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.