Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Elections 2014 Post-Mortem


Election Day in the US is a bewildering spectacle. From the upward climb of the cost of elections  (NC just saw the most expensive senatorial campaign ever in history), the switch of majority in the Senate, to the legalization of marijuana in Oregon and DC, it is difficult to say exactly what voters meant to say.

What is clear is that Democrats had a bad night. Of the four senate races in the purple states that went for Obama in 2012 (VA, CO, IA, NC) Republicans won in all but VA. We now have, unequivocally, a Republican Congress. There will now be at least 52 Republican senators and 242 Republican Congressmen. Democrats failed to take down Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He has attacked labor, rolled back healthcare reform, and yet has been elected three times (including a recall election) in four years. Walker is now a person to watch. Just about the only silver lining for the Democrats is that Jeanne Shaheen of NH held on to her seat.

To some extent, this election was a referendum on Barack Obama. Democratic candidates were undeniably running away from the president, whose approval rating stood at 41 percent on the eve of the election. (Maybe some of them should have stood with him, because the perception of political malaise, endorsed even by those trying to shy away from it, can have an infectious effect on voters.) Some time tomorrow, Barack Obama will have to come into the East Room, congratulate the Republicans and hold an olive branch. He will set up a meeting with Mitch McConnell and try to learn, for the first time, how to work with a Republican-led Senate.

But this is not to say that Republicans have an easy time ahead. Republican operatives are already claiming a mandate, and warning Obama that he should not use his unilateral powers to push through immigration reform or veto a bill on the Keystone pipeline. There’s nothing stopping Obama, though. And soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have at least three Senators setting themselves up to run in 2016: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. This is not a merry band of collaborators. (Rand Paul, for instance, is for immigration reform.)

Only 46 percent of voters polled before the elections wanted a GOP Congress. But in exit polls of actual voters, 54 percent of Americans thought that government is doing too much. What this tells us is that there wasn’t a Republican swing nationwide, but there was a 6-year itch felt among some. These voters had gotten tired of incumbent Democrats and Obama, and they were the ones who turned out to make the elections a referendum on the president. 

Democrats look exhausted; many have been defeated. But that also means that they are ready for a new standard bearer. The big night for Republicans may well chart an easier path for Hillary Clinton to the White House. Even amidst change, some things don’t change. American voters don’t like incumbents. Outsiders who promise to shake up Washington will come to Washington, when reality will temper rhetoric. A new majority will not a new system make.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

1776, The First Founding, and America's Past in the Present

When a nation chooses to celebrate the date of its birth is a decision of paramount significance. Indeed, it is a decision of unparalleled importance for the world’s "First New Nation," the United States, because it was the first nation to self-consciously write itself into existence with a written Constitution. But a stubborn fact stands out here. This new nation was created in 1787, and the July 4 that Americans celebrate today occurred on a different summer eleven years before. 



The united States (capitalization, as can be found in the Declaration of Independence, is advised) declared themselves independent on July 4, 1776, but the nation was not yet to be. An act of severance did not a nation make. These united States would only become the United States when the idea of a collective We the People was negotiated and formally set on parchment in the sweltering summer of 1787. This means that while every American celebrates the revolution against government every July 4, pro-goverment liberals do not quite have an equivalent red-letter day to celebrate and to mark the equally auspicious revolution in favor of government that transpired in 1787. Perhaps this is why the United States remains exceptional among all developed countries in her half-hearted attitude toward positive liberty, the welfare state, and government regulation, on the one hand, and her seeming addiction to guns, individual rights, and negative liberty, on the other. In part because the nation’s greatest national holiday was selected to commemorate severance and not consolidation, (at least half of) America remains frozen in the euphoric tide of the 1770s rather than the more pragmatic, nation-building impulse of the 1780s.

In The Lovers' Quarrel, I argue that the United States had Two Foundings, and that July 4 was only Act One of the creation of the American republic. In the interim years before the nation's elders (the imprecise but popular nomenclature is "founders”) came together again—this time not to address the curse of the royal yolk, but to discuss the more mundane post-revolutionary crises of interstate conflict especially in matters of trade and debt repayment—the states came to realize that the threat to liberty comes not always from on high by way of royal governors, but also sideways courtesy of newfound friends. In the mid-1780s, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and their compatriots came together to design a more perfect union: a union with the power to lay and collect taxes, to raise and support armies, and an executive to wage war. This was Act Two, or the Second American Founding.

Just like in the motherland, where Restoration would follow after the failed experiment of the Cromwellian Protectorate, a subtler counter-revolution occurred in 1787 when the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was shredded up and quietly discarded into the dustbin of History. In its place was inserted the Constitution. With the passage of time, we now act like the turbulent period of early nationhood of the 1780s, which indicated manifestly to the Federalists the need for a more robust central government, never even occurred.  

Custom and the convenience of having a bank holiday during the summer when the kids are out of school has hidden the reality of the Two Foundings. We now refer to a single founding, and a set of founders, but this does great injustice to the rich experiential tapestry that helped forge the United States. It denies the very substantive philosophic reasons for why one half of America is so convinced that liberty consists in rejecting government, but one half also thinks that flogging that dead horse with the King long slain seems needlessly self-defeating. As Turgot, the AbbĂ© de Mably, put it in a letter to Dr. Richard Price in 1778, “by striving to prevent imaginary dangers, they have created real ones." To many Europeans, that the citizens of United States have devoted so much energy—waging even a Civil War—against its own central government and fortifying themselves against it indicates a revolutionary nation in arrested development; a self-contradictory denial that the government of We the People is of, by, and for us.

The United States is thoroughly and still vividly ensconced in the original dilemma of civil society today, whether liberty is best achieved with government or without it. Conservatives and liberals are each so sure that they are the true inheritors of the “founding” because they can point to, respectively, the principles of the First and the Second Foundings to corroborate their account of history. And they will continue to do so for as long as the sacred texts of each of the Two Foundings, the Declaration and the Constitution, stand side by side, seemingly at peace with the other, but in effect in mutual tension.

This July 4, Americans should not despair that the country seems so fundamentally divided on issues from healthcare to Iraq. For if to love is divine, to quarrel is American; and the United States have been having at it for over two centuries.


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Obama Doctrine Under Siege

In 2008, Barack Obama swept into office, riding on the public mood that the United States did not need another war-mongering president. Yet a beleaguered Obama facing an Iraq spinning out of control in 2014 shows that if one can wait long enough in politics, even a Dick Cheney can find absolution. Politics, after all, is the art of the impossible.

Ideologies, ultimately, stem from properly basic beliefs about human nature. They are reasons beyond reasoning that are simply given in the ideologue's mind as a matter of fact. Among such reasons are two antithetical orientations toward power, both of which are probably partly true: power breeds fear, but it also feeds resentment. Neo-conservatives think that the former effect outweighs the latter effect, and so they believe, as Machiavelli counseled, that it is better to be feared than to be loved; liberals are convinced that no one can be feared forever because no person or state can be powerful at all times or forever.

The superstructure of all our political beliefs, including our interpretation of "facts" are built on such foundations. This superstructure has a variable, deliquescent nature because it is easier to select for information that confirms our beliefs than it is to seek out alternative explanations. Most ordinary citizens have neither time nor inclination to treat their foundational beliefs as hypotheses to be tested; rather, they use these beliefs as frames for making sense of a chaotic and otherwise senseless world.

And that is why there is no proving to either liberals or conservatives that whatever that is happening now in the Ukraine or in Iraq is evidence that more engagement or disengagement is the way forward; that the Obama doctrine is either flat-out wrong or not quite docile enough.

The very language by which commentators describe the situation in Iraq is indicative of the degree to which foundational beliefs frame the content of what is being said. We are now told that we are "losing Iraq" or "losing in Iraq." The neo-conservative assumption is that the United States once "had" Iraq, and that "winning" is the goal there. Liberals reject this us-versus-them framework, believing that it is not possible to defeat one's enemies, because each victory will breed new enemies. For them, to go in with the wrong strategy in the wrong theater would obviously only create more enemies. At the heart of the Obama Doctrine is the assumption that the only viable long-term foreign policy strategic goal is to make friends out of erstwhile enemies. Liberals are usually wrong in the short term, and usually right in the very long term; but as neo-conservatives will quickly point out: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness occur in the here and now. For the latter, there is no time to dawdle.

On the matter of Cheney versus Obama, there can be no verdict. Obama, like Carter, will simply have to wait this one out; while Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton have already taken note.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Hillary Clinton is Already in the News

It is only 2014, but 2016 is clearly in sight for Washington insiders. The problem is there is no clear way forward for Republicans if one's eyes are focused in the foreground and the horizon. Let me put the point most bluntly. If Republicans take the Senate this Fall, which many people think they will, it would be a windfall for Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016. If the Democrats keep the Senate, the electorate would more clearly see the case for a Republican president in 2013. It is unlikely that the same party will win in 2014 and 2016, and most Republican strategists understand that their chances are much higher this year, and that is why Clinton looks even more formidable today than she did last year.

Believe it or not, all of this was planned by Madison et al in 1787. The staggering of the constitutional clock, a feature of the constitutional separation of powers, was designed to ensure that no faction, party, or movement could in one fell swoop gain control of all branches of government. At the minimum, a movement would have to strike a win three times in a row to gain control of all branches. The architectonic structure of the Constitution concedes (slyly and surreptitiously) that the people could be wrong once, or even twice; but rarely would they be wrong thrice. And if a movement does that, so be it.

Staggered elections, to be sure, are not enough to create the tension between 2014 and 2016 for partisans of either stripe. They must operate alongside the culture of separationism that the institutions themselves have helped foster. The American people, at least since the 1970s, do not like one party control of government. Separate institutions have created a separationist culture. Voters who want to punish the incumbent president in 2014 can vote the other party in to check his liberal excesses, while voters who fear that one party control of both chambers in 2016 will want a president who will stand up to them with her veto. The same reason why the presidential party is expected to do poorly in the 2014 mid-term elections is also the reason why the minority party in Congress is likely to do well in 2016. (The joint and cumulative result is that nobody has any time to plan or do anything worthwhile for the long-term, but that's a different and longer story than can be told here.)

What are some lessons for 2014, then? Democrats have an uphill battle immediately ahead of them. The Republicans appear to have learned to temper the anti-establishment in-flighting caused by the Tea Party, it will be all too easy for Republican hopefuls to blame Obama for all things wrong, and there are just too many routes available for Republicans to flip at least six Senate seats. But if it is any consolation, Republicans have already started building the case against Hillary Clinton. They are hoping against hope that Benghazi would be her Achilles' heel. Some clearly think that her mental health is fair game. Clinton for her part, should not  stump for candidates in 2014. For all her star power, she won't be able to save congressional Democrats headed for the slaughterhouse. Conversely, Senator Rand Paul and other Republican hopefuls have everything to gain by getting into the Fall races, and insinuating that they produce coat-tail effects, which they can then assert in 2016.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Different Kind of State of the Union?

The problem of modern American politics starts from the fact our elected politicians talk too much past each other, but not to each other. Politician A says on one television network, “The American People want this  …” On another network, Politician B says “My constituents tell me that instead.” The “American People” are invoked in vain, to corroborate every and any politician’s preferred (partisan) truth. This is the unsung consequence of our age of perpetual speechifying, where words are thrown out not to bring us together, but to build stronger and more insular echo chambers where the stylized language of each political party generates applause from like-minded partisans, outrage from the other side. Political rhetoric in this country is rarely used to unite, to deliberate, or to govern. Instead, it is deployed to divide, to seduce, or to campaign.

But in a world in which spin begets more spin, nothing is really being said anymore, and as a result, nothing ever gets done. My hope is that the State of the Union address this year, and every year henceforth, can do something to reverse this pattern. At least once a year, the rhetoric of the president of the United States ought to be substantive and deliberative, and it ought to be directed at the very – indeed the only – people in the nation who can make his or her vision into legislative reality. Just once, maybe presidents can speak not to lobbyists, partisan followers, or television audiences; but have a heart-to-heart talk as the chief spokesperson of one branch of government to the next.

The State of the Union address is, after all, the only genre of presidential speech that is actually sanctioned and called for by the Constitution. Unlike standard variety “rose garden” speeches, this speech is actually a duty prescribed in Article 2, Section III of the Constitution, that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” This means that this speech above all others cannot and should not be judged by the criteria of modern mass communication. By this I mean at least two things. First, whether or not the speech is lyrical, quotable, memorable, and so forth is, or at least should be, besides the point. The Constitution asks that presidents offer, first and foremost, “information.” Not soundbites or applause lines, or strategically seated, camera-ready guests at the gallery of the House of Representatives. Second, this information is to be addressed “to Congress,” and not, as is typically the case, over the heads of members of Congress to the American people. The speech should be deliberative, not populist. Indeed, for most of its history, what was called the “Annual Message” was a written statement to Congress, a recognition that serious, deliberative inter-branch communication was crucial for the healthy functioning of a system of separate branches sharing power.

Consider, then, the first Annual Message delivered by George Washington. Washington was at pains to present his recommendations in a manner consistent with the equality of branches. “I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad,” Washington told his interlocutors. Washington understood that he was no one-man show; the president needs Congress, and Congress needs the president. Applause from outside the walls of Congress meant and translated to next to nothing. His was an example of deliberative speech; a recognition that thoughtful and civil inter-branch discourse was key to the healthy functioning of the republic.

Appreciating that presidential rhetoric ought, at least sometimes, to be filled with information, and actually and genuinely directed at Congress and not at television audiences means that the content of such rhetoric must be radically different from almost every other presidential speech. It means that in a speech like the State of the Union, the president should not stake a grand vision so out-of-reach as to demarcate a bargaining signpost so that when he invariably moves it closer to the median congressional position, he would have achieved what he really set out to do anyway. It means setting out in a good-faith manner to reach consensus with the First Branch. It means respecting the constitutional fact that every elected official has a different constituency and different electoral pressures; and that is why reasonable people can and often will reasonably disagree. It means that partisan punch-lines do nothing to engender trust or consensus; rather, they purchase public prestige at the cost of collegiality. And it probably even means that if the speech is boring, so be it.

Perhaps democracy requires lyricism; and surely a democratic people need and should be rhetorically engaged. Ronald Reagan soared with lyricism, and nobody denies that Obama captivates his audiences. We have tried modern-style oratory; but it hasn’t exactly been the silver bullet to our republican woes. (Might it actually be part of the cause?) Even the Great Communicators have failed to take us from the dysfunction that is Washington, DC. So why not try something other than, well, mere rhetoric? At least once a year, it should not be too much to ask that presidents, the major spokespersons of our constitutional republic, should be called upon to “give to Congress information of the State of the Union,” no more or less. If presidents talked to, not at Congress, there may be hope yet out of this age of gridlock.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

As Government Reopens, So Should Governing

The events in the past weeks reveal that for all the talk of direct democracy and public leadership that have become the hallmarks of the modern era, the central features of the American system of government remains resolutely and stubborn as the framers created it. Ours is a republic in which representatives of the people vote and make decisions on behalf of the American people. The voice of a movement can and should be heard, but parliamentary skills still matter. The framers of the Constitution intended that the raucous waves of democracy be tempered by representatives in government, charged to distill reason from passion.

One lesson the Tea Party needs to learn is empathy, or a capacity to imagine the possibility that not everyone thinks like them. Over the last three years, members of the movement have dug in their ideological heels because they could not conceive of the possibility that their understanding of the American Founding may not be in sync with the majority of their fellow citizens. The media environment of echo chambers has, of course, reinforced this tendency. The result has been sub-optimal strategies by the movement's leaders. Senator Ted Cruz, relying on grassroots instincts, directed his fire at the policy sub-set -- defunding "Obamacare" --  of the Republican's general set, which is the larger goal of reducing government spending. By placing all his chips in one basket, and pushing the particular agenda so hard, he weakened his party's bargaining position on the bigger goal.

Democrats should not, now, adopt the same hubris that eventually humbled Senator Cruz. President Barack Obama must now talk to Republicans, not the faction within it. There is never any time for victory laps in Washington. Every moment is a precursor to the next; every game is a pre-game, not an end-game. Congress has set up yet another deadline for the next potential shutdown and default, and another game of brinkmanship has already been set up.

Some Democrats in the electorate and in Congress are gloating. They should stop immediately. The key to successful bargaining in Washington is that when one wins, one acts like one didn't. In fact, concealing a victory is more important than having one. Losers must be given graceful exits. To help save your rival's face is to make more likely a cooperative outcome in the next game. Republicans will be out for blood early next year when the negotiations for the debt ceiling enter -- always at the eleventh hour, of course -- into high gear. A magnanimous legislative gift or two by congressional Democrats and Obama in the meantime will help set up a more constructive negotiating environment.

Budget conferences legislate budgets. Not public grandstanding, not political movements. It isn't yet time to campaign; it is time to govern.

Monday, October 7, 2013

On Shutdown Politics: Why it is Not the Constitution's Fault

It has become a routine recourse, when examining American politics, for modern commentators to blame the Constitution for the failures of government. We are told that the separation of powers encourages gridlock, and parties pull together what the Constitution pulls asunder. When considering the mess we are in today that is the government shutdown, the truth is closer to the other way round. Parties are the problem, not the solution.

Let's get down to the nitty gritty, and see if it really is the Constitution that is at fault. Why exactly is Speaker John Boehner refusing to bring a vote to the floor of the House to re-open the federal government? We are told, it is the Hestert Rule, named after Dennis Hastert, which instruct Speakers not to bring a bill to the floor unless it commands the approval of a majority of the majority party in the House.

Well and good, until we consider this indisputable fact: nowhere in the Constitution do we have anything remotely close to codifying the Hestert Rule. The Hestert rule is a creature of modern partisanship; it is named after one man, indeed, it has been denounced by the same man whose name identifies the eponymous rule. Even if the idea that the Speaker should defer to the "majority of the majority" makes sense, it is not to be found in the Constitution.

More importantly, the Tea Party caucus is not a majority of the majority. It is a faction, the vilest enemy to republicanism according to the framers of the Constitution. Or, put another way, the Constitution was expressly created to control faction (by creating a republic so large that no one faction would be able to, at least before the invention of the political party, dominate). Madison could not have been clearer in his opprobrium of faction:

"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction ... By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." (Federalist 10)

So when President Barack Obama proclaimed that "one faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election," he was on very firm constitutional ground, and pointedly -- I think also consciously -- using "faction" exactly as the framers intended it in the eighteenth-century sense. Today's self-proclaimed "originalists" are picking and choosing what part of history to affirm. "Faction" and "partisanship" were foul words to the framers, for precisely the reasons we are experiencing today. President Obama has no obligation, under the original meaning and intent of the Constitution, to negotiate with a faction; indeed he in on good ground to try to rein it in.

Looking ahead, as Washington veers toward another self-inflicted crisis, raising the debt ceiling, it is useful again, to return to original principles. We are told that the framers of the Constitution created a limited government, and perhaps Senator Ted Cruz et al are right to use Congress's power of the purse to limit the excesses of government spending. Wrong again. The Constitution was written to provide a more muscular government to pay off the revolutionary war debt. In fact, paying back what the nation owed was at the heart of Alexander Hamilton's case for the Constitution:

"I believe it may be regarded as a position warranted by the history of mankind, that, in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources ... A country so little opulent as ours must feel this necessity in a much stronger degree. But who would lend to a government that prefaced its overtures for borrowing by an act which demonstrated that no reliance could be placed on the steadiness of its measures for paying?" (Federalist 30)

There is no way that one can read these words and conclude that the Founders would have been OK with a U.S. government default or any tactic that suggested it as a possibility.

So it is not the Constitution that is at fault. It is faction, injected like a toxin into the Constitution, that has caused the separation of powers to go awry. And if so, the short-term solution for shutdown politics is to call faction what it is. Errant and arrogant members of Congress need to be reminded or educated that while they represent their constituents, some of whom no doubt want a stay on Obamacare, each member of Congress also belongs to a chamber of the United States and it is always the national majority (across the nation) that counts more than a factional majority (in a district). The long-term solution is as simple as it is admittedly inconceivable: if we want to kill faction, we must kill its grandfather and father -- the political party and the system of primaries that sprung up in the middle of the twentieth century that has created two generations of extreme ideologues and the era of gridlock. To do that requires neither a dismissal nor a cynical revision of original meaning, but an affirmation of its deepest philosophy -- the hope of "a more perfect Union," sans faction, sans party.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Obama's State of the Union Address

Obama's speech last night was an attempt to be as partisan or liberal as possible, while sounding as reasonable as possible. "Why would that be a partisan issue, helping folks refinance?," the president asked as part of this strategy. The Republican Party continues to suffer an image problem of being out of the mainstream, and the president was trying to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. There is broad support for preventing the budget "sequester," on minimum wage legislation, and a path to citizenship for children of immigrants - the president knows it, and he is leveraging public support to try to secure compliance from errant members of Congress.

As he showed in his Second Inaugural Address, this is not a president willing to mince his words any more. To talk about climate change and the "overwhelming judgment of science" is to take a clear, uncompromising position. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations," he said, "I will." Presidents at least since Theodore Roosevelt have painted themselves as active problem-solvers, as opposed to bickering members of Congress, in order to justify a muscular, even unilateral executive branch. Conservatives who are quicker to see this pattern in liberal presidents should remember the perils of presidential bravado in the next conservative administration; liberals who are enjoying their president pulling his weight should pause to consider if they can consistently stomach the same unilateralism in a different time for different purposes, when it is a conservative president who proclaims, "Now's the time to get it done."

Get it done. They deserve a vote. Send me a bill. But the Constitution doesn't work like that. The televised address makes it look like the president is legislator-in-chief, but he is anything but that. He can only execute the law; but to make the law he wants to execute, he needs Congress. So it may be a stroke of luck that a day after Obama's speech, the news cycle is still consumed with the Christopher Dorner story, suggesting that Americans are tired of politics and political news after the previous year of campaign mud-slinging. Obama's supporters want him to get on the permanent campaign, but some forget that doing well on the speech circuit could well generate congressional resentment and mobilize the "party of 'no'" against him. There is a time for splashy, public campaigns; but look out for silent strokes of executive action in the days to come. "Decision, activity, secrecy, and despatch" are and remain the hallmarks of the executive Publius defended in Federalist 70. Obama has already signaled unabashedly that he will make the tough decisions. He appears to be doing so very publicly, but there is a secret side to transformative agendas. When the going gets tough and Congress doesn't get going, expect Obama to be traversing his agenda with much despatch. His State of the Union address this year constitutes full disclosure, if we care to parse it carefully.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama's Second Inaugural Address

Conservatives hate it; liberals love it. His Second Inaugural Address evinces Barack Obama projecting himself unvarnished and real before the world. No more elections for him, so also less politics. He is number 17 in the most exclusive club in America - presidents who get to serve a second term. Yes, there's still the bonus of a legacy. But the legacy-desiring second-term president would just sit back and do no harm, rather than put himself out there for vociferous battles to come.

For better or for worse, Barack Obama believes that the constitutional compact from whence he derives the fullness of his authority gives him a responsibility. He believes that the framers of the Constitution "gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed." But he did not mean that he was an originalist, or a "constitutional conservative." Indeed, the very opposite is true. Obama believes that the "founding creed" is no less than this: "we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges." Originalism means change, he is telling us.

This is a president no longer prepared to dally, or to punt on his liberal beliefs. "The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us," he said. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," he also proclaimed. In his mind, there is no need to coddle the political right anymore, and he believes that the truth as he tells it will set us free.

So unreserved was Obama's conviction that he took the sacred line of modern conservatism, "We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still" and turned it into the most liberal of philosophies, that "our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth." Obama never really had much of a stomach for unadulterated libertarianism; in his heart of hearts, this former community organizer is a communitarian. This is why he cited "We the People" five times in his address.

Call Obama liberal, or call him correct; the point is half the country does not agree, and there are tough wars to come. That Obama has been so uncharacteristically upfront about his intentions signals, though, his belief that the national political tide has turned. That on gay rights, immigration, and so forth, either because of his electoral mandate or the changing demographics of the country, he believes he holds the upper hand.

And however short his second-term "honeymoon," I think he does. Had Obama not been re-elected, his first term might have been construed as a fluke; a bit of electoral charity from a guilt-ridden America willing to give a half-African-Anerican a chance to deliver at the White House. But Barack Obama was re-elected by a vote differential of 5 million. Only the most measly of partisan spirits will deride this victory, and deny Obama the honeymoon that he justly earned.

Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Second Amendment: Should We Fear Government or Ourselves?

The tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, have plunged the nation into the foundational debate of American politics.

Over at Foxnews, the focus as been on mourning, and the tragedy of what happened. As far as the search for solutions go, the focus has been on how to cope, what to say to children, and what to do about better mental health screening. It is consistent with the conservative view that when bad things happen, they happen because of errant individuals, not flawed societies. The focus on mourning indicates the view that when bad things happen, they are the inevitable costs of liberty.

At MSNBC, the focus has been on tragedy as a wake up call, not a thing in itself to simply mourn; on finding legislative and governmental solutions -- gun control. This is consistent with the liberal view that when bad things happen, they happen because of flawed societies, not just the result of errant individuals or evil as an abstract entity.

The question of which side is right is an imponderable. Conservatives believe that in the end, our vigilance against tyrannical government is our first civic duty. This, in the end, was the logic behind the Second Amendment. It comes form a long line of Radical Whig thinking that the Anti-Federalists inherited. That is why Second Amendment purists can reasonably argue that citizens should continue to have access to (even) semi-automatic guns. They will say that the Second Amendment is not just for hunting; it is for liberty against national armies. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a government duly constituted by the people need not fear government; and it is citizen-on-citizen violence that we ought to try to prevent. This line of thinking began with Hobbes, who had theorized that we lay down our arms against each other, so that one amongst us alone wields the sword. Later, we called this sovereign the state. The Federalists leaned in this tradition.

Should we fear government more or fellow citizens who have access to guns? Should government or citizens enjoy the presumption of virtue? Who knows. There is no answer on earth that would permanently satisfy both political sides in America, because conservatives believe that most citizens most of the time are virtuous, and there is no need to take a legislative sledgehammer to restrict the liberty of a few errant individuals at the expanse of everybody else. Liberals, conversely, believe that government and regulatory activity are virtuous and necessary most of the time, and there is little practical cost to most citizens to restrict a liberty (to bear arms) that is rarely, if ever, invoked. Put another way: conservatives focus on the vertical dimension of tyranny; liberals fear most the horizontal effects of mutual self-destruction.

What is a President to do? It depends on which side of the debate he stands. Barack Obama believes that the danger we pose to ourselves exceeds the danger of tyrannical government (for which a right to bear arms was originally codified.) The winds of public opinion may be swaying in his direction, and Obama appeared to be ready to mould it when he asked: "Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?"

Here is one neo-Federalist argument that Obama can use, should he take on modern Anti-Federalists. If the Constitution truly were of the people, then it is self-contradictory to speak of vigilance against it. In other words, the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It was written in an era of monarchy, as a bulwark against Kings. To those who claim to be constitutional conservatives, Obama may reasonably ask: either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it.

If this is to be the age of renewed faith in government, as it appears to be Obama's mission, then the President will be more likely to convince Americans to lay down our arms; he will persuade us that our vigilance against government by the people is counter-prouctive and anachronistic. But, to move "forward," he must first convince the NRA and its ideological compatriots that we can trust our government. Only the greatest of American presidents have succeeded in this most herculean of tasks, for our attachment to the spirit of '76 cannot be understated.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Case Against Marriage

The following is a transcript of the speech I gave at Wes Thinks Big on Dec 4, 2012 at Memorial Chapel, Middletown, CT.


As we look to the future, it is only a matter of time that same-sex marriage will become the law of the land. The question is not whether, but when. Yet past this horizon a new one awaits. Advocates for same-sex marriage argue, correctly, that the civil privileges that the state grants to straight couples should not be held back for gay couples. Everyone agrees there. Yet not many advocates of gay marriage consider that if an existing institution, in this case, marriage, is unjust and flawed – there is another reform possibility. We can just abolish it. As crazy as this may sound, let me make a case for it today.

The problem begins precisely because the case for same-sex marriage is iron tight. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued, I think correctly, that if two consenting adults choose to have a relationship with one another, that should be that, and the state has no business withholding the status of marriage to these two individuals. Usually, a secondary argument is presented alongside this primary argument, namely, that no one is harmed in this consensual relationship. Ergo, same-sex marriage should be legal. Remember these two arguments: A. consent, and B. no harm done.

The problem is that one can imagine many types of relationships that satisfy both these arguments, not just same-sex relationships. Arguments A and B appear to be over-inclusive. Social conservatives are right on this front. Let me demonstrate this with two examples.

Consider the case for incestuous same-sex marriage. Let's call this twincest. Wouldn’t both the primary, and the secondary reasons I have just presented for same-sex marriage apply to justify legalization of incestuous same-sex marriage? As long as there are A. two consenting adults, and B. as long as there are no negative procreative consequences, I see no reason to deny marriage to a pair of sisters or brothers.

What argument can we adduce to separate same-sex marriage from twincest. To make the former admissible, but the latter inadmissible? Let me right off the bat throw out the argument from procreation, since neither pairing is procreative. Let me suggest that the only remaining reason one can adduce for separating same sex marriage and twincest is an emotional reason: i.e. C. disgust or moral indignation. Same sex marriage doesn’t repulse us, incest does. Not so fast. This won’t work either, since revulsion or moral indignation is exactly the sentiment shared by opponents of same-sex marriage. If advocates for same-sex marriage want to deny incestuous marriage on the basis of moral indignation, they can hardly offer a reply to those who think that same-sex marriage is morally repugnant. This is the problem of legislating morality – one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.

Let me present a second example that highlights the same problem. Plural marriage. We want to say yes to same-sex marriage, but no to plural marriage. Plural marriage can come in the form of polygyny (one man many women) or polyandry (one woman many men.) Now, I will not recommend polygyny, that is marriage between several women and one man, since there are legitimate issues of gender inequality that such an arrangement implicates. It fails argument B. But I propose polyandry, that is marriage between one woman with several men. Again, the same reasons that permit same-sex marriage would also appear to legitimate polyandry. As long as A. consulting adults engage in activity in which B. they do no harm, they should be permitted to proceed as they please. Now, if you counter-argue that society will crumble, remember that this was the same reason that opponents of same-sex marriage had used years ago. As in the case of twincest, we have failed to find a reason to permit same-sex marriage, but disallow another type of relationship, in this case, polyandry.

Where do we go from here? I suggest that the reason why we cannot find a rule for permitting same-sex marriage but not twincest or polyandry is that the whole institution is arbitrary. There are no good answers because we haven’t asked the right question. And the question is: what reason could the state possibly have to elevate and privilege one type of human relationship over others? I can think of no reason. It is not that we haven’t found the elusive discriminatory criteria that would allow one relationship but not the other. It is that we cannot. My point is that neither we, nor the state, should be in the business of selectively endorsing and sanctifying one type of human relationship over another.

What the debate over same-sex marriage is going to do is to draw us to this inevitable conclusion. Once we realize that our reasons for establishing a cut-off point to a law or institution is arbitrary, the law or the institution must unravel. When it comes to traditional marriage, our society has defended an arbitrary cut-off point, determining for the longest time that marriage should only be limited to one man and one woman, bestowing the privileges and attendants benefits to those in such a relationship. The point I am trying to make is that shifting the cut-off point, as we are attempting to do today, draws attention to the arbitrariness of where we have historically set the cut-off point, and highlights the arbitrariness of our new cut-off point.

So I’ve used two apparently odious examples but I don’t need them to make the same point about the boundaries of state regulatory activity of which marriage laws is only a subset: the state should not have the authority, ever, to sanction and elevate particular conceptions of the good life over others. We already acknowledge this principle generally, outside of the realm of intimate relations, in the principle of liberal neutrality. For example, should I choose to spend the rest of my life watching endless reruns of Family Guy trying to determine the proper pronunciation of “cool whip,” I should be free to do so, without fear that the law will penalize me for what would appear to be a waste of my time.

Even though my argument appears controversial, I think most of you already implicitly agree with me. There are a whole host of other equally important and gratifying relationships that marriage laws today do not endorse. The sexual love between a man and a man, the platonic affection between a man and a woman, the bond between a man and his dog, the friendship between a girl and her grandmother. Don’t we all get a little miffed when our best friend finds a new girlfriend and they fall off the face of the earth (until they break up)? Who’s to say that these other types of relationships do not deserve public sanction, or at least a title equal to the privileged status of those who are traditionally married?  Indeed these relationships can also go under or beyond two persons. Consider self-love, Narcissus’s love for himself. Who’s to say someone who chooses to remain single has chosen a lesser path? Or, we can go up in numbers for more complex kinds of relationships: kinships in extended families, membership in fraternal organizations can be as rewarding as monogamous long-term relationships between two people. All of these relationships produce human flourishing. Yet I ask: why is it that we place the romantic, oftentimes sexual relationship between two people (homosexual or heterosexual) on a pedestal above all others? There has got to be a reason if we are to keep the institution of marriage. The state should only act when there are plausible, publicly defensible reasons. Institutions should exist only if the state can articulate reasons for their existence. Tradition or the warm feeling of romance isn’t enough, precisely because we have already chosen to unravel the traditional meaning of marriage in our support for same-sex marriage. (And by the way, Plato privileged platonic love over sexual love, so whatever I’m saying isn’t really new.)

I am not seeking to invalidate the choices of those who are already married. If you want to get into a long term monogamous and romantic relationship, go for it. But do not assume that this relationship is more deserving of state sanction than a host of other important intimate, caregiving relationships. Don’t do it because you want a public badge of honor. Do it in spite of the institution of marriage, not because of it. You will be perceived as weird, even Wesleyan weird, but you will be right.

Those who are trying to do the good work to modernize marriage need to consider the other possibility of reform and challenge the assumption that the institution itself is worth saving. By all means fight for equality. But don’t just fight for gays and lesbians. Fight for everyone, fight for anyone who wishes to live by an unconventional standard of love.

Let me conclude. If you think about it, marriage appears to do the exact opposite of that which it has traditionally been supposed to do. Marriage doesn’t encourage love; it restrains it. With the infinite variety of human interactions, is there really a need for the state to establish the gold standard of human relationships? (If liberty requires that we should each be free to love as we please, equality demands that the state remains neutral as to whom and how we love, or indeed, whether or not we love at all.) Marriage purports to be an institution that celebrates love; yet history shows us that marriage has served only to control and restrain the possibilities of human love. Civil marriage, however defined, will always and arbitrarily confer social meaning and hierarchies. Perhaps we should simply abolish it.