Welcome to the Pirate Skiff
The Goldberg File enters a new era.
Author’s Note: You are receiving this because you signed up for stuff from us. If you are just interested in what’s going on with our new venture, you can scroll to the stuff at the end. I didn’t plan on writing some manifesto-length thing about why we’re doing this, but that’s what came out of my head this morning.
Dear Reader (Thanks for signing up for the new pirate adventure!),
Welcome to the New G-File, now with 30 percent more vintage Canadian porn!
I kid, I kid. That’s not my bag (too many lumberjacks and too many implausible plumbing repair scenarios at Tim Horton’s).
But the nice thing about living inside the Beltway is that nobody would judge me harshly if I were into such things, because Washington is, and long has been, run by [checks notes] …. libertarians.
My friend Tucker Carlson said the other night:
“Our leadership class remains resolutely libertarian, committed to the rhetoric of markets when it serves them, utterly libertine on questions of culture.”
It’s funny, I was just saying something similar the other day while waiting in line to pick up some black-tar heroin at the brothel in the basement of the Hay Adams hotel across from the White House. David Gergen, wearing his Brooks Brothers tie and favorite pair of ass-less chaps, was standing behind me and I said, “It’s amazing how Tucker is the only guy out there telling the truth about this stuff.” I nudged the dude in front of me and said, “You agree?” Jeff Sessions turned around and seemed to nod his approval, but I was a little distracted by the ball-gag in his mouth and the enormous tattoo of Mel Tormé riding a giant spliff like Slim Pickens on a nuclear bomb.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t all chaps ass-less?” And the answer is: Yes. But if I just said “chaps,” you’d think Gergen was an equestrian, and if I said the more accurate “ass-full chaps,” you might think I was referring to a gay British espionage ring at Cambridge.
You might also be thinking: “What on earth is happening on the right today?” Or “Is Goldberg really launching a new media venture by talking about Canadian porn and ball-gagged Jeff Sessions?”
So let me respond to both—alas, at some length, because I might as well get it all out.
The Present Age
If you listen to The Remnant podcast – back next week by the way – you know I’m obsessed with a theory of contemporary politics. We live in one of the most partisan times in American history. No, it’s not as partisan as the 1850s or even the 1960s (thank God). But the difference between now and those periods is that partisanship is running white-hot even as the parties themselves have never been weaker.
Partisanship is now a lifestyle choice as much as it is a political or ideological orientation. That’s one reason politics are so ugly these days. When the political is personal and the personal is political, political disagreement feels like a personal attack. Politics today increasingly takes up the space in our brains normally reserved for religion, which is why there are houses in my neighborhood where people post signs listing social justice nostrums like they were Martin Luther’s 99 Theses.
In this climate, social media makes everything worse, because it’s impossible to avoid being exposed to people and ideas you find offensive. Worse, there are bad actors – Russians, grifters, click-bait monetizers, rage-addicted ideologues, and trolls – who deliberately try to make things worse by literally distorting reality with selective editing of videos and nutpicking (get your mind out of the gutter; I’m referring to the tactic of identifying idiots and buffoons and amplifying their importance).
Add in the rage-culture of Social Justice Warriors and MAGAnauts, not to mention the obvious partisanship and anti-Trump dementia afflicting much of the Mainstream Media, and you can see how America is grappling with a modern-day version of Lenin’s strategy of “the worse, the better.”
This is not a particularly novel insight, you can hear versions of it from lots of people, including from many who sincerely don’t see how they are part of the problem (a charge some might level at me, with varying degrees of legitimacy. More on that another time). But what usually gets left out of the indictment of our times is any discussion of the practical causes and remedies of the problem, to wit: The parties suck. Like the last days of the Ottoman Empire, they are the sick men of contemporary politics.
Parties as Brands
America is the only major developed democracy in which the parties have voluntarily gelded themselves. It’s happened in stages over the last half century. (For those interested, this is a running theme in Jon Ward’s invaluable “Long Game” podcast, to which I am indebted.)
Stage one involved the parties’ surrendering the power to pick their own nominees. In 1972, the Democrats responded to the tumult of the 1968 convention by democratizing candidate selection, outsourcing the process to primaries.
Yes, primaries have been around for a century, but they were a joke until George McGovern changed the rules.
Consider this. Here are the Democratic primary vote totals from 1968.
Eugene McCarthy - 2,914,933 (38.73%)
Robert Kennedy - 2,305,148 (30.63%)
Lyndon B. Johnson - 383,590 (5.10%)
Unpledged - 161,143 (2.14%)
Stephen M. Young - 549,140 (7.30%)
Thomas C. Lynch - 380,286 (5.05%)
Roger D. Branigin - 238,700 (3.17%)
George Smathers - 236,242 (3.14%)
Scott Kelly - 128,899 (1.71%)
I left out one important candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who won the nomination with 166,463 votes or 2.21% of primary votes.
Nothing like that has happened since. When Donald Trump talked about how the “system is rigged” during the 2016 primaries, he was decrying the last, impotent vestiges of the old system. The truth is that the system isn’t rigged by insiders. It’s “rigged” by primary voters, and Trump exploited that fact by fomenting and capturing populist zeal.
James Madison, like most of the Founders, originally detested political parties, in part because he thought of them in European terms, where they were proxies for class interests – i.e., factions. He ultimately changed his mind, coming around to Edmund Burke’s view: That parties played an important role in forming coalitions of interests or factions. When functioning properly, parties force members of their coalition to compromise for the sake of electability, holding the coalition together and encouraging the long-term viability of the party itself. The democratization of the nomination process short-circuited this function, allowing politicians to go over the heads of the party machinery.
The next stage in party decline came when Congress instituted campaign finance “reform,” which had the result of weakening the parties while increasing the power of outside interests. As Cocaine Mitch rightly put it: “We haven’t taken a penny of money out of politics. We’ve only taken the parties out of politics.”
The problem with our parties is that they are too democratic. Smoke-filled rooms made mistakes, but they were a vital tool for grown-ups to run the party. As Elaine Kamarck has argued, under the old system, candidates were vetted behind closed doors in face-to-face meetings. Imagine if, in 2015, Donald Trump met with a party boss who controlled the delegates in his state and said, “Okay here’s what I’m going to do: Ban Muslims from entering the country, build a giant wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it, and put my sister on the Supreme Court.” He’d be kicked out of the room. Ditto Bernie Sanders, with his vow to socialize medicine and restrict the number of deodorant choices Americans have.
But because the DNC and RNC are mostly Potemkin parties, marketing brands rather than actual institutions, they have no choice other than to ratify the decisions of their customer base.
(By the way, if you think the sister-on-the-Supreme-Court line is unfair, note that the reason he didn’t do that, or something like it, is that conservatives forced him to rely on an institution they trusted more than him at the time: the Federalist Society.)
The result is that we’ve outsourced what were once party functions to outside institutions. Fox News and MSNBC arguably do more candidate vetting, opposition research, and issue cultivation than the parties do. And some on those networks are de facto spokespeople for the White House or its political opponents. Groups like the NRA and Planned Parenthood do as good a job as the parties at mobilizing and informing voters. But now, thanks to the weakness of the parties, such groups have less interest in compromising for the sake of their party coalition’s interests. Special interests cut out the middle-man – the parties – because the parties aren’t really a middle-man anymore. They’re brands ideological wholesalers slap on to bring their wares to market.
Not all of this is bad. Think tanks and ideological journals still do valuable work. I’m delighted that the Federalist Society stepped in to do the job the party couldn’t. But the problem remains that, without strong parties that have deep-seated and long-term institutional interests in their “brand,” the loudest and angriest slices of the electorate have outsized power.
Worse, Congress has become a parliament of pundits where politicians are more concerned with getting hits on Morning Joe or Fox and Friends. And because they are more afraid of primary voters than general election voters, political differences are not reconciled through legislative compromise; they are amplified by shouting. This was Sen. Ben Sasse’s point in his brilliant opening remarks during the Kavanaugh hearings. Politics is supposed to “happen” in Congress. But Congress has surrendered its functions to the least accountable branches of our government – the presidency, the courts, and the bureaucracy – and to cable news viewers that stand-in as their primary voting overlords.
Amidst this dysfunction, the lines between partisanship and ideology get blurred to the point where partisan loyalty is the new measure of ideological commitment. If you can open your eyes to see it, the evidence is all around you. And if you’d been in my position these last few years, the evidence would be crammed down your throat. I am constantly told I must support Donald Trump if I am to call myself a conservative, regardless of what Donald Trump does or says.
Few of the people who say this to me are fully honest about what this means: They want me to lie about what I believe or not care when Trump does things I disagree with. This sort of corruption is the inevitable consequence of weak parties. Strong parties allow for disagreement in their ranks because it is in their interest to do so. It is better for the GOP if a liberal Republican holds a seat that would otherwise go to a conservative Democrat. But when the GOP is nothing more than a brand hitched to a personality – a crude and insecure personality at that – who is popular with the customer base, people think it’s better to have the seat go to the other party than suffer the agony of brand confusion.
National Review, an institution I love, was founded in an era of strong parties, at a time when to be a serious conservative made you a rebellious outsider. Back then, it was very easy to see the bright line between the conservative movement or “conservative media” – then basically a couple magazines and newspaper columnists – and the Republican Party. Over the last seven decades, the movement and its attendant media have become an industrial complex. But where is the line between the movement and the party? It exists, but it is neither bright nor straight. Rather it is faint, at times to the point of invisibility, and serpentines around mastheads, institutions, and networks, and occasionally through our own hearts.
The same is true for the Democratic Party. Supposedly objective journalists move in and out of Democratic administrations. Pundits, reporters, and activists sit side by side on panels on MSNBC throughout the day. And if you don’t read the chyrons, you’d have no idea who has which job description or from whence they get their paychecks. People don’t stay in their lanes because the white lines separating them have been buffed away.
Bloody Toga Politics
This brings me back to Tucker and those rallying to his banner. The claim that Washington is run by libertarians makes no sense whatsoever if you define the word libertarian the way libertarians do – or, for that matter, the way dictionaries do. Tucker’s real complaint, which he has been fairly consistent about for a while now, is with elites. And he has legitimate complaints in some specific regards, even if he exaggerates them for effect at times. He thinks the system is being exploited by the ruling classes – for want of a better term – and he’s mostly right.
But he is wrong to blame capitalism, for reasons I explained here. And he’s wrong in another sense. The rigging of the system is not the result of the market functioning properly – never mind the Great Libertarian Hegemony – but by the state and our institutions’ functioning improperly or not at all.
If there is one monumental misunderstanding behind the problems we have today, it is the populist paranoia on the left and the right that extremely powerful forces are manipulating society for their own benefit. Again, people are manipulating society for their own benefit, but they are doing so because the institutions that are supposed to stop them have atrophied. In a country where organized religion was healthy and robust, nobody would be talking about the need to use the state to impose Catholic-inflected values from above (nor would they make the preposterous argument that Trump is a force of “social cohesion” and a vehicle for moral restoration). If the media hadn’t pissed away its credibility by filling the vacuum left by shrinking parties, nobody would be screaming “fake news” at every inconvenient fact. It is why the GOP and the conservative movement are infested with grifters.
A strong Democratic Party would tell abortion extremists to stop seeming like they’re celebrating infanticide or near-infanticide. It would tell candidates to shut up about opening the borders and abolishing ICE. It would pat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the head and say, “Bless your heart.”
Institutions, as Yuval Levin argues, are supposed to shape character to the needs and mission of the institution, like the Marine Corps or the Boy Scouts. Now, politicians, even clergy, use institutions to perform, entertain, and enrage for their own ends, like Chelsea Manning, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump.
Institutions like political parties, Congress, and churches are also supposed to provide a policing function. They maintain order not with billy clubs but with the soft-powers of suasion, conferring legitimacy and applying moral and cultural discipline. When the police disappear, or when they lose any semblance of authority, what do you get? Looting. The elites Tucker decries aren’t powerful unseen forces pulling the levers of power. They’re looters atop Mount Olympus grabbing what they can because the cops have abandoned their posts. And they’re setting examples for everyone else.
Donald Trump has come to define the GOP and much of conservatism, because the party lacked the will and muscle to stand up to him once the customers were on his side. And he won them over by declaring war on institutions that weren’t running our lives but were running out of oxygen. Conservative institutions that depend on a mass customer base were the first to bend to Trump, because to them the customer is always right.
And let’s not pretend the problem started with Trump. Remember the old anti-drug ad where a dad barges in on his son and confronts him with his stash? “Who taught you to do this stuff?” the father demands. “I learned it from you, Dad!”
For more than a decade, Republicans have promised that total victory was one election away, only to claim they were thwarted or betrayed by unseen forces or impure allies once in power. These stabbed-in-the-back narratives were a convenient cover for not having to explain why the dogs that caught the car had no idea how to drive.
That’s the real backdrop behind the war on “Frenchism.” David French is literally the worst target imaginable for social conservatives to pick, save in one regard: He refuses to lie about Donald Trump and his flaws, and that makes him more dangerous than actual libertarians. In much the same way the left of the 1960s ignored conservatives and trained all their rage on liberals, the new “integralists” –
or whatever we’re supposed to call them – target Frenchists because they (we) represent a competing definition of what the right is supposed to believe. If you honestly think that libertarians-in-conservative clothing are why you can’t have nice things, you’re sorely mistaken; there are scores of better targets. But David is like the cop who doesn’t take bribes. So he’s an enemy not because he might turn in his fellow cops, but because he reminds them that they’re doing something wrong. David’s position highlights the fact that, even if it’s hard to see, there’s still a line between partisanship and philosophy. And I’m proud to take his side.
What We’re Up To
Okay so, here’s the deal. The new venture – still unnamed! – Steve Hayes and are launching seeks to zig against the zagging of our times. We’re conservatives, perfectly happy to put our bona fides up against anyone else’s. But we don’t want to serve a party function, for the party of Trump or for whatever comes after. We think there’s a giant open lane for reporting, commentary, and analysis that recognizes the dynamics I’ve described above. We have lots of novel ideas about how to deliver our work-product, but the basic idea is an old one: To be honest about our beliefs, to tell the truth about what we see around us, and to care more about ideas than partisan point-scoring. One model is the old New Republic, where journalists were open about their ideological commitments (in their case, liberal) but were also willing to hold the Democratic Party and its politicians accountable to the truth and have fun doing it. Another inspiration can be found in the best work of the late Weekly Standard and the enduring National Review.
We do not see this as an anti-Trump enterprise for a host of reasons: Because we’re in it for the long haul and Trump isn’t going to be around forever; because not everything the Trump administration does is wrong just because Trump can take credit for it; because anti-Trumpism in all things can be as much of a problem as pro-Trumpism in all things; and because there are a host of other things that are more important and more interesting than Trump and the cults lining up for and against him. We stand by what we’ve said about the man, but he doesn’t define us. If you think our views on Trump define us, it’s because you’ve let him define you.
We hope to have fun with this, because we are happy warriors and because we think doing good, important and fulfilling work is the best way to live – outside of the more important demands of friendship and family. We are deeply grateful for your support, even from those of you who disagree with us on various matters. That’s okay. We detest the popular front mentality, no matter where it emerges.
I forget whether it was Goethe or Larry Storch who said, “Be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” We hope you will be among those great forces, and we hope the aid will be mutual.
Various & Sundry
Some house-cleaning. This “news”letter will probably be more frequent in the months ahead. The new versions will be shorter and more focused on the news. But for those concerned, the Friday deal will remain the concise, focused, and disciplined epistle you’ve always known it to be. No digressions will be indulg – look, cows!
For the time being at least, the G-File will only be available via “news”letter. We hope you will help in spreading the word everywhere you can. And once we fully launch, we hope you’ll sign up for all we’ll have to offer. Once the real website is up, subscribers and members will have more options to manage what they see from us. But for now it’s just me in my pirate skiff.
Oh, and I forgot to answer the other question at the top – “Is Goldberg really launching a new media venture by talking about Canadian porn and ball-gagged Jeff Sessions?” Here’s my answer: “Yes.”
Canine Update: So the Fair Jessica is back from her trip out West, and the dogs could not be more pleased because, to be blunt, they love her more. But they also like it when the pack is reunited. She brought back some fetching new collars for them, which they don’t seem particularly grateful for. Pippa remains absurdly happy when she gets her way, which is often. Her energy level remains a marvel to behold. Zoë, who tends to keep her joy checked and is freer with her condemnations, was positively giddy the other day because she got to chase a fox. It was pretty amazing because she smelled it from a great distance long before she laid eyes on it. But she remains a very demanding dingo.
Oh, and unless it was unclear, the canine updates will continue, on Fridays for the most part.
The Other Stuff
My conversation with George Will will air on CSPAN Deux this weekend:
Saturday at 10am ET
Sunday at 9pm ET
Re-air the following Sunday at 12N
Last week’s G-File, the last of National Review
On Republican support for Trump
Does Reality Change Ideas, or Vice Versa?
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Thursday links
Now you know
Just like the ocean, under the moon...
D-Day, now and then
Another awesome veteran
Camping made easy
Ladybug storm in SoCal
A history of ‘the vacation’
The FBI’s bigfoot files
The secret to perfect souffle
Dinosaurs on display
Google Docs Revolution
The Smartphone generation
Periodic table nearing 150th birthday
Diabetes on the decline
The people who finished Avicii’s last album
Cannibalism and narcissism
Baby albino panda
Snake swallows catfish whole
Jupiter’s moons visible this month
Competitive musical chairs