in politics, gender equality in the home is getting left behind.

Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.

In the end, women take on more domestic responsibilities than men in a way that is mostly unrelated to their availability for those responsibilities. They take them on because they are women even when their husbands have no gainful employment to occupy their time.

The problem, as both articles see it, is that implicit biases about women’s nature and roles continues to override the public discourse about gender equality. The problem, as I see it, is that whatever people may believe or espouse in the public sphere, there is a fundamental disconnect between what contemporary feminism asserts and people’s actual experience. Contemporary feminism continues to base its argument for the equality of the sexes on the irrelevance (or perhaps obsolescence) of sex in a way that defies people’s everyday experience.

It is one thing to say that men and women should have equal access to employment and public positions, that compensation and advancement should be based entirely on competence without regard for sex. It is another thing entirely to say that we should not see sex, that sex is not a real or meaningful category through which we approach the world. It is more radical still to imagine that all the consequential beliefs that we attach to sex are in fact gender–sex’s ephemeral cousin, entirely culturally rooted, hopelessly fluid, and utterly untethered from biological sex. Even if all of that is true–and I’m pretty sure I had to sign an oath in blood on the back of my PhD saying it was–it flies in the face of how people operate in their day to day lives. With each step toward the root logic of contemporary feminism, we shift further into the realm of cognitive dissonance, where the (coherentist) theoretical soundness of feminist theory butts up against the realities of lived gender economies.

This, perhaps more than self-ghettoizing, explains women’s complicity in the structures of their oppression in both articles. The story on domestic balance noted that “one possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations.” The argument goes further:

[I]t’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too. A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable. Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband. Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing.

Just like women who cross party lines to vote in favor of a man, women will torch their own career prospects because they are invested in the idea of male vocation as central not only to male-identity but also to household-identity.

The solution, according to “Breadwinning Wives,” is better public policy that will pave the way for gender equity at home. The solution, according to “Sexism Stupid,” is tough talk with the unconverted public.

People who might be explicitly committed to egalitarianism still have gender biases in certain contexts, including presidential races. And they are unwitting experts at concocting post hoc rationalizations for foregone, irrational conclusions.

The idea that you aren’t voting for a woman not because you don’t want to, but because America just isn’t ready for a female candidate smacks to me of that kind of thinking. Perhaps America isn’t ready because you’re one of the many who prefers male to female candidates, and who unconsciously reaches for excuses to rationalize your preference. This country will never be ready for a woman president, to our detriment, if this continues.

My criticism of both of these solutions is that they assume that the problem is not with the feminist vision of equality-qua-irrelevance but with the mass of humans behaving in ways that seem natural to them and that resonate with their experience. Women face real and meaningful problems in our society, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through in practice. That may because, unlike liberal Twitter, the bulk of Americans continue to see sex as a legitimate, meaningful, useful tool for ordering their personal, professional, and political relationships. As a consequence, they expect–whether with hope or fear–that a woman president would be different from a typical (i.e. male) president. They expect a woman’s loss of employment to affect her and her household differently than a man’s lack of employment. (And they don’t reduce those consequences to the raw economics of who makes more dollars and cents–because this isn’t a murky Marxist dystopia where all people have been unsexed, uncultured, and reduced to engines of revenue production.) In other words, people expect sex to matter.

And that doesn’t automatically preclude gender equality, nor even many of the concrete goals of contemporary feminism. It just requires a different rhetorical platform from which to make your argument. Rather than chastising us for our neanderthal stupidity and ostracizing those who bother to root some aspects of gendered behavior in evolutionary biology rather than culture, maybe it is time to work toward meaningful solutions to significant problems within the context of prevailing beliefs about sex.

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This Postmodern President

I’m trying to re-read David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Inifnite. Or, more accurately, I am re-trying to read it, since I began it as an undergraduate and found it too difficult to ever finish. Every sentence I read that I understood struck me as incomparably profound, but the further I read in the fewer sentences I seemed to understand. It’s been many years (and many degrees) since then, and I’m now ready to give it another shot. Only a few pages in–and still not sure I’m understanding quite everything–I came across this quote:

Perhaps [Milbank] is right; if nothing else, good intentions rarely retard the effects of malign metaphysics, and the ethical strain in postmodern thought is usually its emptiest gesture. Milbank merely echoes (among other things) Dostoyevsky’s prognostications of post-Christian “nihilism’s” ineluctable antinomianism, and if his language regarding the inevitability of fascism may be hyperbolic, he still correctly grasps the inescapable amphiboly of any “postmodern ethics” or “politics”: if being is not also the good, but only “eventual,” then force or tenderness, retreat, conquest, or charity are all equally “true.” And power enjoys a certain greater eminence.

This more than anything has helped me make sense of the current presidency. When I hear media personalities (and primary candidates) complain about the demise of truth, of decency, of morality, I look on those laments with a certain measure of cynicism. There has never really been truth or decency or morality in politics. At the same time, though, I cannot deny a certain measure of nostalgia and morning myself. Because whatever my conscious conviction was about the nature of politics, I always took some unconscious comfort in the civility of American politics.

Hart makes the argument–or at least concurs with John Milbank’s argument–that if civility, morality, and truth have not disappeared from contemporary ethics and politics then they have at least been reordered in a great postmodern democratization of value. Power (or would it be more illuminating to say “potency” or “efficacy”) has at least as much theoretical value and a fair bit more immediate and visceral appeal. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president lies. That’s why it doesn’t matter when the current president breaks the moral, social, or legal rules. If anything, this merely confirms his potency. He doesn’t need your approval or your legal sanction. He continues to effect himself. He is, in his own words, “winning.” And, however much many of us may hate to admit it, he’s doing so much winning that we are (as predicted) getting tired of it.

The irony, according to Hart, is that most postmodern theorists espoused “some form of emancipatory, ‘left-wing,’ and pluralists politics.” Postmodernism is the cultural and political language of the left. It has taken the hammer of Nietzsche’s philosophy and smashed everything gleefully to bit with it, freeing people from antiquated conventions in favor of unfettered self-actualization. In a postmodern age, however, the best self-actualizer is the tyrant, who’s will is actualized purely for the sake of the self and without consideration for the other. Politics by potency is not a break with the trajectory of American life; it is the culmination of it. Time will tell whether or not the genie can go back into the bottle, but it is safe to say that–contrary to apocalyptic predictions from the left–the current president has not changed American politics forever. The current president is the change in American politics.

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What to say about 2020?

It’s never too early to start talking about the next election. That’s the golden rule of the 24 hours news network. As little as it matters in reality the small ups and downs of candidates, the vast majority of whom will never make it to the presidential contest, they drive interest in the news. Elections mean change, and almost everyone wants some change all the time. And so, ink continues to be spilled daily over each new candidates every new thought. My own political views notwithstanding, I can hardly help but consume all of it, or at least as much as I can cram down my mind-gullet on any given day.

Here are what I consider the most memorable quotes from the best articles about the 2020 hopefuls so far. I offer it here in part as a primer for those not yet familiar with the current cast of recurring characters. Mostly, though, I offer it to myself as an archive–a way of recording what people thought about these candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Because, in the end, most of these names will in fact be resigned to history–the kind of history only historians and grad students do, not the history you learn in school.

No one is getting more coverage right now than undeclared, front-running Joe Biden, whose “tactile” style of personal interaction has proven less than ideal in a post-#metoo political landscape. Politico has by far the best article, “What Should We Make of Joe Biden?,”taking more seriously than most the true, legitimate diversity of opinions on Uncle Joe within contemporary feminism.

All the op-eds about “creepy” Uncle Joe make me want to call up my now-long-dead rhetoric professor. “What do you call the trope in which a part of a thing stands in for the whole?” I’d ask. “Synecdoche,” he’d say. “And isn’t there a synecdochal fallacy?” Well done, he’d say (or I hope he’d say). The false inference from the property to the essence.

It’s a sly feint, that false inferring. It’s how you glide from Biden’s old-school-pol’s touchy-feeliness to his unsuitability for office, without anyone quite noticing.

The last thing Joe Biden needs, at this moment when millennial and GenX candidates are sucking all of the oxygen in the Democratic primary, is to look like somebody’s grandpa. Yet that’s the impression he gives in that rambling two-minute video, where he unbuttons his shirt collar, turns the folksy-meter to 11, and declares his sudden realization that “the boundaries of respecting personal space have been reset.” It’s one of those excuses that might possibly be worse than the crime. No, Joe, the boundaries haven’t changed; what’s changed is that people at last feel empowered to tell you that you’ve been crossing them for decades.

The precise opposite of Biden, as far as coverage goes right now, is the enigmatic media darling, Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke is continuing to thrive in his wheel-house of “not winning, but doing better than he has any right to,” but the consistent lack of specificity leaves everyone with an eerie sense that there is something more theatrical than substantial to Beto. The Washington Post unpacks some of the problems with this in “Beto O’Rourke is a Walking, Talking Generation X Cliche.”

It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.

Kamala Harris is–despite her checklist of diversity credentials–a more traditional candidate. A coastal liberal of a less iconoclastic sort with an impressive list of public service credentials and a dynamic personal presence. She’s also, unsurprisingly, drawing from at least some traditional Democratic sources of funding: Hollywood elites. Only time will tell whether or not this is to her benefit. Says Variety’s “Kamala Harris, Other 2020 Candidates Make Push to Showbiz Donors as First Deadline Nears:”

Harris likely will lead other candidates in the money primary when it comes to the amount she has raised from showbiz sources. She has been the most prolific in courting high-dollar donors at traditional fundraising receptions. Her first big Los Angeles one was at the home of Universal’s Jeff Shell and his wife Laura; she earlier this month headlined an event at the home of J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath.

The crowd of second tier candidates have the hardest time attracting attention, and often how they attract attention is not the most productive. Enter John Hickenlooper, the folksy, riches to super riches Westerner is the long shot of long shots, for a good reason. As a Politico profile notes, “John Hickenlooper Is Running for President As Himself. Uh-oh.

He probably won’t be the president of the United States. Maybe it’s because he’s too weird. Then again, maybe it’s because he’s too normal. Maybe it’s because he’s too much like us—flawed, offbeat, human.

With Pete Buttigieg, it’s been an embarrassment of riches for the media. Once they got past the incessant joking about his names (and we’re not really past that yet), what do they focus on? He’s young. He’s gay. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He’s a veteran. And on and on. As it so happens, it the gay thing that is the fixation, but not in the “can we elect a gay man president” way that you’d expect. Instead, it’s more of a “is this gay couple just to precious to stand; they had to be cooked up in a Hollywood lab” way. See Politico’s “Chasten Buttigieg Is Winning the 2020 Spouse Primary.”

That’s the ultimate purpose of the presidential spouse: to sell the entire package, letting us imagine the family in the White House as a symbol of success, a national ideal. As a potential first husband, Chasten would be historic but also a comforting throwback, someone who took his husband’s last name and unwaveringly supports his ambitions without wondering how they have affected his own.

Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be part of the top tier; she has, after all, the firebrand flare and New England intellectual heft of Bernie Sanders, minus the socialism and the imminent expiration date. For whatever reason though–and the ancestry debacle probably has something to do with it–she can’t seem to live up to her own name. Part of the problem may be that she just can’t seem to dissolve her brilliance and her spunk into the same tasty cocktail that Bernie has manged. This is basically the judgment of an unflattering Bloomberg op-ed, “Warren Steals a Page from Trump.”

Elizabeth Warren’s latest position paper, on agricultural policy, is a disappointment on two fronts: too wonky to be considered a purely political document, but not nearly wonky enough to be defensible in terms of substance.

Then of course there is that vast pack of candidates who don’t rise to the level of serious consideration. These are the Tulsi Gabbards, who can be mentioned just long enough to say they don’t merit mention. A surprising contender to slip down into this category is Amy Klobuchar, whose rising status has largely become a backdrop against which to view her slow death by a thousand cuts. Though an “an able member of the Senate” (talk about damning with faint praise), Klobuchar has seemed to struggle to run with the pack, even the second tier pack. Consider her unfavorable ranking in Politico’s “Latino Outreach or Google Translate? 2020 Dems Bungle Spanish Websites.”

Klobuchar’s Spanish website has perhaps the most egregious mistakes, leaving readers to wonder whether the text was copied and pasted straight from Google Translate.

There are, of course, others. The vegan candidate. The anti-circumcision candidate. The teen trolls’ candidate. Oh, and Bernie Sanders, about whom undoubtedly more has been written in the last three years than any politician save the president. But the goal is not to be exhaustive. This is already too much to say about an election that is more than a year away and a caucus that is still almost that far off.

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McConnell’s Message from Bizarro World

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has become unmoored from reality–if indeed anyone in contemporary politics can still be said to have any grounding in reality. In an op-ed this morning for Politico, McConnell bemoaned (evidently without irony) the obstructionist tendencies of Senate Democrats.

Since January 2017, for the first time in memory, a minority has exploited procedure to systematically obstruct a president from staffing up his administration. This new, across-the-board obstruction is unfair to the president and, more importantly, to the American people. Left unchecked, it is guaranteed to create an unsustainable precedent that would see every future presidency of either party obstructed in the same mindless way.

McConnell’s points about obstructionism in politics are fair; his righteous idignation is not. If Republicans wanted a credible messenger for the gospel of functioning government, they could hardly have picked a more ridiculous messenger. (Was Ted Cruz unavailable?)

Let’s get serious. For the first time in memory, Mitch? Something tells me Merrick Garland can remember a time when the Senate refused to confirm judicial nominees in a completely candid and wildly successful attempt to obstruct a president’s staffing agenda. Says CNN:

You’ll remember that Garland was then-President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy on the court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016….But, Senate Republicans — led by McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley — had previously insisted they would neither meet with Garland nor conduct confirmation hearings for him. The reason? They believed that Obama was too close to leaving office to be permitted to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

Then, when Republicans had completed their judicial sleight of hand, McConnell completed his masterpiece:

And then McConnell changed the Senate rules — which had been previously changed by Democratic Leader Harry Reid in 2013 — to allow a simple majority vote to break a filibuster on a Supreme Court nominee. Bada bing, bada boom — Gorsuch is on the court.

In the end, politics is always rooted in the violence of the powerful. We can perhaps be relieved to know that ours is a government of procedural violence rather than martial law–although, I’m not. What is galling this morning is only the sheer tone-deafness, the unabashed hypocrisy of it all. Then again, that’s the melody driving politics right now; why shouldn’t McConnell harmonize?

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Politics Drives People from Church

A recent study by LifeWay Research tried to classify the reasons that young adults are opting out of church in record numbers. The stresses of adult life register at the top of the list, unsurprisingly given the imbalance between demands and rewards being placed on young adults in America today. A significant additional reason, however, and one that was focused on in a recent editorial by study director Scott McConnell, is politics. One quarter of young adults leaving the church cited significant differences on political or social issues as a key reason for breaking away from church–not just a specific church, mind you, but church in its entirety.

I expected to offer a “no duh” in response and to take a quick victory lap, given my oft-stated position on the toxic effect that politics has on religion. After all, if politics is driving young people out of churches, the obvious solution is to advocate for a long overdue divorce of politics from the church. McConnell goes a different direction, citing a strange biblical precedent as support:

Little is written in the Bible about Simon the Zealot, but his nickname indicates he had been actively involved in the opposition to the Roman government. Matthew, another disciple, known as a tax collector, had aligned himself with the Roman occupiers. We don’t know if those two ever agreed on politics, but we do know they worked together to build the church.

Since then, people from vastly different political viewpoints have followed Jesus together. Christians simply cannot ignore politics and follow Christ’s example.

Of course Christians can ignore politics and follow Christ’s example. That is precisely what Christ’s example was, and the evidence cited to support political engagement  demonstrates precisely that. It was the total principled disregard for politics that brought Simon and Matthew together, and it was exactly the ability to “ignore politics and follow Christ’s example” that allowed Simon and Matthew to “build the church” together. Simon stopped trying to overthrow the Roman government and Matthew stopped working to prop it up; both refocused and reprioritized to dedicate themselves to the building of the church.

McConnell wants churches to “find room for political involvement that will not alienate the next generation” because trying to mute politics in the church will drive young people away. It sends the message that “faith is irrelevant to real life.” That’s certainly not the message we want to send, but McConnell has set up a false messaging choice between a political faith and an irrelevant faith. Instead, the message we should deliver to people today is that faith rather than politics is real life. Rather than teaching teens and young adults that they can worship at the altars of God and Caesar, perhaps it’s time to reclaim the message that activism on behalf of the kingdom is a higher, better, realer calling than activism on behalf of a political party.

Otherwise we cede all the power invested in us by the Spirit to the world, admitting to a new generation that governments rather than churches are the locus of meaningful change in our time. I’m not sure when we surrendered to that fiction, but maybe it’s time to revisit it. The sermon for today should not be “here’s how my faith can be relevant to my politics” but “here’s how my faith is more relevant than my politics.” Or my race. Or my gender. Or my class.

Or else what does it mean to have died to ourselves and to live as Christ.

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Creative Schools: Changing the Climate

Creative Schools CoverIn his final chapter, Robinson finally turns to education policy at its highest and most broadly effectual level, that of policymakers. Having spent most of the book focusing on how the absence of meaningful policy change has placed the burden on teachers to make what changes they can where they can, Robinson finally considers what he would do if he had the power to radically reform education policy across the globe and why he believes that, in spite of the self-evident superiority of his perspective, change is so slow in coming. His recommendations are conspicuously lacking in concrete legislative proposals, but this is mostly consistent with Robinson’s general attitude toward top down, one-size approaches to education reform. What he offers instead are the principles by which education policymakers should approach their civic responsibilities. He describes these as “climate control” rather than “command-and-control,” imagining policy makers not as determining the course of education but as “creative the conditions in which schools can transform themselves.” The conditions that need to be created are familiar to readers at this point:

  1. Fostering health: cultivating student motivation and engagement; ensuring the recruitment, retention, and training of high quality professional teachers; and providing an “uplifting vision.”
  2. Nurturing the ecology: inspiring confidence in and commitment from teachers; promoting alignment and coherence between various parts of the system; and ensuring that resources (financial and otherwise) remain well-focused.
  3. Promoting fairness: encouraging partnership and collaboration rather than conflict and competition; promoting strategic innovation; and by advocating for change on the policy level while ensuring that permission for change exists at the level of practice.
  4. Providing care: setting high standards; creating systems of accountability for teachers; and promoting continuous professional development for educators.

It’s the sort of pablum that sounds right and feels good and doesn’t invite much thought. Frankly, much of it is sound–even if it is packaged in such a way (and positively drowned in anecdotal support) so as to make it suspect. Policymakers should turn their attention away from standardized testing and toward policies to improve training, recruitment, and retention of educators. (This, presumably, is the high-minded garb used to dress up the more venal motives of teacher pay hike advocates.) Perhaps most significantly, Robinson correctly recognizes the role that policymakers should play in aligning systems, since in the complex and highly institutionalized world of modern education there is a “constant risk that the preoccupations of different interest groups [will] become misaligned.”

Even so, some of this analysis seems oddly hypocritical, particularly when “providing care” is said to include setting high standards and creating accountability for teachers. Surely Robinson intends this to be taken in the context of a creativity-driven, non-competitive educational environment, but there is no denying that these are precisely the impulses of the standards movement that he has been butting up against. His inclusion of these goals here, however heavily qualified, serves as further evidence that his approach is not revolutionary.

Revolution or not, the changes Robinson advocates have not made it to the level of policy in most places–his profusion of anecdotes about successful policy reforms notwithstanding. He makes an effort to explain this fact, offering a relatively complete list of contributing causes for educational inertia:

  • Risk aversion – the risk associated with failure in an accountability-obsessed educational system outweighs the perceived potential benefits of innovation
  • Institutional conservatism – national institutions are by definition slower to change than individual teachers, classrooms, schools, or districts
  • Cultural norms – whether it is Confucian values in East Asia or Republican deference to the free market in the US, culture often works against the superior system advocated by Robinson
  • Profit motive – too much money is tied up in the current system of education for it to be changed without resistance
  • Political ambition – career politicians worried only about the perpetuation of their power and position rely on education standards for “political posturing”
  • Command bias – politicians are more familiar and comfortable with command approaches to authority than with roles as facilitators

Robinson is right on all accounts, at least in his general framing of the problem. (His chosen examples for “cultural norms” suggest serious prejudices on his part–not to mention considerable blindspots about how competing and equally contestable cultural values influence his own system.) He offers little, however, in the way of a roadmap through or around these problems. Perhaps he shouldn’t be blamed for this; those problems are much larger than any individual could tackle. And if the solutions to those problems were simple or practicable, they would already have been implemented. Yet, Robinson promised practical (and revolutionary) solutions to the real problems facing education. His consideration of the hurdles facing meaningful policy changes leads me to believe real revolution may be the only quick solution to the listed problems. (As long as we don’t think about the track record that actual revolutions have at solving the problems they start out to address.)

This failure to meet his own assigned task–or, to adopt the language of the classroom, the inability to achieve the standard set out at the beginning of the lesson–speaks to the broader flaws in Robinson’s book. Those, however, will have to wait until the final post in this review.

This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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(Old) People Can’t Figure Out Beto

Beto O’Rourke is on a road trip. That’s cool. I haven’t been keeping up with it on social media (because I don’t), but he seems to be having a good time. Meanwhile, political commentators are in a tizzy–because they can’t track him, because he’s not playing by the rules, because he won’t just declare his candidacy even though he is obviously campaigning for the presidency. Right?

From Politico:

Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and DNC chairman, said logistics alone make O’Rourke’s road trip “insane.”

“I think some of his friends ought to look at a temporary commitment,” he said….

If O’Rourke is not pre-campaigning, Rendell said, but genuinely reflecting, he suggested that O’Rourke stop posting about it online.

I laughed. Try this sometime, Rendell: tell your Gen Z or Millennial children (grandchildren?), “If you’re just going to lunch with friends, stop posting about it online.” That’s not the way the world works anymore. Every activity requires a social media record. I think the mandatory minimum for lunch is two selfies and a food pic. Beto’s dental cleaning update “left jaws agape” in Washington, but Google Maps invites me to post to social media every time I arrive at the grocery store as if the world cares about my experience picking up cabbage and toilet paper. It’s time for grey-haired political luminaries to realize that, as a larger and larger portion of your electorate is under forty, it becomes strange not to livestream your life.

It’s good politics too (because Beto is almost certainly running and not just indulging his ego like the rest of us). Younger Americans notoriously value experience of the Jack Kerouac variety more than experience of the Hillary Clinton variety. Beto may never have been governor or senator or vice president, but a publicly introspective trek through diners, motels, and ivy-less backwater college towns is all the credentialing he’ll need. At least it will be for so many voters who might not otherwise show up at the polls in November for whoever takes up the mantle as Clinton 2.0. It turns out, the old formula just doesn’t energize the new voter.

So enough with the grandiose confusion about Beto’s inscrutable method. It signals nothing but how out of step you are. And whatever you do, don’t cynically try to ape his method. You’ll never get people to “Pokemon GO to the polls” that way. Just sit back and watch. Beto is, in all likelihood, the future of American politics. That doesn’t mean he’ll win or even come close. The future is not now. Not quite. But his near miss in Texas does suggest that it’s closer than we imagine. So for now, beatnik Beto should serve as a bellweather for just how much things have already changed.*

*As always, the above is purely cultural commentary and is not intended as an endorsement of any candidate or of political participation at all. My position on that remains the same.
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Issuing a Correction on Behalf of Vox

Andrew Sullivan’s article last Friday on “America’s New Religions” has brewed up a nice little tempest in a teapot, eliciting rebuttals from Vox (which called it tribalist) and Slate (which, less generously, called it “twaddle”). Focusing on the persistence of religious modes of engagement in ostensibly irreligious intellectual circles, Sullivan’s efforts have clearly been sparked by the recent publication of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism–a review of which is slated to appear here early in February. Sullivan does a fair job presenting Grays’ arguments about the religious character of modern secular humanism and political progressivism. He does those arguments a substantial disservice when he misapplies to make a case for erecting a “religious rampart [for] the entire system” of American government. Neither I (nor, I suspect, Gray) would suggest that the religious nature of political progressivism suggests the necessity of a countervailing religious force to act upon politics. For my part, I’d gladly see Christianity finally and authoritatively divorced from politics, transformed into what Sullivan derisively calls “a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar.”

Even so, the objections to Sullivan’s articles are hardly any more satisfying. The Slate piece is far too hysterical to deserve attention. With its line-by-line manic refutation and its dismissive description of Sullivan’s summary of John Gray “philosophy at the level of Rush lyrics.” (I’m sure the acclaimed author and retired London School of Economics professor will be cut to the quick.) But my unshaken love of Vox inspires me to give their characteristically more measured tone in responding to Sullivan some attention. Specifically with regard to their analysis of Sullivan’s argument that the loss of ‘real’ religion in favor of political religion has promoted an intractable tribalism in American politics:

To put this more simply, Sullivan is saying that Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict. A politics moderated by Christianity is merely procedural because the fundamental questions of human dignity have been answered elsewhere.

Absent the calming effects of Christianity, he continues, Americans look to politics to find their meaning, and that escalates the stakes of political conflict. Politics ceases to be procedural and becomes fundamental. Boundaries must be drawn and tribal membership policed. This is Sullivan’s diagnosis of our current divisions….

This is a relentlessly ahistorical read of American politics. America’s political past was not more procedural and restrained than its present, and religion does not, in general, calm political divides.

Vox is correct to criticize the ahistorical approach to America’s political past. Politics has never been purely (or even predominantly) procedural in this or any other country. Politics is a violent bloodsport, and its tribalism has always been as pronounced as its stakes are high. Washington marched the army out against his political opponents. Jackson wanted to follow suit. Lincoln trumped them both. Eisenhower and Faubus sent the same army out to stand alternatively against each other. In view of only these most obvious examples, Vox rightly wonders at length about what nostalgic period of muted conflict Sullivan could be imagining when religion checked American political passions: the lead up to the Civil War, it’s aftermath, the Red Scare, the Civil Rights movement…when?

But Vox overshoots the mark by claiming that religion does not calm political divides. It may not be for precisely the reasons that Sullivan imagines–and it certainly doesn’t have the moral majority implications that Sullivan hopes–but religion does indeed seem to be an effective salve for tribalist anger. This is backed by that most utile of sciences, statistics. A recent study by the bipartisan Voter Study Group, profiled here, merits quoting again:

The results of this analysis indicate that religious participation may have a moderating effect on our politics, particularly on matters of race, immigration, and identity. They further suggest that private institutions in civil society — outside of the domain of government and public policy — may serve an important function in reducing polarization and racial tensions and helping people find common ground.

The study results tend toward the conclusion that rates of religious participation are inversely proportional to the levels of political tribalism on key cultural issues. Whatever objections Vox may have to Sullivan’s article–and there are plenty to be had–all evidence suggests that “religion does not, in general, calm political divides.”

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Conservatism is Dead, Again

“Trying to Raise McGinty from the Bottom of the Sea” (1892)The death knell of Republican conservatism has been sounded, most recently by Eliot A. Cohen (lifelong conservative and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies). It’s been a slow death according to Cohen, but the last vestiges began to crumbled with the latest presidential election and finally turned to dust at the Kavanaugh hearings this past week. Now, Cohen describes conservatism as a “a brontosaurus with some brain-eating disorder…[lumbering] forward in the direction dictated by its past, favoring deregulation of businesses here and standing up to a rising China there, but [without] higher mental functioning at work.”

What about Kavanaugh’s testimony provoked such a dire prognosis? Some of it is a matter of conservative style (what Cohen aggrandizes as “virtue”). An uncourageous Republican judiciary committee hiding behind an outsider during the questioning was outdone by a nominee, whose testimony–with “its self-pity, its hysteria, its conjuring up of conspiracies, its vindictiveness”–failed to display an appropriately conservative temperament. To all this romantic lamentation, Cohen adds a much more substantial argument. I’ll let him explain:

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy as expressed in various statements and conclusions was, for the most part, pretty standard conservative fare, save for one tell-tale element: his ascription of very high levels of immunity and discretion to the executive. In this respect, what passes today for conservatism is anything but. Where traditionally, conservatives have wanted “ambition to check ambition” as Alexander Hamilton put it, Republicans are now executive-branch kinds of people. It is not surprising that Kavanaugh himself worked at a high level in a Republican White House. The disdain of many contemporary Republicans for congressional power and prerogative makes them indistinguishable from liberals who (as recently as the Obama years) turned to sweeping uses of executive power to circumvent a balky House of Representatives and Senate.

I certainly object to Cohen’s grandiose talk of virtues, and I would quibble with his timeline (since it seems to me that conservatism of the sort he describes has long been a fetid and festering corpse, offering nothing but miasma to American civil discourse for a generation). It is, however, difficult to argue with his criticism of the conservative embrace of big government generally and executive authority in particular. The modern Republican party has typically (if hypocritically) labelled itself as the party of small government, even as Democrats have been eager (again hypocritically) to label them the party of big business. These are, of course, two sides of the same coin, and Republicans have generally leaned in to both descriptors, celebrating their support of the private spirit of enterprise and obfuscating the way they endear themselves to government mechanisms of power. The obfuscation is now gone, and the typical conservative is as likely to look to the decisive intervention of a messianic president as to decry government ineptitude.

The news today offers fresh evidence of the extent to which Republicans have drifted from their most consistently conservative talking points. The Guardian reports:

The US justice department has sued the state of California, just hours after the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed legislation to restore internet protections known as net neutrality.

The justice department said it would take California to court on grounds that the federal government has the exclusive power to regulate net neutrality….

“Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy,” Sessions said in the statement.

For more than a century now, the American right has swaddled their babies in the Tenth Amendment, arguably the first amendment of American conservatism. Long before the New Left started rolling their joints with the First Amendment, conservatives had settled on states’ rights as a core feature of conservative ideology.  As recently as 2012, when Republicans were fond of questioning eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s conservative chops, Rick Santorum and George Stephanopoulos turned to arcane matters of Tenth Amendment interpretation to argue Romney into a corner. The exchange went something like this. (For the not highly abbreviated version.)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Santorum has been very clear in his belief that the Supreme Court was wrong when it decided that a right to privacy was embedded in the Constitution. And following from that, he believes that states have the right to ban contraception. Now I should add that he said he’s not recommending that states do that…

SANTORUM: No, I said — let’s be clear.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Absolutely. I’m giving you your due…

SANTORUM: I’m talking about — we’re talking about the 10th Amendment and the right of states to act.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But I do want to get to that core question. Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?

ROMNEY: George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising. States have a right to ban contraception? I can’t imagine a state banning contraception. I can’t imagine the circumstances where a state would want to do so, and if I were a governor of a state or…So you’re asking — given the fact that there’s no state that wants to do so, and I don’t know of any candidate that wants to do so, you’re asking could it constitutionally be done? We can ask our constitutionalist here.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Hold on a second. Governor, you went to Harvard Law School. You know very well this is based on…

ROMNEY: The — I believe in the — that the law of the land is as spoken by the Supreme Court, and that if we disagree with the Supreme Court — and occasionally I do — then we have a process under the Constitution to change that decision. And it’s — it’s known as the amendment process.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But should that be done in this case?

ROMNEY: Should this be done in the case — this case to allow states to ban contraception? No. States don’t want to ban contraception. So why would we try and put it in the Constitution?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I understand that. But you’ve given two answers to the question.

Romney’s answers didn’t satisfy the moderator or the doctrinaire conservatives on stage. It didn’t matter how vigorously he argued that the question was absurd on its face; the very absurdity was the point. Everyone, including Romney, understood that a conservative was supposed to uphold the Tenth Amendment, even in the face of hypothetical and ridiculous premises (like banning birth control). Herein lies preposterousness of an ostensibly conservative Attorney General in an ostensibly conservative administration suing a state for enacting laws under the umbrella of existing federal policy. It isn’t as though a law exists banning net neutrality; the government simply removed its regulations in support of a national policy on the matter. Conservative candidates in 2012 would have then found themselves obliged to insist that states could and should implement policies of their own, become (in that famous phrase of Louis Brandeis*) the laboratories of democracy. No more. The experiment is over, and imperial conservatism knows what’s best for the whole country.

Yet Cohen and others should be too careful about declaring some monumental and unprecedented shift in conservatism toward big government. Our historical memories are short, and too easily we forget that the primordial American conservatives were tarred by their liberal opponents as monarchists, not least that Founding Father of American conservatism John Adams. The tradition-oriented conservative of the turn of the nineteenth century did not look to an Edenic period of small government and individual liberty but to the British imperial system of a generation ago. They did not want to go back (most of them, though tens of thousands of Late Loyalists eventually emigrated to Canada), but they did want to conserve the best of what strong central government had to offer. The conservative parties of the early national period, the Federalists and the Whigs, were the parties of government intervention, national monetary policy, and direct infrastructural investment.

This culminated in the rise of Lincoln, a centrist who stands as a lynchpin in the history of American conservatism. This first imperial Republican president oversaw a radical expansion of federal power, profiting from the absence of small government liberals to resist his moves and empowered by that always nationalizing tendency of war. It was in the wake of the ascendant national power of the Civil War and Reconstruction that conservatism began to take on the anti-government flare that it had until recently. Increasingly, Americans who rejected the calls to look into the utopian future were those Americans who looked instead into a utopian past of states’ rights and individual liberty (for white men, of course).

The ideological reversal that began with Lincoln found a party reversing counterpoint in the mid-twentieth century, when Franklin D. Roosevelt began to take the mantle of big government away from Republicans. The transition wasn’t completed until as recently as 1968, when Nixon successfully employed his Southern strategy to bring conservatives in the South into the Republican fold.

In other words, the modern alignment of small-government—conservatism—the Republican Party is a phenomenon of historically recent origin. Republicans have not always been the party of conservatives. Conservatism has not always been the ideology of small government. So, on the one hand Cohen may be right; conservatism as we know may very well be dying. That death, however, is likely less a terminus than a transformation. If this is indeed a pivotal moment in American politics—as every generation believes that their moment is—it will almost certainly not mean that the future holds no institutional place for conservatives. Cohen (and I) may have to come to terms with a uncomfortable truth: conservatism is not becoming obsolete in American politics so much as we are becoming obsolete in American conservatism.

*The reference to Brandeis is especially appropriate in this context, since his own Supreme Court nomination was so controversial that it prompted the Senate Judiciary Committee to host its very first public hearing on a nominee. Now look how far they’ve come.
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Marco Rubio booed at town hall. And…?

I woke up this morning to a barrage of headlines in my news feed about last night’s CNN town hall, almost all of which pertained to Marco Rubio–the superstar Republican senator from Florida–being jeered, booed, and castigated for his “pathetically weak” response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It’s easy to see why the focus was on Rubio. A former presidential hopeful and regular figure in the national spotlight had a very rough night at the hands of a crowd that had little patience for half measures and political posturing. But with four other major public figures taking the stage with Rubio last night, a lot was probably missed by drive-by news consumers who catch headlines and soundbites but little else.

1) It’s not too soon to talk about guns. It’s too late.

Rep. Ted Deutch gave voice to the most universal sentiment of the crowd in his opening salvo. With great conviction he delivered an increasingly familiar counterpunch to the tired voices in the national discourse who assume a mock moral high ground in the aftermath of a tragedy to chide reformers with the refrain, “Now is not the time to talk about guns. Now is the time to mourn. How dare you politicize this.” The students, teachers, and families of victims last night were having none of it. They echoed Deutch all night just as they have been laying heavily into lawmakers and pundits in the last week: why didn’t we talk about guns after Sandy Hook, why didn’t we talk about guns after the Pulse shooting, why is it never the time to talk about guns? Deutch minced no words and drew thunderous (speech obscuring) applause when he declared: “The folks in our community don’t want words, they don’t want thoughts and prayers, they don’t want discussions, they want action and we owe it to them [inaudible].”

The criticism spread out like buckshot to an almost infinite host of naysayers who tried to speak on behalf of the victims’ need for peace not politics. Deutch and the crowd together believed that political change was the best hope for peace.

2) The absentees were more significant than the attendees

Deutch’s words must have at least in part been directed at Gov. Rick Scott, who sent his heart out to everyone Wednesday night but refused to talk about reform. When peppered with questions about gun control, Scott said “there is a time to continue to have these conversations” but it apparently isn’t now. No wonder then that he declined to make his way to the town hall (or even to join remotely), given that his presence would have likely been even more grating than that of Rubio.

CNN also noted that the president declined to participate, an inclusion that seemed calculated to try to embarrass the president for being absent. But frankly, I doubt his presence could seriously be expected (given that he didn’t already happen to be at Mar-a-lago at the time) and would probably have been neither appreciated nor productive.

More significant, by far, was the absence of any state legislators. They were too busy, as it turns out, refusing to publicly debate gun control legislation (something the news seemed to find particularly ironic given that the same session declared pornography a public health concern). Given the tremendous latitude that individual states have to enact meaningful gun control–both in terms of restricting purchasing and strengthening enforcement–and the comparative responsiveness of state governments compared to the federal government, the absence of any state lawmakers is perhaps the most important feature of last night’s line up.

The best evidence shows a strong correlation between state level gun laws and a reduction in gun deaths. Gun control activists should stop trying to reproduce Australian gun control in the US and start focusing their attention where it might have results. The absence of Scott and other state level officials should be an embarrassment to them, but it also represents a key weakness in the tactics of gun control advocates.

3) The mundane courage of Marco Rubio

In comparison, at least, Rubio is to be commended: at least he showed up. And, to their credit, the crowd and panelists made sure to give him his due on this before excoriating him for his positions. When fellow Florida senator Bill Nelson (D) reminded the audience of the courage it took for Rubio to show up when no other elected Republican officials would, Rubio protested that he was no hero.

They’re both right. It shouldn’t take any special measure of bravery for an elected official to stand up before his or her constituents, but unfortunately it does. Yet it seems that most politicians don’t have even this mundane level of courage. One reason the president would never be in a meeting like the one last night is because he cannot stomach the perception that he speaks to anything other than massive adoring crowds of red-capped devotees. Even moderate support is considered to be an embarrassment, so that crowd sizes and TV ratings have to be inflated to sustain the illusion of unwavering popularity. The optics always have to be just so.

Maybe Rubio didn’t care about the optics. Maybe he was arrogant enough to believe that he could spin them to his favor. Maybe he genuinely wants to make a turn away from politics to public service. (But probably not.) Whatever the case, he seems to genuinely be walking the walk to go with his big talk of speaking with those who disagree with us, being open to public challenges, and resisting the insularity of the tailored media.

Even if in saying it, he sounded more like he was gearing up for another presidential run than addressing the problem at hand. An especially uncomfortable exchange with a victim’s father had Rubio deploy a reframing tactic–“Fred, first of all, let me explain what I said this week, and I’ll repeat it”–that was better suited to a presidential debate than the public expression of personal and civic grief that characterized the town hall.

4) Jake Tapper misreads the room and misunderstands his role

If Rubio occasionally seemed to forget this was not a town hall on the campaign trail in 2016, he was not the most egregious offender. It wasn’t even the NRA representative, who behaved exactly as everyone wanted and expected her to behave. No, the most out of touch was Jake Tapper.

I like Jake Tapper, most of all for his level-headedness and his willingness to (if you’ll excused the mixed transportation metaphors) right the ship when things go off the rails. That’s also precisely the reason why he was a terrible choice to moderate this town hall. Repeatedly throughout the night he tried to rein in the excesses of a boisterous crowd, excuse panelists from answering loaded or misdirected questions, and ensure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard.

At one point early on he said, “I’m not going to tell anybody in this room not to feel strongly and – – and not to feel emotional. The only thing I will tell you is…” The line was cringe-worthy, like standing up at a meeting of the NAACP and saying, “Now, I’m not going to say I know what its like to experience racism, but…” Nothing that comes after the “but” (or Tapper’s more characteristically verbose “the only thing…is”) can ever overcome the weight of the introductory clause.

This was not a debate, something that Tapper and the panelists continued to reiterate; it was a corporate act of catharsis. That’s why a substantive engagement with Nelson or Deutch mattered less to everyone involved than venting their white-hot grief at Rubio and the NRA. In that context, the moderator’s job is not to provoke meaningful discussion but to carve out meaningful space for the students, teachers, and families–on a national platform with the icons of their most seething anger right in front of them–to give a distilled voice to the overwhelming sentiment of a nation.

In this, Tapper repeatedly failed, being too true to himself and (in consequence) false to the people who needed that forum most.

5) The NRA did just fine

The real star of the night was not Rubio, who acted as a kind of Journey cover band opening for Bono. Before she ever arrived, Dana Loesch (“the NRA lady”) was already at center stage in everyone’s mind. The NRA (rightly) gets much of the blame for mobilizing the political forces against gun control on a national level. Yet Loesch deserved arguably more credit than Rubio for showing up (particularly since the senator may have been her only constituent in the room) and she made her arguments well to an even more hostile crowd than had faced Rubio.

In the bulk of their substance, moreover, her argument were true, at least as they pertained to this particular case. That is one of the features of the NRA’s genius, to undercut the general argument for gun control with specific arguments about an instance of gun violence. Yes, law enforcement failed to stop what should have been an easily identifiable killer…in this case. Yes, better mental health screening would have prevented the killer from owning a weapon…in this case. Yes, better reporting of state officials to national background check databases would have made it harder for someone to buy a gun…in this case. She was right at almost every turn.

The crowd, of course, didn’t care. They knew that their movement was not about preventing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. That had already happened. They needed to stop the next tragedy, the one we aren’t predicting yet, with general laws that will have a general reduction on violent gun crimes. And they’re willing to start just about anywhere. When Rubio told a father that the assault weapons ban would remove 200 gun types from circulation but leave 2,000 similar weapons out there, the father responded, “Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Rubio was not. He was saying that the only solution is the (to him) patently absurd suggestion that we “literally…ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in the U.S.” Wouldn’t you know it, that was the biggest applause line that Rubio or anyone got all night. (Oops.)

Bonus: A little something for history teachers

My favorite moment of the evening came much later, when a social studies teacher rose and, to roaring applause and laughter, posed a question to Loesch in the form of an exam prompt: Define “a well regulated militia,” and “using supporting details” explain how a teenager with a military weapon fits into that definition.

As a history instructor, a found the moment unspeakably fulfilling. Nothing more truly embodies the absurdity of the fact that politically empowered adults need to be led by adolescents to make meaningful progress on gun control. If we’re going to revese the normal order of things, why not hold public figures to at least the same standards we hold high school and college students. In that spirit, I offer these notes to Loesch on her response (as if she were one of my students):

  • Too much fluff in the introduction; don’t try to pad your word count with unrelated information.
  • The reference to George Mason’s definition of a militia is historically rooted but logically unsatisfying (as a primordialist appeal to authority rather than a coherently developed argument)
  • The projection of gender equal language onto the revolutionary period is anachronistic. It suggests the whole argument rests on an unsustainable attempt to collapse the present and the past
  • Answer the entire prompt the first time; I shouldn’t have to direct you to produce a complete answer
  • Strong, self-consistent second half of the answer (once given), but it is unclear how it relates to the initial part of your response.

Grade: C-

To see the town hall or read the transcript, click here.

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