What does Grover Norquist Want?

Grover Norquist Interview on NPR

There is a popular conceit entertained by enough business leaders that it is frequently mistaken for “the position” of the “business community.” There are two elements to this conceit. The first element holds that private wealth spent by public institutions is always less efficient and less productive than private wealth spent by private institutions; the second component holds that private wealth spent by public institutions always reduces personal liberty. These two elements underlie Grover Norquist’s famous, but increasingly tenuous, “no tax” pledge.

I want to return to these two elements in a moment. But, first, I want to examine one of Mr. Norquist’s frequent claims, repeated in the November 28 NPR interview. According to this familiar claim: “There’s no reason to raise taxes. Taxes should be lower. . . . The problem we have is that government spends too much.”

Consider the elements of this claim one at a time.

(1) “There’s no reason to raise taxes.” This is the equivalent of a parent telling a child, “there’s no reason ever to go to the grocery store.” Obviously, however, if there is no food in the refrigerator, then there is a reason to go to the grocery store. Or, more to the point, if representatives elected to federal office have told their constituents that they will propose legislation whose implementation will cost money; and if these constituents elect these representatives to federal office in order to propose and implement this legislation; then, clearly, there is a reason to raise taxes.” The reason to raise taxes is to pay for the implementation of legislation that constituents have asked their representatives to propose and implement.

Which means that what Mr. Norquist really means to say is either (a) I do not like the legislation that constituents have asked their elected federal representatives to propose and enact; or (b) I like this legislation, but I don’t want to pay for it; or (c) I don’t like the federal government and I believe that depriving the federal government of the resources to pay for legislation the people have asked for is the best way to kill the federal government. For reasons that should be clear in a moment, I believe that Mr. Norquist really means (c).

(2) “Taxes should be lower.” This is the equivalent of a business-owner telling his purchasing agent that it is always better to cut costs; but as every business-owner knows full well, there are many circumstances under which costs need to increase, e.g., when there is greater demand than supply.

What Mr. Norquist really means, however, is either (a) that he doesn’t like the legislation that constituents have asked their federal representatives to pass and therefore he doesn’t believe the legislation should be funded; (b) that he likes the legislation, but also believes that federal debt is good; or (c) that he doesn’t like the federal government and he believes that the most effective way to get rid of the federal government is to deprive it the means to pay for the legislation the people have asked for. Again, for reasons that should be clear in a moment, I believe that what Mr. Norquist means is (c).

(3) “The problem we have is that government spends too much.” Again, since spending and revenue are always tied to one another, and since, in a democratic republic the public indirectly always determines both spending and revenue, this too is a complete non-sequitor; the equivalent of someone who has just purchased a Bentley being told that they have spent too much. That all depends on the market value of the Bentley and the worth of the individual who has purchased it.

What Mr. Norquist really means is either (a) that he disagrees with the priorities of the Americans who have asked their federal representatives to propose and enact legislation; (b) that he feels that we have paid too much to enact the legislation the American people have asked for; or (c) that, outside of Defense, Mr. Norquist believes that any government spending is too much. Even though Defense is the single-most inefficient use of tax-payer dollars, I think that what Mr. Norquist really means is (c).

First, remember that it was Grover Norquist who said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” I think it is fair to say that Mr. Norquist does not like government. In 1787, Mr. Norquist would have been an anti-Federalist. That is to say, he would have been among those standing outside Constitution Hall screaming and yelling “Treason!” against those inside. That is because Mr. Norquist is a rabid anti-federalist. He hates federalism. He hates the federal government. And he hates the U.S. Constitution, which established federalism as the law of the land.

Second, this means that for Mr. Norquist it never ever really was about sound economic policy. It was always instead about his profound hatred of all things federal. Mr. Norquist and his allies lost in 1787. They lost again in 1865. And they will not give up until they have dissolved the Union, i.e., “reduce[d] it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But, therefore, third, this means that Mr. Norquist is ready to embrace economic principles that are really not economic principles at all. Take the first element of Mr. Norquist’s conceit that we identified above: that private wealth spent by public institutions is always less efficient and less productive than private wealth spent by private institutions. First, as even Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek acknowledge, since there are many public goods that will never earn a high enough return to justify private investment, but which nevertheless the public has decided are worth the revenue, public institutions will always spend these dollars more efficiently than private, because private wealth will never pursue these ends at all. This, of course, has been a principle of neo-liberal economics as far back as Alfred Marshall.

Second, however, since private wealth’s principle aim is not the production of any good, but maximizing return on investment irrespective of the good, there is a built-in incentive wherever private wealth pursues public goods for private wealth to take whatever it can from the public trust while delivering as little as it has to in order to fulfill its statutory obligation. Thus, only in the most abstract sense can we say that wealth spent public institutions is always less efficient since efficiency, by definition, is a function of cost and earnings without regard for the good produced. For its shareholders, Bechtel was hyper-efficient in its Iraqi operations, pulling huge sums out of the Treasury in exchange for almost no goods at all. We gather that the public means something else by efficiency when it asks representatives elected to federal public office to enact legislation on its behalf.

But, in Mr. Norquist’s view, Bechtel is the ideal public servant since it took from the public trust and delivered to the private. Which brings us to the second element of Mr. Norquist’s conceit: private wealth spent by public institutions always reduces personal liberty. This, of course, is Mr. Friedman’s and Mr. von Hayek’s hobby-horse. And it rests on an empty, abstract understanding of “liberty” that is fundamentally at odds with the understanding entertained by the framers of the U.S. Constitution and founders of our nation. Even Mssrs. Friedman and von Hayek, certainly no great fans of public spending, are forced to acknowledge that the “good” produced by public education is an educated citizenry.

The insight contained in their begrudging acknowledgment appears over and over again in the debates over the U.S. Constitution. That insight is that while private wealth must, by definition, aim at private goals, public goals must be achieved by public wealth.

But evidently Mr. Norquist – never a stickler over truth or accuracy – is not too terribly interested in the meaning of either republic or republican, from res publica, or the wealth we hold in common. Since building a republic, however, was the aim of the framers, they were deeply interested in creating the substantive, material conditions that promote substantive liberty. Like Friedman and Hayek, the framers recognized that liberty was more than the absence of constraint; that it entailed the presence of real goods such as wealth, education, leisure, and property without which no individual could be free.

Mr. Norquist has removed these substantive conditions entirely, claiming instead either (a) that providing these basic goods to all people would itself constitute an infringement upon our basic liberties or (b) that private wealth is better able to provide these public goods than public wealth. Yet, nothing is more certain from the Constitutional debates themselves than that this was and has always been the anti-federalist objection to federalism.

So, where does this anti-federalist objection come from? One source, to be sure, was originally popular hostility to the British crown. In the popular imagination, the British crown came to signify all centralized government. Liberty, by contrast, was represented by the absence of centralized government. This was Patrick Henry, Sam Adams’ and Tom Paine’s position. The other, more powerful, source of anti-federalist opposition were wealthy elites who believed they could always outrun a government that was weaker than they were. This, of course, is the 18th century version of Norquist’s “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” It was in the interests of these elites to campaign for smaller government, not so that they could protect popular liberty, but so that no agent would be sufficiently coordinated or powerful to protect the public interest.

But the question that Mr. Norquist and his allies always ignore is: what is it that the public has asked its elected federal representatives to do? Whatever it is that the public has asked them to do, we must also pay for. Which means that we can always accurately measure how much taxation is enough, too little, or too much. It is too much if it is more than we need to pay for what the public has asked for. It is too little if it is less than we need. And it is enough if it meets the costs of what the public has asked for.

This is not a philosophy. It is not an ideology. It is not a campaign. It is how public policy and revenue work in a democratic republic. But, of course, it is this “democratic republic” part that sends Mr. Norquist up the wall.

Their Post Mortem (or why we need to read Laura Hollis)


If you haven’t already stumbled upon it, I urge you to read Notre Dame University Mendoza College of Business Professor Laura Hollis’ post mortem on the election, not because I agree with all that she says, but because she deploys a rhetoric that we need to respond to more critically and effectively over the coming months and years.

(It just so happens that I received Professor Hollis’ post mortem while I was on a road trip to, of all places, USC where we watched Notre Dame win a berth in the 2012 National College Football Championship game. So the fact that Professor Hollis teaches at Notre Dame had, for me, and for my traveling companion, a well-known corporate tax law attorney, a kind of weird relevance that it might not otherwise have had. In any case, our discussion of Professor Hollis’ scree made the eight-hour post-holiday slog back to San Francisco along Highway 5 somewhat more bearable.)

Here are Professor Hollis’ eleven headings:

1. We are outnumbered

2. It wasn’t the candidate(s)

3. It’s the culture stupid

4. America has become a nation of adolescents

5. Yes, there is apparently a Vagina vote

6. It’s not about giving up on social issues

7. Obama does not have a mandate. And he does not need one.

8. The CorruptMedia is the enemy

9. Small business and entrepreneurs will hurt the worst

10. America is more polarized than ever; and this time it’s personal

11. It’s possible that America just has to hit rock bottom

There are too many choice lines in Professor Hollis’ venting to list all or even most of them here. You can read the post for yourself. So, instead of responding line for line, point for point, to her post mortem, I think we would do better to take a couple of steps back and try to appreciate her commentary in a broader context. (Please read the commentary.)

There are four features of Professor Hollis’ post mortem that deserve our special attention: (1) its grounding in a highly specific Roman Catholic reading of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. This is very important not only because the US Supreme Court is now dominated by legal reasoning informed by this specifically Roman Catholic reading of Aristotle, but also because this narrowly Thomistic reading of Aristotle runs counter to the most basic legal principles that guided the framers of the US Constitution and that guided the Court’s legal reasoning for its first two centuries; (2) its grounding not only in Straussian political philosophy in general, but in Schmittian political philosophy in particular. Leo Strauss, of course, was the University of Chicago political philosopher most famous for his unique reading of Thomas Hobbes and Plato’s Republic, in particular his interpretation of the “noble lie” (τῶν ψευδῶν τῶν ἐν δέοντι [ton pseudon ton en deonti]) that Plato surprisingly invites Glaucon to entertain in order to distinguish guardians of the republic from individuals who are not suited to serve as guardians. Strauss wrote extensively on the legitimate and necessary role that lying plays in political discourse. But it is the Schmittian form of Professor Hollis’ rhetoric that is specially noteworthy. In addition to being Leo Strauss’ professor in Germany, Carl Schmitt was also the architect of National Socialist jurisprudence, responsible, in particular, for formalizing Adolph Hitler’s peculiar understanding of the “unitary executive” (see John Yu) – das Führerprinzip – and for establishing the “concept of the political,” based on the Friend-Enemy distinction; (3) its reduction of social, economic, and legal problems to moral and cultural failures; and (4) its categorical rejection of compromise and negotiation and, therefore, its lusty embrace of the logic of “final” solutions.

The Conservative German Catholic
Interpretation of Aristotle and the
American Legal Tradition

Let us take these four features one at a time, beginning with Professor Hollis’ narrowly Thomistic reading of Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. (For those of you who are so inclined, the position staked out by Professor Hollis is rigorously set out in Marquette University Professor Darrell Dobbs’ “Natural Right and the Problem of Aristotle’s Defense of Slavery,” Journal of Politics 56:1 (1994) 69-94.) I say that Professor Hollis’ reading of Aristotle is narrowly Thomistic because not only does she accept the “natural” hierarchies set out in Aristotle’s Politics – Parent-Child; Male-Female; Master-Slave; Civilized-Barbarian, and so on – but, unlike Aristotle, Professor Hollis situates these hierarchies within a quasi-divine economy according to which the violation of any of the boundaries established by Nature/God also constitutes a violation of the moral law. From this vantage-point, the rough-and-tumble back-and-forth negotiated compromises forged in the Common Law tradition that the United States inherited from Great Britain is nothing short of a great evil since it would appear to accept the notion, if not of full moral, legal, and cultural relativism, then at the very least of moral, legal, and cultural tolerance which stands at the foundation of the British and American legal and political systems. From this vantage-point the infiltration of American law schools by continental legal scholars, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s, holds special significance. (See Christian Stephen Smith’s The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), according to which American legal and political institutions, which are dominated by cultural Protestants, are held responsible for forcing a largely Christian public to accept secular values and institutions.)

Of course, not only does this narrowly Roman Catholic interpretation of Aristotle fall well outside the boundaries of mainstream classical scholarship – neither Professor Hollis nor Professor Dobbs are classicists – but, of course, their grasp of U.S. legal and institutional history proves to be deeply flawed. Only if we downplay or completely bracket Aristotle’s social and economic lectures is it possible for us to force a ontologically fundamental rubric onto Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics. To be sure, this was precisely how German scholars interpreted Aristotle in the nineteenth century; and with ever greater vitriol following the twin signal events, first of the Revolutions of 1848-49, and then of the Reichsgrundung of 1870-71. The first of these signal events represented for Roman Catholic scholarship the invasion of French radical thought and practice into German polity; the second of these events, the Reichsgrundung (founding of the nation) on kleindeutsche (lesser German) or “Protestant/Modernist” grounds, set off the cultural struggle (Kulturkampf)between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. Here is where Catholics fault Otto von Bismarck for masterminding a “fake war” with German Austria in order to “manufacture” a Germany with boundaries that favored Protestant Prussia. Catholic cultural conservatives have ever since sought both rhetorically, but also, obviously, militarily to reincorporate “Catholic Germany” (i.e., Austria) back into the Reich. Culturally, however, the impetus behind the campaign to liberate German Austria has always been the conviction that a Germany dominated by liberal Protestant culture was more inclined to embrace moral relativism and political anarchy than a more “balanced” grossdeutsche (greater German) Reich, a Catholic Germany, founded on the “natural” distinctions and hierarchies set forth by Aristotle and then reworked and authorized by Saint Thomas.

What this meant was that from 1849 forward; and then from 1871 forward, conservative German legal and political scholarship committed itself to an interpretation of Aristotle that was invested with all of the political, cultural, and religious struggles of nineteenth century German Catholicism.

It would be truly odd had the framers of the US Constitution in 1787 read their own Plato and Aristotle through the eyes of mid- and late-nineteenth century German Catholic legal scholars and philosophers; which, of course, they did not. What most intrigued the framers were two elements of Aristotle’s Politics (see my Commonwealth: or Why Democrats are Republicans and Republicans are Neither): first, the substantive institutional and material conditions for responsible political decision-making; second, how to protect res publica, the “wealth we hold in common” or commonwealth from oikonomia, the interests of the private household economy or “private enterprise.” As I have laid out elsewhere, there were many outside Constitution Hall who accused those within of favoring of an educated, moneyed, elitist oligarchy and not a genuine democracy. Among those leveling this charge against the framers were, of course, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, and other patriots who happily embraced the label of “anti-federalists.” Such men had absolutely no interest in establishing, much less protecting, things like the federal authority to impose taxes on states, the authority to regulate interstate commerce, the sole authority to regulate currency, execute treaties, preempt state law and state court decisions, and, perhaps most provocatively, the authority to intervene militarily in any state that did not guarantee its own citizens the republican institutions set out in the Constitution. Anti-federalists such as Paine and Adams viewed such heavy-handed, federalist institutions and powers as monarchical.

Where in this document was any guarantee of democracy? Well, the answer of course is that the US Constitution is not about democracy. It is not about the mechanism of representation. It is instead about the wealth we hold in common, about the commonwealth, the Republic. What the framers took away from Aristotle was the absolute fundamental necessity of protecting the wealth we hold in common from private economic self-interest.

But, in order to adequately protect the wealth we hold in common, the framers first needed to make sure that those with the authority to make decisions were made of the right stuff. And, here, again, the framers were clearly following Aristotle who believed that citizens could not act responsibly when they were subject to necessity. Aristotle had a very long list of individuals and occupations who were either subjected by others or who had subjected themselves to the “realm of necessity.” In the latter category, Aristotle included businessmen and merchants who had decided to pursue ever more wealth even though they had plenty to live on privately and to share with the public. Those individuals who willingly and not out of necessity had chosen lives of private wealth over public service Aristotle deemed “perverse.” But then there were also those individuals who, not out of choice, but out of necessity, were subjected to lives of labor. Such, thought Aristotle, were laborers, tradesmen, farmers, and, of course, slaves. Needless to say, this left a very small group of people who Aristotle believed capable of acting solely in the interests of the public; yes, men of wealth, but also of education, and good will and good health.

Everyone who has carefully read through the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention or who has read the Federalist Papers will be struck by the framers’ interest in making sure, as nearly as possible, that public servants – citizens and representatives – have no interest in public service save the interests of the public; that they have nothing financially or materially to gain from such service, but also that they have sufficient leisure time, sufficient resources, and sufficient education to, say, spend a number of weeks in Philadelphia doing nothing else other than thinking and acting for the sake of the “general welfare” of the public.

Yes, this was an elitist body. No, it was not democratic. But, yes, it was interested in advancing the wealth we hold in common; and, no, it was not interested in promoting private, economic, self-interest. It was a body as fiercely federalist as it was republican.

What does this mean? Well, for one, it means that those, like Professor Hollis, who advance a nineteenth century German Catholic interpretation of Aristotle and then impose this on the eighteenth century Common Law-trained framers of the U.S. Constitution are fighting battles – against nineteenth century German liberalism, against nineteenth century moral and cultural relativism – that were completely foreign to the interests and objectives of the framers. But, for another, it means that the flag that Professor Hollis and her allies wrap around their anti-federalist, states rights, virulently free market capitalist, anti-elitist, anti-moral relativist campaign is not the Stars and Stripes, but, if anything, the flag of the anti-liberal (and anti-democratic) German Catholic minority.

Yes, to be sure, when, in the nineteenth century, particularly after 1848 and 1871, the United States welcomed a flood of mostly working class, mostly Catholic, Germans onto its shores, the United States was itself transformed, mostly for the better. But, Catholics also brought a brand of cultural conservativism and moral absolutism that was at odds with the semi-official pragmatist, loosely Protestant, culture of the United States.

How Straussianism and Schmittianism have
infiltrated our Legal Tradition
Which brings us to the second feature of Professor Hollis’ post mortem, her embrace of Straussian and, more importantly, Schmittian terms of political understanding. This may, at first glance, seem odd since one of the distinguishing features of Straussian political philosophy is the rejection of the “idealist” Aristotle in favor of the “realist” Plato. Aristotle operated under the false security manufactured by his friend Alexander the Great’s political protection. Under real political conditions, when Athens was ruled by demagogues who manipulated the masses to gain their support, Aristotle wouldn’t have had a chance. Which is why, under real conditions, in order to do what is best for the public, the guardians are obligated to trick and deceive the public into giving the guardians their support. Aristotle’s mistake was to believe that the many would allow the few to openly rule on their behalf. In the real world, the many will demand political and economic power for themselves. Moreover, as the fate of Socrates well illustrates, should the guardians try to rule openly under realistic conditions, the many will have them put to death. Clearly, the framers of the Constitution had drunk the “Kool-Aid.” For they, like Aristotle, also believed that the many would allow the few to rule without resistance. Leo Strauss, distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, had a different take.

In light of this reading of Aristotle and Plato, Strauss promoted an interesting rhetorical device, which developed into something of a habit. This rhetorical habit always assumed the same form. It goes something like this: Adolph Hitler (like Pericles) rose to power democratically on the economic and moral discontent of the masses; Adolph Hitler would not have risen to power had it not been for the promise of economic and political democracy held out to them by the radical left; had the radical left behaved responsibly, they (like Plato) would have seen that masses are morally conservative and therefore hostile to the atheism and secularism championed by the left; had they appreciated the moral conservativism of the masses, the left would have been wise (like Plato) and would have been content to deceive the masses in order to achieve their good ends; but because the left is not wise (like Socrates) and is idealistic (like Aristotle), the left fanned the flames of hope for economic and political democracy; which played into the hands of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Better, thought Strauss, to deceive the many, whose lack of wealth, education, and leisure condemn them to blindness, in order to achieve the good, than to unwisely deceive oneself into believing that the uneducated, poor, and needy masses will do good on their own. The latter has always been a recipe for demagogues.

Thus Strauss’ read of the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, the Black Power movement, and the anti-war movement. Each of these movements was unwise and idealistic, and each risked the invitation of a demagogue to lead the people. Moreover, insofar as none was based on the solid rock of natural moral philosophy (i.e., the Roman Catholic Aristotle), none had a true, legitimate, claim to moral authority. Only the cultural and moral conservativism of the few, combined with the wisdom entailed in political realism, held any hope of saving the modern world from swinging wildly to and fro between moral relativism, collapse, moral absolutism, and collapse.

Of course, Straussians abounded in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Dick Cheney, Carl Rove, and Don Rumsfield were perhaps the best-known Straussians. But then there were lesser-knowns, such as were Richard Pearle, Elliot Abrahms, Paul Wolfowitz, and Alan Keyes. Moving outside of the White House the list gets longer still. This list includes Justice Thomas, Francis Fukuyama, William and Irving Kristol, and Allan Bloom. And this is just the short list.

The point is that while the Aristotle of mainstream classical studies has very little to do with the fantasies and fears entertained by Strauss and his epigones, there is a remarkably good fit between the Roman Catholic Aristotle and the Straussian Plato, both of whom preach a moral absolutism and cultural conservativism that, while maintaining the patina of academic objectivity, are in their entirety the product of debates and controversies over modernism and liberalism that raged in nineteenth century Central Europe. These debates and controversies then migrated to the U.S. in the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries in the minds and hearts of faithful Roman Catholic immigrants who had no other interest than to maintain their traditions in their adopted nation.

But, of course, Strauss was not among these earlier migrations. Instead, he was a part of a later migration, the migration of German Jews and non-Jewish German leftists in the 1930s and 1940s. Which brings us to the second, more narrowly focused dimension of Professor Hollis’ brand of Straussianism. For repeatedly throughout her post mortem Professor Hollis invokes the friend-enemy distinction, a distinction associated less with Leo Strauss than with his mentor, the German legal scholar and architect of Nazi jurisprudence Carl Schmitt. It was Schmitt, the lapsed German Roman Catholic cum celebrated student of Max Weber, who would place the Kulturkampf, the struggle of conservative German Catholics against Prussian Protestant cultural domination, at the very center of his entire understanding of politics. Thus his repeated invocations of 1848 and 1871 in his masterwork The Concept of the Political (1927/32). Here, in part, is Schmitt’s teaching:

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy. . . . The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. . . .  The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. . . .  The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.

In Schmitt’s view, this friend-enemy grouping, and the concept of the political more generally, were required historically because of the elimination of their original foundation, first in the State Monarch, but ultimately in God. But, since Schmitt was a lapsed Catholic, an atheist, whose only connection to Roman Catholicism was his cultural conservativism and moral absolutism, he could not ground or reground political authority in the Church, much less in God. And, so, good student of Weber’s that he was, he regrounded political authority in . . .; well, “the political.” Here, for Schmitt, was the ultimate absolute. Not the state, definitely not the state; but, rather, the political.

Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy. The political does not reside in the battle itself, which possesses its own technical, psychological, and military laws, but in the mode of behavior which is determined by this possibility, by clearly evaluating the concrete situation and thereby being able to distinguish correctly the real friend and the real enemy.

And it is in her repeated invocation of the extreme condition, the friend-enemy grouping, that Professor Hollis most clearly displays not simply the Straussian, but the Schmittian foundations of her position. If I am in love with another man or if I abort my fetus, I am not simply a gay man or a woman who rejects the pagan physician Galen’s belief (subsequently adopted wholesale by the Roman Church) that the soul is in the male sperm. No, if I am in love with another man I am a moral relativist who rejects all natural law and, therefore, all law. And, if I abort my fetus, I am a murderer deserving to be tried and sentenced as a murderer.

The alternative, which Schmitt was sufficiently forthright to call “British” and “French,” entailed the complete rejection of sovereignty as such, and therefore “the political,” and therefore the embrace of moral relativism. In Schmitt’s view, Jacob Burckhardt had gotten it right when he ridiculed “democracy, i.e., a doctrine nourished by a thousand springs, and varying greatly with the social status of its adherents. Only in one respect was it consistent, namely, in the insatiability of its demand for state control of the individual. Thus it blurs the boundaries between state and society and looks to the state for the things that society will most likely refuse to do, while maintaining a permanent condition of argument and change and ultimately vindicating the right to work and subsistence for certain castes.” But what most incensed Schmitt was the “liberal” practice of reducing the political to the economic or the social.

Liberalism in one of its typical dilemmas of intellect and economics has attempted to transform the enemy from the viewpoint of economics into a competitor and from the intellectual point into a debating adversary. In the domain of economics there are no enemies, only competitors, and in a thoroughly moral and ethical world perhaps only debating adversaries.

And, here, in a nutshell is the whole problem of the “British” Elizabethan Settlement, the foundation, not only of British, but of American religious polity; and not merely the foundation of religious compromise, but of political compromise as well. How can it be possible that Protestants and Catholics would live together peaceably in the same nation? Thomas Hobbes knew the answer to this question in his English bones. The answer was Leviathan, the State, not culture, and the Law, and not morality or the political, along with all of the messy compromises, debates, and economic civil wars that such competition and compromise entails.

For Schmitt, as for Hollis, this is simply one of the “typical dilemmas of intellect and economics” into which liberalism inevitably falls; and falls because it has decided not to treat those with whom it disagrees as “the enemy,” but has elected instead precisely to treat him or her as a debating adversary.

Confusing the Moral and Cultural with
the Social, Economic, and the Legal

Which brings us to the third feature of Professor Hollis’ post mortem. Professor Hollis is inclined to translate every economic, political, and social problem into a moral and cultural crisis or conflict. Never mind that Professor Hollis – despite teaching in a Business School – is not an economist; never mind that The Economist, a right-of-center business magazine, Financial Times, a neo-liberal daily, and Mayor Bloomberg, who is certainly not a tax-and-spend liberal all endorsed President Obama because they all found the Romney-Ryan economic proposals completely incompetent and incoherent. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of professional economists favored Obama’s proposals over Romney’s.

The debate over economics is no more a debate over economics than the debate over evolution is a debate over science. Both economics and evolution are moral issues so that when 99% of climate scientists or 85% of economists issue conclusions on climate change or budget proposals, or when physicians issue statements about women’s health or biologists issue statements about evolution, these are not scientific statements, they are moral judgments. And what these moral judgments tell Professor Hollis is that the majority of economists have it in for small businessmen and entrepreneurs; that the majority of health officials are adolescent perverts and that anyone who says otherwise has clearly been duped by the CorruptMedia.

As Professor Hollis says bluntly in heading number 3 of her post mortem: It’s the culture stupid.

But what this means is that we cannot solve our economic, social, or political problems through the implementation of policies informed and designed by climate scientists, economists, biological scientists, medical practitioners, social scientists, and so on. These scientific types are all adolescent moral perverts, claims Professor Hollis, not only lacking any special moral insight into these problems, but completely lacking any moral insight whatsoever. Next to these so-called “experts,” every underemployed, undervalued, undereducated average citizen is infinitely better versed in what truly matters: the moral universe that God has planted in their souls.

In 2012 the numbers were 48% for Romney, 52% for Obama. The numbers are likely to be similar or slightly better for the Democrats in 2016. And, yet, between 2012 and 2016 will be a world of hurt and, more importantly, a well-financed non-stop media blitz trumpeting something like Professor Hollis’ post mortem. And, as Professor Hollis readily admits (number 10): “America is more polarized than ever; and this time it’s personal.” Yes, America is more polarized, in large measure because the political discourse of the Republican Party has been taken hostage by a rhetoric forged out the conflicts between culturally conservative, anti-democratic German Roman Catholics and liberal (although not progressive) Prussian Protestants in the nineteenth century. This rhetoric has not merely gained a foothold in the United States. It has now taken center stage.

In 1932, when Adolph Hitler had only just been elected and when representatives in the Reichstag were still fairy evenly divided between far right (National Socialists) and left of center (Social Democrats, Liberals and Communists), Carl Schmitt articulated the following, in my view, extremely compelling argument. The progressives, Schmitt argued, still believe that the National Socialists are simply “debating adversaries.” The progressives did not yet realize that the National Socialists were playing for blood. When the progressives said “let’s compromise,” the National Socialists could say “O.K.” But, when given the opportunity, they will eliminate their enemy. Of course, the progressives didn’t view themselves as “the enemy.” But, according to Schmitt, this was the advantage that the National Socialists enjoyed over the progressives.

Here is how Schmitt put it:

Nothing can escape this logical conclusion of the political. If pacifist hostility toward war were so strong as to drive pacifists into a war against nonpacifists, in a war against war, that would prove that pacifism truly possesses political energy because it is sufficiently strong to group men according to friend and enemy. If,
in fact, the will to abolish war is so strong that it no longer shuns war, then it has become a political motive, i.e., it affirms, even if only as an extreme possibility, war and even the reason for war. Presently this appears to be a peculiar way of justifying wars. The war is then considered to constitute the absolute last war of humanity. Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly destroyed. In other words, he is an enemy who no longer must be compelled to retreat into his borders only.

This is Schmitt’s rhetoric. But it is also Professor Hollis’ rhetoric. It is the rhetoric of moral absolutism and cultural conservativism. And it is the rhetoric of the leadership of the current Republican Party. It is not sufficient that women not be compelled to abort their pregnancies. All women must be compelled not to have abortions. It is not sufficient that I am free to love and marry who I want. All people must be compelled only to marry members of the opposite sex. It is not sufficient that I can purchase private health insurance. All people must be compelled to purchase private health insurance and no government should ever offer a public alternative. Thus Professor Hollis and her political allies, reproducing the very logic of mid-twentieth century central Europe, are compelling Americans with whom they disagree to retreat behind borders that require their very elimination.

Take no prisoners; Leave
no witnesses

Professor Hollis sees this, as Schmitt saw Weimar Germany in the 1920s, as an all out cultural war. If only she can provoke progressives to abandon their commitment to the rule of law and to the integrity of public institutions, then she will have achieved her goal. We then will have adopted her logic of the political. But let us say that we stick by our principles. Let us say that law school after law school fields a faculty of professors who (for the sake of academic freedom) are permitted to completely mischaracterize a thoroughly federalist constitution as anti-federalist. Let us say that federal court after federal is packed with jurists who have been so poorly schooled in legal history that they truly believe (as John Yu truly believes) that the Führerprinzip (or “unitary executive”) is a solid American principle, rather than, as it truly is, a feature of central European administrative law. And, let us suppose that no matter how the Democrats polling numbers improve, a significant minority of Americans – and the vast majority of the military hierarchy – come to believe that liberalism is contrary to the founding principles of our nation (which apparently include the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek’s complete misreading of the concept of Liberty).

More than one half of the nation believes that we are still working within a constitutional framework. Yet, a significant minority sincerely believes – because folk like Professor Hollis has convinced them – that we are now operating outside of the Constitution. What this means is that, according to Professor Hollis, we are approaching “rock bottom.” We are nearing what Schmitt called the “extreme case.” And, when we reach that “rock bottom,” then existing law no longer holds good. Instead, it will be whoever can successfully establish the friend-enemy distinction will have occupied the higher ground and will be poised for victory, irrespective of whether or not they form a democratic majority.

Having read Professor Hollis’ post mortem and several other post mortems like hers, I am convinced that nearly 48% of Americans believe that we have already reached “rock bottom.” That is to say, nearly 48% of Americans feel that we have reached the extreme case where extra-legal, extra-constitutional action is justified.

So, what are we to do? And my answer is, I am not sure. What I am sure is that we need to take post mortems such as Professor Hollis’ with absolute seriousness. They are principled. They have a long history. They are backed by scholarship and scholars. They are feeding one of the most impression and well-financed propaganda machines ever in history. And, perhaps most terrifying of all, because their supporters believe absolutely in the moral and cultural superiority of their mission, they are willing, even eager, to die fighting for its victory. That is what Professor Hollis is saying. That is her warning to us.

We need to hear her warning. We need to know this. We need to reflect critically upon what it means. We need to talk earnestly with one another about it. And we need to organize tirelessly.

Chris Hedges’ Mourning in America

Once Again – Death of the Liberal Class

So, let us assume for the moment that Chris Hedges is right and that, domestically and internationally, not only is the US every bit as much the proto-fascist juggernaut he suggests that it is, but that US liberals, who imagine they are the firewall against the full revenge of this storm, are in fact willing or unwilling accomplices in its advance.

This places Mr Hedges is nearly the same position as members of the left wing of the socialist party in 1932 in Germany. So, let us assume that that is where we are.

My recollection is not only that we lost that battle in spectacular fashion, but that in 1945, the liberal class picked up right where it had left off in 1941. Readers less familiar with this history may wish to recall (1) that liberal America was quite taken with Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini; (2) that overall they were pleased in particular with Mr. Hitler’s anti-communism, his anti-Semitism, his hostility to homosexuality, his opposition to organized labor, and his defense of the traditional family; (3) that even FDR’s preparations for war were motivated less by moral outrage than by the huge sums the US had already sunk into Great Britain (which would then be lost) and fear over a world dominated by German economic and military superiority; but, therefore, (4) that it was only Pearl Harbor that created the political will to join the conflict.

When the Allies prevailed in 1945, no one in the US felt it necessary to examine the world system that had given rise to Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. To the contrary, the liberal class was inclined to embrace Hannah Arendt’s ontologically fundamental lumping of all totalitarianisms in the same heap, which had the advantage that, unlike Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Arendt had also said some unkind things about capitalism and Israel and therefore could be considered unbiased.

Assuming we are now where the left wing of the German socialist party was in 1932, what then? Of course, in 1932, what Mr. Hedges calls the “liberal class” was quite pleased with Mr. Hitler. Do we then simply write them off? And then what? Compose incisive, vitriolic prose for the left-wing blogosphere? (I have done that and continue to do that.) Makes me feel good to write and to read. My brothers and sisters in 1932 were doing the same, right up until 1938-9, when they were forced into exile and underground.

Perhaps this is what we need to do. Perhaps the liberal class is lost to us. And perhaps we therefore need to brace ourselves for the inevitable carnage that disorganized capitalism provokes in its downward global spiral. Nothing more can be done. Organize, write, read, and act until we are silenced.

I have to wonder, however, whether this Manichean isolation of the liberal from the left did not in some ways accelerate and compound the violence that it deemed in any case inevitable. Because, from another vantage-point the liberal class was as much victim as perpetrator. And while its vision of the world and of Germany in 1932 was inclined to cast fascism in the best possible light, it should be remembered that the German Left’s demonization of liberal Germany made it all the easier for liberals to prefer Hitler over those on the Left who cast them as class enemies.

Am I mistaken to detect in Mr. Hedges’ characterization of the liberal class and, more specifically, the “death” of this class, a touch of the kind of rage a husband, wife, or child feels at the death of their beloved? And with such rage, is there not also a pang of guilt that my rage is irrationally complicit in the death of the beloved? Thus the self-loathing that not infrequently accompanies loss.

There is, however, another, more painful and less dramatic path. Because, of course, we inevitably see in the liberal class not only what it is, but what it could be; we want this class not so much to live up to its original promise as much as to grow out of its self-imposed adolescence (to use Kant’s expression). But, if I am not mistaken, this, our desire for the liberal class, is also our love for this class. We want it to be better, to recover from its illness, to wake up. But it is not, and so we are in mourning.

And, yet, notwithstanding our oedipal desire to make it so, the liberal class is not dead. As Mr. Hedges would be the first to admit, the liberal class is there, tepidly supporting minimal action on climate change, furtively complaining about the renewal of the Patriot Act, cheering with the President’s support of gay marriage or amnesty for children born of undocumented parents, but secretly wishing and hoping that this President would do more.

Mourning the death of the liberal class is, in my view, a cop out. It relieves us of the hard work of developing a language that reaches across the Manichean divide to, where possible, rescue members of the liberal class from their self-imposed adolescence.  And it releases us from culpability in the impending disaster. What else could we do? Nothing. And so we are absolved. Psychoanalysis warns us against such repetition, which, even if inevitable, at least deserves our notice. Is 1932 2012? Is the liberal class the Christian Democratic Party or the Liberal Party of 1932? But, then, what are we? Are we the Democratic Socialists? And, if so, then what then? Must we play our pre-assigned role?

I think not. Instead we must continue to develop language that aims at restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the halt, spirit to the depressed and dejected, and freedom to the captives, even or specially if they are captives by choice.

The time for mourning is over or at least premature. The time for work is at hand. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Work while it is still day.

Ryan’s and Romney’s Dream Cities


Paul Ryan is right and wrong. He is right to point out that our nation is divided, roughly evenly, between voters who agree with Mitt Romney’s approach and those who agree with Barack Obama’s approach. But he is wrong to think that urban voters will be brought around to his Randian/Hayekian vision for the American economy. And, no, it’s not simply a matter of race.

As Chicago economics Professor Robert Lucas has shown (Lectures on Economic Development), there are a lot of things that happen in cities that make them hubs of innovation and reform. And, in spite of Lucas’ Neo-liberal bona fides, very little that he identifies as unique to cities could flourish were it not for the heavy hand of public intervention: universities, think tanks, highways, police, rescue, fire, safety, not to mention substantial tax incentives that promote development in one neighborhood, but not others, or that promote one kind of industrial development or research and not another.

But there is more. Cities are places where people of all sorts of different ethnicities, language groups, sexual orientations, and professions mix and communicate and assist one another daily. It is among the most practical ways that we learn not to fear, and even to come to love, that which is different. Although I grew up living on a lake in the Midwest, I did not come to enjoy sea food, Vietnamese food, and North African curries until I left home for college.

It was also at college that I learned that the economic thinking that governs family budgets is not — nor has ever been — the economics that govern private investment or national budgets. If Romney-Ryan received a thumbs down even from conservative bastions like the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and the Economist, it was because, outside of a few kooks, no one (really, no one) who is actually responsible for corporate investment or national budgets believes a word of what they read in Friedrich von Hayek or Carl Menger. Better the measured analysis of Alfred Marshall, every bit as much of a Neo-classical economist as Menger, but without the venom and Neo-Kantian understanding of freedom.

If the Romney-Ryan ticket did well (or better) outside of urban areas, this has less to do with race than it does with the isolation, insularity, lower educational achievement, and, yes, the poverty of rural and, increasingly, suburban America. But, as the NYT piece referenced above indicates, the urban is bleeding into the suburban, which is certainly bad news for the current GOP.

Which brings us back to Ryan and the Republican leadership’s resistance to taxing wealth. Yes, roughly half of America said no to the taxation of wealth. But since true plutocrats like Romney make up less than .1 percent of the electorate, and since the overwhelming majority of those earning between $50 and 200K voted for Obama, we need to wonder who these Americans are who voted against taxing wealth. Sadly, they were by and large Americans who do not have wealth to tax, but who have been convinced by the likes of Romney, a real plutocrat, that taxation of wealth is bad on moral grounds.

Here is the real audience for Ryan’s creed. Taxation of wealth is a threat to individual freedom. Now, no one who lives in an urban area will ever believe such nonsense because we understand how dependent and interdependent we are on one another for our freedoms. We understand what it takes to make a city work. Of course, it also takes a lot to make suburban and rural areas work well. But it is often much more difficult to see and appreciate.

So, go ahead Paul. Go preach your gospel in the cities and see where that gets you. Or, you can begin to work for real change in the rural and suburban districts who desperately need the health care, education, transportation, and jobs that comes only with planning, taxes, and a deep appreciation for res publica, the wealth we hold in common.

The Costs of Surveillance


As I was listening to yesterday’s report on the costs Georgians are paying to enforce its new anti-immigrant law, I was reminded of Francis Fukuyama’s discussion about the weakness of strong states. Fukuyama, a student of Allan Bloom, mistakenly felt that the weakness of strong states followed from too much central regulation of the economy. But, as Georgia attempts to implement one of the broadest citizen surveillance efforts since World War II, they may be relearning a lesson learned too late by the former Soviet Union. It was not centralized economic regulation, but rather the huge sums that the Soviet Union threw at defense, security, and surveillance that proved their undoing. In fact, corporate deregulation may actually contribute to the problem surveillance aims to solve.

As we know, there are some jobs that most Americans simply will not perform; they pay too little, offer too little security, and offer no future. Which is why, since our nation’s earliest days, immigrants have poured, first across the Atlantic, then the Pacific, for the economic opportunity they saw on our shores, adding credibility to Neo-classical claims that capital flows downhill locally, but uphill internationally (see R Lucas).

And since our nation’s earliest days, this has suited capital just fine, supplying a steady stream of sub-market workers. We have been far less attentive, however, to the effects this depressed wage-market has on native workers. Naturally, these workers want the “x” — Chinese, Irish, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Vietnamese, etc . . . — to go home, thereby bringing the wage market back to equilibrium and opening up jobs at a living wage. But, as we know, this strategy almost never works because the real push behind low wages is not immigrant workers, but domestic capital. Capital drives wages down to their lowest possible margin and, thereby, attracts workers willing to work at that wage.

Now, however, this dynamic is being played out in the economically toxic environment produced by cultural conservativism. The cultural conservatives have successfully expelled the immigrants. So why haven’t the jobs reappeared? Why instead has the economy become even more depressed?

Well, for one, there is the fact that private capital has decided that it does not have to accept that margin. It is mobile and has decided to travel. For another, there is an astronomical administrative cost that comes with the kind of surveillance necessary to ensure that all of the under- and unemployed in Georgia deserve to be looking for work.

Further deregulation hardly solves this problem. Capital needs to know that it cannot flee. It needs to readjust its margin. And when it does so, jobs will appear. Not low wage jobs whose highest value can only be realized in low-wage, low-benefit nations like Mexico, Vietnam, or India, which is where immigrant labor sends its wages; but living wage, secure jobs that fuel the local economy and create enough of a spill-over to benefit recent immigrants.

Instead, in Georgia, Georgians are learning the hard way what many strong states have learned before them; states that responded to low wages with increased surveillance and state security. More prisons, more police, more immigrant surveillance is far more costly than better more effective regulation of industry. If you don’t believe me, just ask a Georgian doctor, nurse, or patient.

Our Perverse Economics

Not so very long ago – really less than a century ago – the Roman Catholic Church denounced market capitalism as a “perversion.” Their denunciation of market capitalism followed naturally from the authority they accorded the fifth century Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle had famously distinguished perverse from natural ways of creating wealth. People who create wealth naturally do not contemplate creating something from nothing. They recognize that all things in nature have specific, limited, and identifiable collections of purposes or uses. Even interest on money that is loaned can be natural since it is variously a measurement of time or lost use. Those who create wealth perversely, by contrast, do dream of creating something from nothing. And they imagine that they have hit upon a substance that is general, unlimited, and universal. They believe that they have hit upon something near divine, Capital. Thus the Roman Church’s historical argument against market capitalism.

Clearly, however, one need not be a Roman Catholic to appreciate Aristotle’s argument. His argument is not that we can not aim for the limitless accumulation of wealth. Indeed, we can. His argument is that – because the goal of unlimited accumulation cannot possibly be achieved – this aim is perverse, which is to say unnatural. More than this, however, if we aim for this goal, we destroy every other goal in the process.

This, of course, is very different from classical or neo-classical economists’ view. In their view, all other goals are achieved on the way to achieving unlimited wealth because as we aim for unlimited wealth we have, by necessity, to attend to the wants and desires of all of those upon whose consumption and work reaching our goal depends. Since we must attend to other’s wants and desires, we have no alternative but to fulfill them on our way to achieving our own goal.

Aristotle had already deconstructed this argument in the fifth century BCE. To do so, he asks us to compare a limited goal – building a house, planting seed, cooking food, training a horse – with a goal that must endure no such limits, the goal of making money, the universal equivalent and, hence, the means to satisfy all other limited goals. Which should one choose? Obviously, since money gets me everything else and, in theory, gets me everything else without limit, I should choose the goal of making money over the goals of making a house, planting seed, cooking food, training a horse, etc. Indeed, I should in fact place these other goals to one side until I have accumulated enough wealth.

But then Aristotle asks: how much wealth is enough? When will you know that you have enough wealth? For example, I know that I have too many pairs of shoes when my closet is full. I know I have too many houses, when I cannot live in all or even any of them. I know I have enough health when I am, well, healthy. And so on. Because these goals have natural limits, I know when I have met them. But what, then, is the natural limit of this perverse goal?

Herein consists its perversion; it has no limit. And so it will pull all other merely limited goals into its orbit. Here is how Aristotle himself put it:

1257b40  The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not for the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire also an unlimited amount of what enables it to go on. Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasure of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centres on business, and the second mode of acquiring goods owes its existence to this. For where enjoyment consists in excess, men look for that skill which produces the excess that is enjoyed. And if they cannot procure it through money-making, they try to get it by some other means, using all their faculties for this purpose, which is contrary to nature: courage, for example, is to produce confidence, not goods; nor yet is it the job of military leadership and medicine to produce goods, but victory and health. But these people turn all skills into skills of acquiring goods, as though that were the end and everything had to serve that end (Aristotle (1981-09-17). The Politics (Classics) (Kindle Locations 1312-1320). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition).

The question is: does Aristotle’s view of wealth have any application today?

Well, yes, it does because it so happens that Aristotle’s view of wealth and wealth-making was shared by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, whose views on money and wealth-making the framers placed second only to Aristotle’s own teacher Plato (and well above the views of another emerging authority on the subject, Adam Smith, who places fourteenth).

It so happens that when the framers of the U.S. Constitution thought about res publica, the wealth we hold in common, they always had in mind the specific ends to which this wealth would be put and not the endless, unlimited, generation of wealth; not the perverse understanding of wealth-making.

Which gives me an idea. Why don’t we call our Republican friends to account? Why don’t we invite them to return to the “strict construction” of the Constitution? And, while we are at it, why don’t we call our Roman Catholic friends to account as well? Do they still rely on Aristotle’s understanding of natural and perverse wealth, as Saint Thomas did? And are they therefore ready to stand by us in supporting a return to a more natural, limited, sustainable understanding of wealth and wealth-making?

But, it gets better. For it turns out that Karl Marx also relied upon Aristotle’s understanding of wealth and wealth-making. How about we invite our friends in labor to shift their focus from endless expanding production and consumption back to Aristotle’s more sustainable, limited, but also more humane notion of wealth and wealth-making?

Or, we can continue down the insane, perverse road we are on.

What the Republicans need to do?

This morning on Morning Edition, Renee Montaigne and Cokie Roberts (among others) pondered the problem America’s shifting demographics poses to the Republican Party. Having tacked far enough to the right in order to capture the nomination, Romney could not tack back fast enough or far enough to the center to capture the popular vote, which included a sizeable and growing number of voting groups – women, Hispanics, African Americans, fiscally conservative/socially responsible – he was obligated to offend during the primaries.

I have suggested in this blog that (big “R”) Republicans need to become (small “r”) republicans; that is, they need to recapture a vision for res publica, the “wealth we hold in common,” or “commonwealth.”

But is this really a formula for electoral victory? Once again this year, the Republicans captured two demographics. They captured the $50K and above vote; and they also captured the vote of white male voters who felt the economic pinch. And while the exit polling data is still trickling in, it is fair to say that the Republicans captured the votes of white males who feel that they have been on the losing end of the stick to non-whites, members of union families, and government workers.

Were big “R” Republicans to promote small “r” republican values and institutions, I have no doubt but that they would lose their edge both with the $50K up crowd and with the disgruntled white male voter demographic.

For those of you who have read my book, you will recognize that this is much the same conundrum the Republican Party found itself in after 1945. The Democratic Party had stolen their thunder. Not only had Democratic Party embraced the republican notion of “wealth we hold in common,” but they had also embraced the Republican’s social franchise, peeling off African American voters in the south and responsible business voters in the north. The Republican Party was losing its very raison d’etre.

But then the Republican Party stole something just as valuable from the Democrats: the “southern strategy.” Now a half-century later, as any electoral map clearly shows, the Republican Party has fully lived into this redefinition of itself. It is now the party of the oligarchs and their unorganized white male employees and service professionals. But, as Nixon discovered in 1960 and Goldwater in 1964; that is not enough.

And, as we learned in this election, not even Citizens United will save them. So, what now?

I anticipate a fairly sizeable segment of Republican Party punditry will see the writing on the wall and will view massive voter suppression and disenfranchisement as their only avenue to principled victory. “Principled victory” in this context means resisting compromise on social or economic issues. The higher the percentage of angry white underemployed male evangelicals, the better the Republican chances for victory.

This strategy of voter suppression will be accompanied by a locally-focused approach. Local power (sorry Paul) is by definition anti-federalist. The House of Representatives was always a concession to underemployed white voters. (This helps to explain why the House will only return to the Democratic column when Democrats join with their Republican colleagues to renounce their commitment to republican values and institutions.) With their angry white underemployed base, Republicans will continue to pack School Boards, state legislatures, transportation commissions, regional boards, city councils and the like.

And, of course, they will continue to leverage their plutocratic and oligarchic advantage in media, entertainment, business, and commerce.

This, to be sure, will not win them the Senate or the White House. But it may so wreck the nation financially and so disable it politically that out of pure desperation the nation might seek a “third way” out, just as Italy did in 1922 and Germany did in 1932.

But, let us suppose that small “r” republicans who still find themselves in the big “R” Republican Party grow disheartened by their Party’s utter rejection of small “r” republican values and institutions? And, let us suppose that these small “r” republicans make common cause with small “r” republicans in their opponent’s party, the Democratic Party. And, let us suppose that together they do something that has not been tried since 1791, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed the Democratic-Republican Party – a grand coalition.

My best guess is that such a grand coalition would not be to the liking of the current Republican leadership or its current anti-federalist, anti-republican base. So be it. My guess is that it would also not be to the liking of the libertarian, anti-federalist fringe the circles on the edges of both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. These anti-federalists and anti-republicans will spin off into their own left-wing and right-wing orbits.

But – and this is my hope – it is only such a grand coalition, committed to the wealth we hold in common, that will pull our nation back from the precipice. And, it is also only such a grand coalition that will save what remains of the Republican Party either from self-destruction, from tyranny, or from both.

Abolish the Electoral College? Think about it.


Thanks to my friend Kyle Granger in Innsbruck, AUSTRIA, with whom I spent the post-election (at an ungodly hour for him), who posted Alex Pareene’s piece on Google+. It occurs to me that many Europeans (and not a few Americans, such as Alex) wonder why the US does not simply adopt a parliamentary system and abolish the electoral college. Wouldn’t that solve everything? Well, no. And here’s why.

Let’s reflect critically both on the original and on the contemporary opponents of the electoral college. For the original opponents, the electoral college represented just one additional way to insulate decision-making, the process of governing, from politics. Were the process of governing more sensitive to politics, the individual interests of voters — of citizens — would express itself in policy. Just to be clear what they meant by this, citizens overwhelmingly opposed a common currency; they overwhelmingly opposed the authority of the federal government to tax wealth; they opposed extra-local rules governing commerce, trade, business, and transportation. In this south, this opposition to the electoral college translated into fierce, militant support for the institution of slavery, and equally fierce, militant support for local militias, easily and quickly mustered not simply to put down local slave revolts, but also (and more tellingly) to prevent federal troops from entering their communities to enforce republican institutions, including the abolition of slavery.

The earliest defenders of the electoral college, by contrast, feared that the vast majority of Americans, if given an opportunity, would seize the land and wealth and wreck the economic institutions of the young republic. In their view, stable economic institutions and the steady accumulation of wealth would be jeopardized if the poor and uneducated were permitted to directly express their interests politically and institutionally. But defenders of the electoral college also feared that direct democracy would be too easy for oligarchs — such as southern and northern land owners — to manipulate. No private interest, large or small, wants to be regulated, so they reasoned. Defenders of the electoral college believed it would simply be too easy for oligarchs to conceal their own self-interest under the banner of “liberty.”

Now to today. Europeans frequently make the, in my view, huge mistake of feeling that their parliamentary political institutions are separable from their social institutions; or that in some way the former generated the latter. This ignores history. Since Europe’s political institutions took shape only after the industrial revolution was well underway, these institutions already contained within themselves an implicit (and often an explicit) social franchise alongside the more traditional political franchise. That is to say, when Europe’s political institutions took shape, their framers recognized that empowering the industrial working class would only work politically if this industrial working class were also empowered by education, health, housing, and social security. Oddly, this Sonderweg (other road to democracy) is often pilloried both by the left and the right; by the left because they argue that it bought off the working class; by the right because they argue that it instituted cradle-to-grave paternalism.

However, it could be argued that this was an elegant solution to a problem that the US has never successfully broached, much less resolved. The framers of the US Constitution severely restricted the political franchise because they believed that republican institutions could not survive direct democracy. By the 1820s all states had expanded voting to include all classes of white men. The result was the very demagoguery that the framers most feared. Already by the 1820s every political race (i.e., every race for the House, not the Senate) was bought and paid for by the highest bidder; a direct and immediate cause not only of the slaughter of tens of thousands of native Americans, but also of the expansion of slavery into the southwest. Which is to say, because political enfranchisement in the US was not accompanied by social enfranchisement it led to a politically and socially illiterate electorate, easily manipulated by the US oligarchy.

Europeans frequently feel that all that the US needs to do is adopt a European-style parliamentary system, and all will be well.

But let us pause and reflect on why big business might be among the most powerful forces pushing for the elimination of the electoral college. Where might Mitt Romney have spent his war chest had, for example, California’s electoral votes been proportional to its popular vote? We in California saw next to zero presidential advertisements this year.

Yes. Direct democracy is good, but it is only good to the extent that voters enjoy the social and economic franchise that would free them from the power exercised by the oligarchs. Put differently, Europeans, evidently forgetful of 1922 and 1932, seem to feel that democracy in and of itself is emancipatory. They seem to feel that the vote brings with it the education, liberty, and leisure required to exercise political power responsibly. And they forget that, in Europe, because the social and economic franchise accompanied the political franchise, European voters are far better equipped to resist the powers of their own oligarchs.

So, just ask yourself. Would you really rather be paying attention to California, Washington, and Oregon next election? Really?

If you want to learn more about the peculiarity of US political institutions, navigate to Amazon.com and purchase Joseph Lough’s Commonwealth: or Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither.

The Long Wait

Up at 5:30 am. Calling Ohio from 6 to noon. Parent-Teacher conferences all afternoon. Piano lessons. Somehow I managed to cast a ballot in between. And now that the polls are closing out east, there is the long wait out here.

Should I be circumspect? Should I be hopeful? (Tried that. Didn’t work.) Should I be realistic? Cynical?

Even if all of my election-day wishes came true, we would still be strapped with a center-right Congress and White House whose members — nearly all of them — are bought and paid for by private wealth, by oikonomia, and therefore do not and cannot represent the wealth we hold in common, the commonwealth, res publica. And, so, no matter what happens, we will not win.

And, yet, there is a real choice here. The Republican Party openly, lustily, defiantly opposes its very namesake. It is militantly against res publica, against the Republic, and so cannot knowingly win the vote of anyone who considers him or herself a patriot.

The Democrats, by contrast, most of them, still believe that the wealth we hold in common should play a leading role in our life together. They are the “mudsill” against the complete destruction of public life in America. And so we vote for them.

But they too, most of them, are not sufficiently militant defenders of republican values and institutions. They want to hedge their bets. They don’t want to burn the bridges built for them by their corporate donors. And, rightfully, they believe that we will vote for them because the alternative is unthinkable.

Win or lose, however, tomorrow, the 7th of November, I would like to challenge the readers of this blog to occupy the Democratic Party in much the same way as the Tea Partiers have occupied the Republican. Storm this institution with the militant republican creed: res publica. The wealth we hold in common.

More later. It’s already late. 8 pm on the East Coast.