Who Would Be Worse, Bernie or Bloomberg?

Let’s roll the tape.

Dear Reader (including all of you who “consented” to sign NDAs for Michael Bloomberg),

So much for my crazy idea that Michael Bloomberg might emerge from the debate a stronger candidate. I still think he’s a force in the race, with a better shot than the conventional wisdom suggests. But he didn’t definitely didn’t emerge stronger. I had thought that if Bloomberg went in by leaning into his caricature as an arrogant bigshot—dismissive of these mere politicians who screw up everything, swatting away attacks as the desperate ploys of Washington hacks—he would come out, in the words of Osama bin Laden as the “strong horse.” That “strategy” worked for Donald Trump, a billionaire former Democrat. Why not for Bloomberg, a billionaire former Republican? (Though I should note that he was a Democrat before he became a Republican to run for mayor of New York. In other words, Bloomberg’s credentials as a Democrat are at least as good as Sanders.’)

He didn’t do that. Rather than say, “Pfft, of course I’m not going to release those NDAs, that’s ridiculous,” or even the Trumpier, “I’d love to release them, but my lawyers won’t allow it,” he seemed shocked that the question even came up. He looked like a milquetoast college president dealing with furious faculty members—which put Elizabeth Warren in her truest element.  

At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty warned ahead of time that Bloomberg shouldn’t go—and he was right for precisely the reasons he said. But there are other reasons he should have waited. The whole conceit of Bloomberg’s candidacy boils down to, “People of Earth, stop your bickering. I’m Michael Bloomberg and I’m here to help.” If Spock visited Earth, he wouldn’t compete at the high school science fair. He’d just be like, “Here’s a replicator, bitches.” (Or words to that effect.)  

Bloomberg should pursue this strategy: Keep people waiting. Run the kind of front-porch campaign Biden should have run. Be the reluctant general in exile who will save the republic from itself only when it suits his schedule. In sales, you sell the sizzle, not the steak, particularly when there’s not much meat on the bone. 

How Bloomberg could win.

I’ve written a bunch about how Americans follow politics as a form of entertainment – it’s a big theme of my book (now out in paperback!). I lament it. But it’s the reality of the time we’re in. Bloomberg would be wise to deal with that fact. Running as just another Democrat is the surest way to make him seem like just another Democrat.

That said, I have this theory about how Bloomberg or maybe one of the other Democrats could win. One of Trump’s advantages was the utter wackiness of his candidacy in the first place. People could imagine what a Hillary Clinton presidency would be like, but a Trump presidency? As the guy said when told that there’s an orangutan playing the piano down the street, “I gotta check that out.” 

There’s a great scene in Wag the Dog in which Robert De Niro explains that they can’t bring home the (fake) American prisoner of war until after the election. Bring “Old Shoe” (Woody Harrelson) home before the election and there’s no need for them to buy the ticket to see how the movie ends. “Psychologically,” De Niro explains, “they will understand that that's the bargain.  Make them pay for him ... that's right, the price is their vote.”

Bloomberg should start talking about how Trump would react to losing. Will he refuse to leave? Will he cry? Will the Secret Service or the Marines have to escort him from the building? 

I don’t necessarily think any of those things would happen. But that’s not the point. The trick is to offer an alternative climax to the movie―or, rather, an alternative storyline to the semi-scripted reality show we live in today―that would be just as crazy as four more years of Trump that gets people to say, “I gotta see that!” 

In his way, Sanders does that all the time with his (doomed) promises to radically seize the means of production from the Oval Office. People attracted to that kind of storyline aren’t going to go for Elizabeth Warren’s or Pete Buttigieg’s pale imitations of the same promise. You need to give people something cool or wacky or wild to commit to appointment television for the day after the election. Bloomberg’s current implied promise of unleashing the spreadsheets won’t cover it. Promising a return to normalcy is smart for some voters, but others need some Japanese game show level insanity. 

Moreover, it’s a good bet that Trump would take the bait. If Bloomberg started asking in ads and speeches, “Will Trump acknowledge defeat?” It wouldn’t take long for reporters to ask him about it. At first, Trump might have the right answer: “Of course.” But I don’t think it would take long for him to start offering weird caveats and hypotheticals. His reflexive need to keep his options open would get the better of him. And once he said something like, “We’d have to see if the election was handled fairly” or “it depends on whether the Democrats rigged the election” then some voters would be like, “Oh man, I gotta see how that plays out.”  

The progressive spectrum.

Conservatives are accustomed to talking about different kinds of conservatives: Fiscal conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives, compassionate conservatives, constitutional conservatives, moderate conservatives, and so on. 

There’s a lot less of that kind of talk on the left, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t different intellectual or ideological tribes over there, too. The other day, I wrote a column about how Bernie and Bloomberg represent two different strands of progressivism. Bernie comes from the populist-socialist tradition, Bloomberg from the snobbish-technocratic tradition. Bernie is convinced that there is one authentic democratic voice—that of the “working class.” What it says is right is right. What it wants, it should get. One of his more admirable riffs is his claim “It’s not about me, it’s about us.” (Whether he means it or not.)

Bloomberg, on the other hand, doesn’t much care what the people want because he knows what’s good for them. And if he doesn’t know, he can discover it through data management and effectively synergizingbackward overflow intergortion. As Bloomberg said Wednesday night, the presidency is a management position:

[block]Look, this is a management job, and Donald Trump's not a manager. This is a job where you have to build teams. He doesn't have a team so he goes and makes decisions without knowing what's going on or the implications of what he does. We cannot run the railroad this way.[end block]

If you were drawing a Venn diagram of their positions, there would be a lot of overlap, particularly on social issues. But if you were doing a Venn diagram about their psychological orientation toward politics, only a slight sliver would be darkened. Bernie, like everyone infected with Marxist categories of thinking, believes he knows what the people want. And if they say they want something that he thinks they shouldn’t want—something that clashes with their true “class interests”—they must be suffering from “false consciousness.” 

Bloomberg doesn’t think in Marxist categories but he shares the same contempt for voters who disagree with him. The proles aren’t suffering from false consciousness, they’re just hayseeds, rubes, and morons. He’s sort of like Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black when Will Smith says “Why the big secret? People are smart.” And Jones replies, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

Bloomberg would be perfectly comfortable running the EU. Sanders would be perfectly comfortable speaking to a mob protesting the EU’s austerity budgets. 

(There’s a third strand to progressivism, though. It shares some things in common with Sanders but very little with Bloomberg. It’s the salvific tradition, and the only candidate in this cycle who fit squarely in it was Marianne Williamson. She saw America’s problems as chiefly spiritual problems, disorders of the national soul. Sanders has a little of this because socialism has always behaved more like a religion than the “science” its most ardent adherents pretended it was. But the socialist tradition Sanders comes from works too much from the assumption that religion is an opiate of the masses, a source of reactionary resistance to change, or an illegitimate competing source of authority to the state.) 

Bloomberg or Bernie?

It’s an interesting question: If you had to have Sanders or Bloomberg as president, who would you prefer? As a conservative I’m tempted to say Bloomberg simply because he doesn’t hate capitalism and, not unrelatedly, has a firmer grasp of reality. I hate the idea that political leadership is best understood as a management challenge. But the best thing about people who are addicted to data is that you can persuade them with data. 

Sanders is immune to data. Oh he likes to cite it (them?)—when he thinks the numbers are on his side. But let’s not pretend that someone who fawns over Castro or Chavez is really moved by economic statistics. 

What makes the question hard, at least for me, is that I think if Sanders were elected he would be far more likely to fail, utterly. Sure, as Obama and Trump have shown, he could do a lot of things on his own. And I have every confidence than nearly all of them would be very bad. But if Sanders is the nominee, the Democrats will still not retake the Senate and could even lose the House. The president can’t socialize the economy or nationalize health care unilaterally. His failure might do more to harm American socialism than any argument conservatives could muster. As Edmund Burke says, “Example is the school of mankind and he will learn at no other.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg could actually succeed. His contempt for the Constitution—arguably greater than Sanders—takes a form infinitely more seductive to Americans than the more frontal assaults from the left. Modern times are complicated. The Constitution is simplistic and old fashioned. He’s sort of like Satan in Time Bandits railing about God’s silliness. "Look how he spends his time! Forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men! Slugs! He created slugs―they can't hear, they can't speak, they can't operate machinery… I would have started with lasers! Eight o'clock, day one!" 

The point lurking behind these ramblings is that people tend to bring static analysis to politics. It’s my idea of what’s right against their idea! But politics, like life, is messy and sometimes teams win by losing and lose by winning. In 2016, the catastrophism of the right went off the rails. If Hillary wins it will be “The end of America!” It surely wouldn’t have been great for all sorts of things I care about, but it wouldn’t be the end of America either. Many of the people who love Trump most thought America was over when Obama was elected. They didn’t anticipate that Obama’s failures laid the groundwork for Trump’s political success.  And many of those same people refuse to see that many of Trump’s wins are laying the groundwork for losses yet to come. 

That’s how it works. No causes are ever truly lost, as T.S. Eliot noted, because no causes are ever truly won. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So Pippa is going in for a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon this coming week. The limp won’t heal on its own, at least not lastingly. It’s a huge bummer, really no matter how it turns out. Meanwhile Zoë’s paw seems to be about 95 percent better, which is good. Other than that, not much is going on with the beasts. They still hate crows (warning playing this at maximum volume around your dogs could agitate them). They still expect treats. They still wake every morning with joy in their hearts about the adventures ahead. Zoë still demands tribute and is still jealous of Pippa getting equal treatment.

The future of the G-File: As I explained in Wednesday’s uh, Wednesday “news”letter, the Fair Jessica believes that the G-File is purely a Friday thing. A large number of you agree with her. We’re taking it under advisement. But whatever we end up calling it, paid members of The Dispatch extended universe can expect more “news”letters from me. At least for the foreseeable future the Friday G-File will remain free to all of the people. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-file

The week’s first Remnant, with Tevi Troy

Me, as a floating television, for the Blaze

The two not-Dems fighting for the Democratic nomination

This week’s first (!) G-file

The week’s second Remnant, with Andrew Egger

Bernie’s blinkered blustering

And now, the weird stuff

Woman plays violin during her brain surgery

Tolkien disses Dune in the classiest way

This is how you get zombies

Dry cocktails: All of the calories and none of the fun

Robot re-creates Escher painting

Jimmy Fallon moments away from getting canceled

Photograph of Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

Does Anyone Really Believe Free Market Fundamentalists Are ‘Running the Show’?

Let’s hope not.

Dear Reader, 

“Conservative intellectuals launch a new group to challenge free-market ‘fundamentalism’ on the right.”—Washington Post, February 18, 2020

Oren Cass, a very bright fellow and decent guy, has launched a new organization, American Compass. Joining him are some other very bright people—some of whom I know, others I know by reputation. I do not worry that any of them—particularly Michael Needham or David Azerrad —are ersatz socialists or champions of dirigisme (which, I’ll have you know, I spelled correctly on the first try). 

I think it is entirely possible I will end up agreeing with some, or even most, of their forthcoming policy proposals. Which is to say that the following criticism centers on framing, history, politics, and first principles. We’ll have to wait and see on what policy proposals flow from those first principles.

The Post’s James Hohmann begins his article:

Oren Cass believes conservatives have blundered by outsourcing GOP economic policymaking to libertarian “fundamentalists” who see the free market as an end unto itself, rather than as a means for improving quality of life to strengthen families and communities.

One paragraph in, I’m already reaching for my red pen.

I keep hearing people say or imply that libertarians and free market “fundamentalists” have been running the show in Washington. I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about—and neither do any libertarians I know. In fairness to Cass, he doesn’t make the barmy claim that Washington has been run by libertarians, just the slightly less barmy claim that Republican party has been. I still have no idea what he’s talking about—and, again, neither do any libertarians I know. 

(As an aside, whenever I hear arguments that Group X is running everything, I know I’m dealing with an argument that is spiced with some dosage of conspiratorialism and exaggeration. Here’s a newsflash: No one is running everything—not the Deep State, not the Jews, not the Frankfurt School Marxists, the globalists, the donor class, or the lizard people. One of the great things about advanced democracies is that every faction is competing for power and influence and none of them ever fully succeeds. Even when one faction dominates the conversation or policymaking, it isn’t long before they overstep, atrophy, or lose their mojo because even limited success tends to dissolve the reasons for certain coalitions to come together in the first place. It’s a bit analogous to Joseph Schumpeter’s argument for why monopolies cannot long endure so long as they are not protected by the state. Monopolies create the circumstances for their own demise as more nimble entrepreneurs innovate them into obsolescence.)

George W. Bush: Market fundamentalist libertarian?

The last Republican president before Trump was George W. Bush, who campaigned on “compassionate conservatism” which was often defended by its proponents as “big government conservatism” or “strong government conservatism.” 

Was President Bush a free market fundamentalist or libertarian? 

The question answers itself. But if you need reminding: Under Bush we had the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society. Sen. Judd Gregg called it “the largest tax increase that one generation has put on another generation in the history of the country.” We got a new Cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security (not a famous hotbed of libertarians). The Department of Education’s budget doubled under President Bush. There were huge spending increases on transportation, agriculture subsidies and the like. Indeed, the total number of subsidy programs grew by roughly 30 percent over the course of his presidency. And of course there were the bailouts of the financial crisis. 

At one point, The Economist ran a cover story asking, “Is George Bush a socialist?”

And, just to be clear, during this entire period the libertarians who were supposedly running everything were complaining very loudly that they had no say in anything. 

This is not to suggest there were no free market initiatives under President Bush. His attempt to privatize Social Security is the most notable example. But it’s worth noting that that failed—which presumably wouldn’t have happened if libertarians were running the show. 

My aim here isn’t to castigate President Bush, it’s merely to point out that when he was president, nobody—at least nobody to the right of The Nation—thought he was a market fundamentalist or libertarian.

The history that wasn’t.

A bit further down in the article, we’re told this:

Inside the GOP coalition, Cass argues, traditional economic conservatives ceded economic policy to libertarians as part of a “bargain” to win the Cold War. Ronald Reagan called it a three-legged stool: economic libertarians, social conservatives, and national security hawks. Cass believes this “fusionism” worked well—in the past. “When you had a situation where the free market was delivering the social outcomes that conservatives most prized, libertarians and conservatives tended to agree,” he said. “What we've seen more recently is a growing understanding that the market does not necessarily in all cases deliver a set of social outcomes that conservatives prize.” (emphasis mine)

Then in the very next paragraph, we’re told this:

Markets are good, Cass explained, but life is about so much more than markets. He said American conservatism historically had a richer conception of the role of government beyond maximizing returns, such as strengthening domestic industry. He lamented the growing concentration of wealth, geographically on the coasts and in the big cities, as well as in a handful of industries, which has accelerated income inequality. (emphasis also mine)

Do you see the problems?

In the first paragraph, we’re told that in the past, conservatives and libertarians were on the same page because the free market was producing results we all liked. Only recently have some enlightened conservatives come to understand “that the market does not necessarily in all cases deliver a set of social outcomes that conservatives prize.” But in the very next paragraph we’re told that conservatives used to have “a richer conception of the role of government beyond maximizing returns.”

Well which is it? Perhaps he believes that the Nixon, Eisenhower, Reagan, or Bush I administrations were suffused with this middle-way wisdom, balancing the demands of the market and the needs of industry and society. Okay, I’m open to that I guess. But he also contends that no one saw the downside of the free market because the free market was only producing results that “conservatives most prized.” I have a hard time figuring out how you can contend both premises are true simultaneously. 

Moreover, I still have no idea what he’s talking about. Who are these conservative free market fundamentalists who didn’t understand that the market might produce outcomes they don’t like? Is the observation that there’s a “richer conception of government beyond maximizing returns” really a sudden revelation to conservatives today? I mean even Jack Kemp understood this. 

I suggest people who believe this strawman’s history of conservatism read Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism or “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness.” Or Russel Kirk’s “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries.” Heck, read Friedrich Hayek (praise be upon him). He was open, at least in principle, to universal health insurance and a universal basic income. 

Neither socialism, Nor capitalism.

One of William F. Buckley’s favorite quotations came from Willi Schlamm: “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” This was not Buckley’s backhanded way of saying capitalism was perfect, it was his way of underscoring that in a free society you will inevitably get free riders and other remoras and exploiters who will try to game the system in ways that are contrary to the health of the system. 

James Burnham made a similar point at book length in his magisterial The Managerial Society. He wrote:

Not only do I believe it meaningless to say that "socialism is inevitable" and false that socialism is "the only alternative to capitalism"; I consider that on the basis of the evidence now available to us a new form of exploitive society (which I call "managerial society") is not only possible but is a more probable outcome of the present than socialism.

My most recent book is a full-throated defense of liberal democratic capitalism, but as the title suggests, Burnham was a considerable influence on me. His Managerial Society thesis, itself heavily influenced by Schumpeter, was that a new class of intellectuals, managers, social workers, and planners constituted the real ruling class in society. I think the new class wasn’t—and isn’t—as monolithic as Burnham suggested, but I think his analysis gets much closer to the truth of the matter. The mixed economy of the United States is closer to corporatism (or if you prefer, crony capitalism) than socialism or a true free market system. And in a corporatist system, competing elites vie for control of the commanding heights of the economy. 

For a century, progressive elites eager to take the reins of government planning insisted they were merely trying to contain “unfettered capitalism.” That capitalism has exited each decade with more fetters around its neck and ankles than it had when it entered was always lost on them. 

“Unfettered capitalism” is not a description of what we have, it is a description of a mythical dragon supposedly breathing down our necks, that the planners use to acquire more power to fight it. 

What vexes me about the rhetoric of Cass’s project—and that of so many conservatives these days—is that they are simply mimicking the rhetorical tactics of  Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, not to mention, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Croly, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, et al. Now these conservatives are making it bipartisan: Our real, biggest, problems stem from our refusal to regulate capitalism enough—or at all. 

This is nonsense on stilts (and it’s on stilts in order to take a jetpack down from the shelf and fly away).

Markets, what do they do?

Cass suggests that markets are truly good only when they produce outcomes “conservatives prize.” Come on, that’s not the deal. In different eras, with different forms of conservatism, the market helped to undermine slavery and Jim Crow. The market helped the case for women’s suffrage. The market also made Steve Gutenberg a star. Which is to say, the market isn’t always predictable. The notion that the free market is good but only when we like what it does is bonkers. It’s bonkers morally and politically—and it’s bonkers epistemologically. 

Morality: The market is the realm in which we exercise many of our most cherished liberties and rights. In a free society, where the right to pursue happiness is an individual right, not a collective one, some people will pursue definitions of happiness that will not conform to other peoples’ understanding of what is good or proper. And, yes, a thousand times yes, the government sometimes must intervene when this happens. But it must do so judiciously, with a full appreciation of the trade-offs and the facts on the ground. 

Politically: Put aside the fact that a lot of the stuff Cass seems to like is stuff progressives like too; let’s assume there are real differences. How will this work? The free market is glorious when it delivers “wins” for the Republican coalition but it’s wrong at all other times? I want to see GOP senators take that on the stump. 

And then there’s epistemology. Friedrich Hayek’s warnings against planning were not aimed solely at a particular ideology, but against the folly of planning itself. Yes, they were delivered with particular force against socialists and other social engineers of the left because when he was writing, it was the left that was most vocally in favor of economic planning. The left believed that experts in some office in Washington (or Moscow or Berlin) could better define, dictate, and anticipate the wants and desires of millions of people and thousands of communities across our vast country (some even believed they could do it across the globe). But in no way did he believe that the Brahmins of the managerial class would fail or trample liberty (or both) simply because they were pursuing outcomes un-prized by conservatives. He believed—and I would argue demonstrated—that they would fail because planners cannot outthink markets or command more information than is contained in prices. This admonition applies no less to conservatives who would substitute their preferences for those of citizens than it does to progressives.

Cass says he believes that economic liberty and individual freedom are still “vital,” and I believe him. And, again, I suspect that the policy proposals that American Compass will put forward will mostly be well within the guardrails of reasonableness, even if I end up disagreeing with some of them. 

But I also suspect that their task will be more difficult if they actually believe what they say and act as if they are battling a capitalism that sits on a throne rather than one that stands quite fettered. 

Various & Sundry

So I’m really going to try to start delivering more than one G-File per week. My wife, who made a fantastic beef Wellington on Monday night so she can officially do no wrong for at least a week, says it’s a bad idea. The G-File’s brand is a Friday thing, she says, like huffing airplane glue after your last class of the week or attending the running of the basset hounds at the local raceway (she didn’t say that part). 

But part of the deal is that folks need to become a paying member. We would love it if as many of you as possible came aboard before—or shortly after—the door clangs shut. Your support and participation is everything to us. 

Photograph of Gary Johnson during the 2016 campaign by Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images.

The Mess the Democrats Are In

They claim to want to “unify” the country while pushing divisive ideas.

Dear Reader (including all of you “influencers” doing Instagram posts for Michael Bloomberg),

Last month around this time I wrote, “Someone please help, I’m trapped in here—and this thing looks like it’s waking up, and might be hungry!” But that’s a story for another day.

Around the same time, I wrote a “news”letter in which I was harsh on Elizabeth Warren. Not unduly harsh, I would say, but duly harsh. 

I won’t recycle it all here. But the gist was Warren is an embarrassing fraud. I likened her to Michael Scott from The Office because they both share an inability to recognize they’re debasing themselves. The difference of course is that Michael Scott was a TV character played for comedic effect. In other words, only one of them was funny. 

It’s the difference between watching Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars—embarrassing in a funny way—and watching Sean Spicer beg his Twitter followers to vote for him to stay on the show literally for Christ’s sake and to show up Godless Hollywood. In other words: Haha vs. Eww. 

Warren’s campaign has fizzled, like an oil drum fire on skid row during a steady rain. She’s now like a hobo desperately tearing up the old newspaper she used to make her dumpster-dive shoes fit, in the vain hope the dying embers can be reignited. But that kindling is not only too damp, it stinks. 

The woman who mocked and belittled other candidates for thinking too small and not being willing to promise literally impossible things is now asking Democrats to make her the “unity candidate.” Whereas once she was a vessel for “big things,” castigating those who allowed reality to have a say in their programs and desperately trying to win the support of Sanders voters, she now wants to be the candidate who stops the bickering.

“The question for us, Democrats, is whether it will be a long, bitter rehash of the same old divides in our party, or whether we can find another way,” she said Tuesday night after coming in fourth in New Hampshire. 

If you want to avoid “another one of those long primary fights that lasts for months,” she said, well, vote for me!

The most obvious and superficial problem with this argument is that any candidate could make it. The factional fights would also end if everybody rallied to one of the 4Bs: Bernie, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, or Biden. Indeed, the internal logic of the pitch better fits Amy Klobuchar because she can make the case that she’d be a less divisive candidate in the contest that really matters: the general election.  

And Bernie Sanders—I would argue ludicrously—has been making precisely this argument all along. Everything he wants to do is predicated on a “mass grassroots movement” that unites the Forces of Light against the Forces of No Goodness, Very Badness. We’re going to conquer climate change by marshaling a mass grassroots movement. We’re gonna round up the billionaires thanks to a mass grassroots movement. It’s like mass grassroots movements are both a floor wax and a dessert topping.  At his age, he might even appreciate that grassroots are a good source of fiber and a mass of grassroots might deliver an excellent movement of another sort. 

But all this misses the more relevant point about Warren. She may truly believe all that she says about wealth taxes, eliminating the Electoral College, confiscating guns, banning fracking, etc., but the thing she really believes in the most is her. This should not shock anyone. After all, a woman willing to pretend to be a Native American to get a job at Harvard Law School and who caters her accent to her audience shouldn’t have much of a problem pretending to be a Democratic centrist. 

The dilemma for her is people have to believe it. Bill Clinton had a record as a Democratic centrist—on issues like the death penalty and welfare reform. There’s nothing in Warren’s record as a politician that suggests that she’s anything more than a vessel for woke wishcasting. (Though it is worth recalling that before she ran for office, she was a moderate Republican with moderate views on various issues.)  Elizabeth Warren doesn’t want to unite the factions around a policy program or even political triangulation. She wants to unite the factions around her, because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. And, unfortunately for her, she is not enough. 

The mess they’re in.

In my column today, I write about how the Democrats are becoming the ideological party while the Republicans are becoming a coalitional party. Coalitional parties argue over stuff—jobs, money, policies, pork, etc.—while ideological parties argue about ideas because they don’t have any stuff to give away. The problem for the Democrats is twofold: They don’t see the transformation taking place and they don’t have much practice framing arguments in this way. 

Barack Obama’s success at getting elected without running to the center in the general election in 2008 sent a false signal—that the long-prophesied “coalition of the ascendant” had finally arrived. Obama showed that all you have to do is fire up the base of minorities, (liberal) women, and young people and you don’t need to compromise with The Enemy anymore. 

Obama’s failure to actually deliver on the grandiosity of this prophecy and his own rhetoric left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Democrats. The way the Democrats—minus Biden—have talked about the Obama years has been saturated with remorse about squandered opportunities. But, as I wrote earlier this week, because Democrats can’t figure out why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, they don’t have a unifying theory about how to win in 2020 suited to political reality. So they’re re-running the Obama playbook. The thing is Obama, the first African-American president, was a unique candidate capable of inspiring voters in ways this crop can’t. You can’t just run as that kind of candidate, you have to be that kind of candidate. 

Republicans have decades of practice being a minority party. The conservative movement was deeply shaped by being outside the political consensus. Democrats have no such institutional memory. The closest they come is the example of Bill Clinton, which is why James Carville is losing his mind (in very entertaining fashion) these days. If the left understood its predicament, they would follow a left-wing version of the so-called “Buckley Rule”: vote for the most leftward candidate who’s most electable. Biden tried that, but couldn’t pull it off because he’s a spent force. And, if Klobuchar doesn’t make it then, Biden’s lasting legacy will be that he crowded out the candidates might have sold that pitch until it was too late for anyone else to do it successfully. 

The politics of “shut up.”

It should come as no surprise to people familiar with my views that I am not a big fan of “mass grassroots movements.” No, I don’t think they’re all equal. But I am philosophically, psychologically, and politically distrustful of crowds, mobs, rallies, and populist passion generally

So when I hear people like Sanders insist that everything can be solved by mobilizing a vast mob of angry—or hopeful!—people, it makes me want to buy gold and flip the safeties on my rifles (figuratively speaking). 

Part of the problem is that I simply detest the idea that the group with the most people is right. A million people can say that 2+2 = 17 and it is no more correct than if only one drooling idiot says it. But a million people saying it is far more dangerous because a million idiots aren’t just wrong, they’re a constituency. And constituencies attract politicians the way Paul Krugman’s columns attract flies. 

When I make arguments like this, someone invariably says, “Oh so you don’t like democracy!”

Well, I don’t love democracy, but I like it just fine compared with the alternatives. But you know what I like more: the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is not a particularly democratic document. The whole point of having one is to take certain things—inalienable rights—out of the hands of the voters and the politicians who pander to them. Sure, voters can change it, but doing so is very, very hard—which is the way I like it. 

The Founders understood that democracy could be tyrannical, too. That’s why they set up a system that diluted the ability of popular passions to swamp the government. Disagreeing with this basic principle always struck me as a form of power worship. Usually, people only pound the table and say things like “the will of the people is being thwarted!” when it’s their constituency or faction being thwarted. The moment the system provides a check on the will of voters when the voters are wrong, the same people celebrate the delicate constitutional system of checks and balances and constitutional rights. 

If Bernie Sanders won with a populist landslide and immediately used his alleged mandate to confiscate guns or the wealth of the 1percent, without so much as a by-your-leave from the Supreme Court,  his fans would cheer democracy in action while opponents would decry mob rule. But if Donald Trump were re-elected in a landslide and set about to rescind the broadcast licenses of the “fake news” those Bernie’s fans would cry “dictatorship” and at least some Trump supporters would hail “democracy in action!” 

Well, it’s all dictatorship, people. It’s all mob rule. 

This is what I despise about Sanders’s rhetoric. Tinged with a certain amount of Marxist dogma about activating the class consciousness of the proletariat, he makes it sound like merely winning one election is all you need to roll over all obstacles to your agenda. Though, to his credit, and unlike Warren, he at least says he would oppose abolishing the legislative filibuster in the senate. But one wonders how long that position would last. 

Sanders says over and over that he is leading a “political revolution.” But winning a single presidential election, in our system, is not supposed to be enough for a political revolution. 

Sanders subscribes to the Obama theory of running a base election to force change. That’s fine. But he—and many of the other contenders—go on to say that winning the election would amount to “unifying” the country.

I will go to my grave wondering why people who profess to support democracy want to unify the country. In a democracy, the country is not supposed to be unified, at least not about very much. Democracy in our republic is supposed to be about debate and disagreement. Sanders says that there can be no such thing as a pro-life Democrat. Sanders also says that if Democrats take over, they get to do whatever they want by virtue of the moral power of their “grassroots movement.” So does this mean there can be no such thing as a pro-life American? Whether he does or doesn’t, the fact remains, the country cannot be unified. All you can do is get a government in Washington that says principle disagreement has no place in the realm of policy. 

The same thing applies to virtually every public policy you can think of. The country cannot be unified because we are a free people with the right to disagree and the right to make our disagreement known at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress. 

When I hear politicians insist they can unify the country, I hear politicians promising one constituency that they can make another constituency shut up.

In a proper democracy, the best you can hope for is consensus—temporary and partial consensus—on a specific issue at a specific time. Unity is about force—strength in numbers—consensus is about persuasion. It comes from the Latin for “agreement” and shares meaning with “consent.” Consent can be forced, but forced consensus is not admirable or desirable in a democracy. 

But we live in an age where the constituencies politicians care about most are those that don’t want consensus. They want to make them shut up.  

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So first an apology. There was a technical glitch last week and the links to videos in the Canine Update didn’t get published. I am very sorry for the riots and fires that spread throughout most major cities in response to this outrage. The doggers are doing okay. Pippa’s limp is manageable, but I think a visit with orthopedist is inevitable. Zoë meanwhile cut her paw the other day and it seemed scary at first. She limped like she was trying to avoid the draft. I’m sure it hurt, but the vet didn’t even put a bandage on it. We’re keeping it clean, but it pretty much vanishes when she goes outside.  The problem remains that restricted duty for them just causes them to unleash their mischief batteries with each other.  They’re fine being pampered like sick ward patients at night. But they have expectations about a certain amount of zoominess outside. Gracie is doing important work, too, though.

ICYMI

Last week’s G-file
Democrats can’t agree on 2016, let alone 2020
The weeks first Remnant, with China-watcher Derek Scissors (second Remnant forthcoming)
Second half of my conversation with Bridget Phetasy
My previously mentioned column about Democrats getting more ideological

And now, the weird stuff
Commander Riker thinks you're wrong Beyond Belief
Fictional buildings and their "real" size
Imagine how much joy this has spread
Digitizing centuries-old literature
Hero dog saves future murder-bear
Art critic mocks sculpture; sculpture immediately one-ups her

Photograph from the Democratic debate in New Hampshire by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The Cult of Unity Is a Poison

This week there was one hero and it wasn’t Donald Trump.

Dear Reader (Including those of you still standing in an Iowan elementary school gymnasium),

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve been invited to an Afghan warlord’s home for dinner. How you found yourself in this situation is beside the point, but if it helps, imagine some really bad flight connections, too much schnapps at the Salt Lake City airport and maybe losing a bet at the bar about whether you could fit inside a duffel bag. The point is you’re there. And, to put it mildly, you don’t know what to do. 

This is where knowledge of formality would really come in handy. What I mean by “formality” here is really just good manners, even though there’s more to formality than just good manners. If you were lucky enough to have a English-speaking guide escort you in past the armed guards and that one-eyed dude picking his teeth with a knife so big you’d assume it was a sword if held by Michael Bloomberg, you’d ask him over and over “What do I do now?” “How do I eat this?” “Do I have to eat that?” The last thing you want to do is insult someone unintentionally. The first thing you’d want to do—other than call the Marines—is understand how to behave properly. 

Of course, this applies to all sorts of cultures, from Aborigines in the Australian Outback to tribes in the Amazon to less exotic locales like a stranger’s home in Italy or Spain or even across town where you live. Not all such situations have the same stakes. No one will cut off your head if you use the wrong fork or eat fish with your hands. But we all know that feeling—which I would argue comes from deep inside our tribal mind—of worrying about whether we’re behaving improperly, particularly around strangers. That worry may have many flavors. Fear of embarrassment is one—no one likes to feel uncouth. But the biggest one is fear of unnecessarily insulting someone. 

Manners play all sorts of important functions in society, but near the top of the list is that they’re the way we show respect to other people. Americans are an extremely egalitarian people, so it’s no surprise that we have done away with nearly all of the forms of good manners that suggest one person is better than another person. 

For instance, there are lots of theories about where the handshake came from. If I had to guess, most of them are right to one extent or another. One of the most common, and plausible, is that an outstretched and open hand proved you were approaching unarmed and in peace. But I like the more recent theory—that it was revived by the Quakers to do away with the sorts of customs that displayed social rank in society. When you bow to someone, you’re implicitly saying that you’re less important than they are. When you shake their hand, you’re greeting them as equals. 

Again, I don’t think one explanation is necessary. Some customs, like cooking food, were probably invented many times in many places. But my point is that the handshake plays an important role for social peace. If someone sticks out their hand and you refuse to shake it, you are sending a very powerful message. If it’s someone you know, that message may be anger. If it’s a stranger, that message may be distrust or bigotry. But the most common is disrespect. 

The death of formality.
This is not some lead-up to me castigating President Trump for not shaking Nancy Pelosi’s hand, though I think he should have. Rather it’s something that’s stuck in my head since I started reading Yuval Levin’s masterful book, A Time to Build. Some of his argument should be familiar to readers of this “news”letter because I’ve been droning on for a while about the role of institutions (largely thanks to my conversations with Yuval) for a good while now. Institutions are supposed to mold people, starting with the family. We come into this world with the same basic programming babies did 20,000 years ago. The family is the first stage of the civilizational assembly line, the end product of which—if all goes right—is a decent citizen. When your parents tell you not to chew with your mouth open or to clean your room, they’re running through the little checklists that transform us from natural-born barbarians into halfway-decent people. 

Schools, churches, synagogues, sports leagues, Boy Scouts programs, et al, all help create good citizens by shaping our character for the better. Part of the price—and benefit—of this transaction is that these institutions can demand a certain amount of loyalty from you. Some institutions, like the Marines, demand a lot of loyalty, others just a bare minimum. You don’t have to give your life for your bowling league, but you do have to show up, respect your teammates and subordinate some of your interests and desires for the good of the whole. In other words, formality comes from being formed—shaped, molded, improved by institutions. We are all ambassadors of the institutions that made us. When someone says, “What would your mother think?” Or “What if so-and-so could see you now?” what they’re really saying is “You’re straying from the rules or values that made you who you are or the person you’re supposed to be.”

As Yuval puts it:

All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.

As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”

Yuval argues that a major source of our social dysfunction stems from the fact we increasingly reject the idea that we should bend to the demands of these institutions; instead we demand that these institutions bend to us. Rather than be a mold that constrains us by telling us how to behave, institutions become “platforms” that we stand upon to perform and preen for attention. As I’ve argued many times now (including today), the political parties are one particularly important example. But the examples are everywhere. 

Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning released vast amounts of classified information because she put her judgment above the military’s. Colin Kaepernick may certainly have a point about criminal justice issues, but he used the NFL as a platform for his crusade. Once you start looking around, the list of people who use their institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Ricky Gervais is now a right-wing hate figure for simply pointing out that Hollywood A-listers use award shows as literal platforms for virtue signaling about causes they often know very little about. 

One of Yuval’s most important points is how social media erases formality. We say things to and about strangers we would never say to their faces. The anonymity of social media untethers us from the constraints of institutions and good manners. And even when we’re not anonymous social media allows us to cash in on the reputational capital of our institutions for our own agendas. 

According to Freud, our id, ego and superego are in constant battle to keep us on the straight and narrow. But the truth is, egos will lose every time without the work of others. Our id—the home of our instinctual passions—is like a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and society and its institutions are the humans on the ground holding the ropes that keep it from soaring with the wind. When we destroy institutions, it is like we are severing those ropes, and social media is the jetstream carrying us away. 

As someone who’s lived on the internet for more than two decades, I can tell you I didn’t need Facebook and Twitter to witness this phenomenon. Email and comment sections made this phenomenon a familiar part of my life long ago. Almost from the moment I started writing a syndicated column, anti-Semitic email has been a constant occupational hassle often sparked by the resplendent Jewiness of my name. When I used to reply to the people who said the world would be better off if my family had been finished off in the Nazi ovens (“Shame on you” “God is watching, sir,” etc.) I would often hear back with more of the same. But occasionally one of these correspondents would come back with a deep apology. “Oh my God, I had no idea you’d read that!” or “I’m so sorry, I had a terrible day and I drank too much.” 

The shock that there was another person at the other end of the bile hose made at least some people reappraise their own humanity. Alas, this isn’t the norm.

Where we are. 

I didn’t want to write about the week that was because the week was so terrible. But as I sit here, I feel like saying nothing would be an act of cowardice, giving in to the demands of a mob. 

 I thought the State of the Union was a gaudy and disgusting display. My wife, who knows more about speechwriting than I ever will, told me it was a “triumph.” I am inclined to agree that politically it was. But all I could think of was the irony of that word. In Ancient Rome a triumph was a civil-religious ceremony celebrating the success of a military commander, usually Caesar. The grandest triumphs could go on for days, with games and festivals. Caesar would bestow gifts on the people, the military or their representatives. Trump had no military conquest to crow about, but he did have a political one, even if he wasn’t formally acquitted until a day later. Countless commentators have likened his performance to a reality show or an episode of Oprah or Ellen. All of that has merit. But the military man’s reunion with his family, the bestowing of a scholarship to the adorable plebeian child, the rewarding of a loyal political general (Rush Limbaugh), the relentless embellishment of political or economic victories that did not need embellishment, and the constant adulation from his senatorial party, all felt more reminiscent of Caesarian bread and circuses to me. 

No one wore togas, and I’m still not sure why the women dressed like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, but it felt only a few clicks shy on the demagoguery meter of having the head of a conquered Gaul brought in. 

But I have long hated the State of the Union address, finding it a grubby Caesarian spectacle under previous presidents. This was merely an exaggeration to the point of caricature of a customI already despised. And, yes, yes, the Democrats behaved boorishly too. But to the extent the boorishness exceeded normal parameters—the rending of the speech! To thy fainting couches you decorum-loving defenders of Trump—it was the result of the rest of Washington trying to compete at Trump’s level. 

Besides, what came after was so much worse. One of Yuval’s core arguments is that Trump rejects the character-molding of all institutions, most importantly the presidency itself. He wants to be bigger than the job, unconstrained by the tethers of decorum or decency we have traditionally expected from our presidents. I know enough history to know that he is not the first president who sought to be unbound from such conventions. But no president has been so grubby and shameless about it and no president has had so many enthusiastic enablers of it. 

The president opened his talk at the National Prayer Breakfast and many of the pastors and politicians who claim to hold it sacred chuckled approvingly as he openly rejected the core of Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies. At the White House a few hours later he held another triumph in which he apologized not for his role—his obvious and damning role—in the tribulations of impeachment but for the evilness of others and the toll their “bullshit” (his word) took on him and his family. He denounced those who claim to pray for him and ridiculed those who do “wrong”in the name of God. The latter would be a worthy target of ridicule were it not for the fact that, in his mind, doing wrong is staying loyal to an oath or telling the truth under one. Loyalty to him, and him alone, is how one stays on the right side of things. Let me hear no more about “situational ethics” from his Praetorians. 

I have criticized—and defended—Mitt Romney many times. But the effort, admittedly mostly from the worst goons, buffoons, and satraps of Trumpism, to describe him as a person of low character in defense of President Trump is one of the ugliest political spectacles I have ever witnessed. Has Romney at times been calculating? Of course. He’s a politician. But the suggestion that he is not an honest or decent man because he was “disloyal” to such a profoundly dishonest and indecent man is an exercise in mobbish immorality and the madness of crowds. And by the way, all of these gibbons and poltroons yammering on about how he was disloyal never seem to dwell on the question of why Trump should demand his loyalty in the first place? What does Romney owe Donald Trump? What trust or bond has he “betrayed”? Romney wasn’t elected because of Donald Trump. 

If you honestly would prefer your children grow up to be more like Donald Trump than Mitt Romney, I don’t know that there’s anything left to talk about. Watch his actual speech on the floor. I have no problem with people who disagree with his reasoning. But to come away thinking he’s anything other than a man molded by charactering-building institutions (his family, his church, the Senate itself) who is trying to do right by them strikes me as a kind of Trump-personality-cult derangement. 

And speaking of the d-word, last week I noted the effort to bend all of conservatism and the Republican Party to the cause of personal loyalty to Donald Trump was a form of intellectual corruption. This week we saw it could actually get worse. The hysterics insisting that Romney must be kicked out of the GOP—an effort Mitch McConnell sees for the idiocy it is—are in effect arguing that you can vote for all of Trump’s judges and the vast bulk of his legislative initiatives and it counts for nothing if you don’t accept full baptism into his cult of personality. 

I’ve been saying for 20 years that the cult of unity is a poison and that the hero in the American political tradition is not the mob, but the man who stands up to it. This week there was one hero and it wasn’t Donald Trump. 

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: So Pippa’s limp was improving but it still comes back too easily, so to the doctor we must go I think. It has been absolutely brutal keeping Pippa back when Zoë gets to go on the midday walk with Kirsten and the pack. She gets mopey about it and she gets angry about it. In fairness, Pippa is much better at mopeyness than anger – she just can’t do intimidating. Zoë meanwhile didn’t really seem to mind that Pippa stayed behind. The great Gracie Treat Crisis is over. The wonderful people at Friskies sent her an emergency care package of the freshest Meow Mix treats and all is right with the world.  They also sent Zoë and Pippa some new leashes

ICYMI

Last week’s G-file

The week’s first Remnant, with Steve Hayes

What becomes of Iowa now?

The week’s second Remnant, with Bridget Phetasy

The chaos in Iowa, and our dysfunctional parties

And now, the weird stuff

The worst use of public transit

What Old English sounded like

The Aerospace Engineer who invented the Super Soaker

Werner Herzog despises chickens

Ice cream delivery drones

Medieval Europe’s dog-obsession

Photograph of Mitt Romney by Getty Images.

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