Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
They Said It:
Machiavelli, discoursing on these matters, finds virtue to be so essentially necessary to the establishment and preservation of liberty, that he thinks it impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government, or for a tyranny to be introduced if they be virtuous; and makes this conclusion “That where the matter (that is, the body of the people) is not corrupted, tumults and disorders do not hurt; and where it is corrupted, good laws do no good:” which being confirmed by reason and experience, I think no wise man has ever contradicted him.
Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, 1698.
THE DEMOCRATS GO FULL-REAGAN?
We’re not sure if you saw it, but just a few months after his 105th birthday, Ronald Reagan made a surprise appearance at the Democratic National Convention, happily reclaiming the party that he once claimed had “left” him. If you missed it and don’t believe us, we understand. We get that it sounds a little crazy, even for us. But you don’t have to take our word for it. Countless others saw him there too. Why, the former Republican Congressman and current talking head Joe Scarborough declared that “Barack Obama offered the . . . most Reaganesque view of America,” and that “Ronald Reagan . . . sounded out in Obama’s speech.” Matt Lewis, a senior contributor to the right-leaning Daily Caller insisted that the “Democrats sound more like Reagan than the GOP.” London’s notoriously hysterical and leftwing Guardian newspaper also seemed to see Reagan at the podium, writing that Obama “hijacked some of the Republicans’ most enduring themes,” and sounded downright Reagan-like. Heck, even Obama himself saw Reagan reborn, quoting the late, great 40th president, denying John Winthrop his due, proclaiming that “Ronald Reagan called America a ‘shining city on a hill’ . . . ”
We could go on . . . and on . . . and on. But it might be easier to list and quote the media, Democrats, and NeverTrump Republicans who didn’t think that Obama and the DNC were Reaganesque. The New York/Washington consensus is that the Democrats therefore won the national convention competition by virtue of out-Reaganing the Republicans, who, frankly, weren’t even trying. Score one for Hillary, we guess.
The only catch here, in our estimation, is that in this case – as in almost every case this year – the New York/Washington consensus is wrong. The myth of Reagan is misapplied here. The Democrats weren’t Reaganesque. They were deceitful, both in terms of Reagan’s legacy and in terms of their own intentions. And that matters a great deal.
The thing you have to understand, but which most of the media types and disgruntled Republicans seem either to have forgotten or ignored, is that Reagan didn’t always think that this country was in the greatest shape. It’s true that he was temperamentally happy and optimistic, which are endearing and politically attractive traits. But he wasn’t always chipper about the country. Indeed, if you look at the quotes most often offered to prove Reagan’s optimism – e.g. the shining city bit, morning in America, the “bright dawn ahead,” and so on –you will notice that they all come from speeches given after he had served his first term. They are from his nomination acceptance speech in 1984, or from his farewell address, or from his speech at the 1988 convention, nominating George H.W. Bush. To put it another way, NONE of these quotes is from his 1980 campaign, the campaign that would be the equivalent of Trump’s campaign this year.
If we told you that a Republican presidential campaign organization printed a brochure announcing their guy’s candidacy, and that the brochure was called “Let’s Make America Great Again,” would you assume that the candidate in question was Donald Trump? We guess that most media types and disgruntled Republicans would. But they’d be wrong. That’s actually a brochure printed by the Reagan campaign early in the 1980 election cycle. Moreover, in the body of the brochure, Mr. Perpetualoptimism says the following:
The election of a president in 1980 may well be the most important decision America will make during the remainder of the 20th Century. Our future as a nation is at stake.
We cannot accept continued inflation, a mismanaged energy crisis, the erosion of our dollar, and the loss of our personal hopes. We must stop the decline of our leadership in the world, the weakening of our defense capability and the aimless drifting from crisis to crisis.
And so it went throughout the campaign. Reagan repeatedly attacked the incumbent president (Jimmy Carter) for his “failed” policies and his primary opponents for their lack of vision and acceptance of the status quo. And he did so because he believed that the Carter presidency had failed and that his opponents would fail as well. The Happy Warrior famously lost his temper with the primary debate moderator in New Hampshire, scolding him, “I am paying for this microphone.” Finally, he arrived at the Republican National Convention in Detroit to declare that:
Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense, and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.
The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal, and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership, in the White House and in the Congress, for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. . . .
I will not stand by and watch this great country destroy itself under mediocre leadership that drifts from one crisis to the next, eroding our national will and purpose. . . .
You know – You know the first – the first Republican President once said, “While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.” If Mr. Lincoln could see what’s happened in the last three and a half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that this type of rhetoric is a little “dark,” the adjective of choice for the Democrats and the mainstream press in the wake of Donald Trump’s convention speech two weeks ago. And you’d be right. It is dark. But that’s not do disparage Reagan in any way. That’s what politicians do. They paint a dark picture of the status quo and they offer themselves up as the guy (or gal) who can fix it. Four years after Reagan went “dark” against Carter, Mondale went dark against Reagan. Four years after that, Dukakis went dark against Bush, the surrogate for Reagan. Then Clinton went dark against Bush; Dole went dark against Clinton; Bush went dark against Gore . . . and so on. This is how the game is played. And it’s played this way because that’s what out-parties have to do to convince voters to make them the in-party. They have to convince voters that the current policies are failing and that their policies can end that failure. Who didn’t know?
For the record, this is not an endorsement of Trump, of his speech, or of his convention. Moreover, it is not an endorsement of the notion put forth by some of Trump’s most delusional supporters that the guy is Reagan reincarnated. He is not. He lacks Reagan’s interest in politics and policy, his experience in politics and policy, his knowledge of the nation and its founding documents, his temperament, his demeanor, his political instincts, and his patriotism. Trump is, in most ways, the anti-Reagan. The only similarities the two share is their outsider status and the fact that they were both written off early, only to prove the critics wrong. That’s it.
The reason all of this matters, though, is because it exposes the lie at the heart of the Democratic convention and thus at the heart of the Democratic campaign. It is clear that the Democrats will spend the entire fall trying their damnedest to portray Trump as “dark,” as a man who doesn’t believe in America and thinks that the country’s best days are behind it. This is patently false, of course. It is, in fact, the opposite of the Trump campaign’s premise. The Trumpian ego believes that the nation can be made great again, but only by Trump. The Democrats will be damning Trump as wild, crazy, and outside of the mainstream for doing that which ALL challenger campaigns do. That’s a risky strategy.
It’s especially risky, given that a strong majority of people in the country actually agree with Trump that the country is in a very bad place right now. The “wrong track” number in various polls has hovered around 70% for months, which is to say that 7 out of 10 Americans think that something in the country needs to be fixed, and desperately. These 7 out of 10 may not know what needs to be fixed, and they certainly don’t know how to fix it (and who among us does?), but they know that they’re not happy. And if the Democrats think that they can pigeon-hole Trump by pretending that normal politics is somehow abnormal, they may be in for a big surprise, one that trickles down from the top of the ticket.
It is possible, we suppose, that the Democrats have learned absolutely nothing from their 2010 and 2014 midterm debacles. And if that’s the case, we’ll remind them: the American people don’t particularly like being told that they’re stupid and should be more grateful to their betters. In his convention speech last week, Obama was conscious to try to leaven his happy talk with an acknowledgement of real suffering. That’s not likely to be much consolation to the middle class, and especially the non-college-educated middle class that has suffered the most during Obama’s presidency. Additionally, that’s a nuanced message that Obama can make well enough, but which the likability-challenged Hillary Clinton cannot. For months now, Republican leaders – especially those of the NeverTrump variety – have fretted publicly about their fears that Trump will bring down the whole party, sabotaging the important down-ticket races that will decide control of Congress. If the Democrats are serious about pursuing their Everything is Awesome campaign, they may not only threaten the chances of their presidential nominee, but hand total control of Congress over to the GOP.
The other reason to worry about the Democratic faux optimism is the fact that it won’t last beyond midnight on November 8. If Trump wins, then all bets are off, and the Democrats will begin moaning, groaning, wailing, and rending their garments, as they do what out-parties do, namely go “dark” against the in-party. Don’t think for a second that they will recognize, much less admit the irony.
If Hillary Clinton, wins, however, the same thing will happen, only with a different slant on the argument. As we have noted innumerable times in these pages, the contemporary political Left has its roots in the ideas and philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss-French philosopher who inspired the French Revolution and countless other mass-murdering movements. Rousseau, of course, insisted that the problem with society is not man, but his institutions, which are corrupt and corrupting and should therefore be altered and amended whenever possible. As he put it in the opening lines of Emile, “Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”
What this means, in turn, is that President Hillary Clinton will not simply sit back and observe the beauty and grace of Obama’s America. Instead she will try to fix it. She will make college free, thereby further disadvantaging the already disadvantaged. She will re-reform health care system, adding a “public option,” on the way to attempting to install a true single-payer system. She will use the federal bureaucracy to advance those causes that she believes have been forgotten or ignored for too long, including federal funding for abortion. She will increase taxes. She will increase regulation, especially that which benefits the rent-seeking favored institutions of the Left.
You see, Rousseau not only believed that society’s institutions were corrupt and in need of reform, he also believed that private property was the cause of much of this corruption and that the confiscation of private property would therefore be a positive societal change. Or, as he put it in The Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Hillary will do her best to rectify this situation.
Last week, as we watched the Democratic National Convention, our instinct was to think that the party had been very shrewd and very opportunistic in going full-Reagan on the American people. As we thought more and more about it, though, we changed our minds. It strikes us that the Democrats have done one of two things. Either they’ve ensured that Donald Trump will win, by virtue of the fact that the electorate will, on the whole, feel condescended to by the Democratic Party once again. Or they’ve virtually guaranteed that Hillary Clinton will be a one-term president. Either way, that’s likely not what they were hoping to do. We’re not certain which of the two we’d prefer, but we are sure that it will serve them right. The American Left has survived and thrived for more than century by hiding its nature and its intentions from the voters, always pretending to be something it’s not. It did so again last week. And while the short-term gain may seem to make the gambit worthwhile, we doubt that it will help in the long-run.
GARY JOHNSON, THE LIBERTARIAN CHOICE.
For most of this presidential election cycle, we thought that Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico and the current Libertarian presidential nominee, would be a reasonable alternative to Donald Trump. He may be a stiff on the debate stage, but he seems like a good guy and if you close your eyes a bit and squint, a Libertarian can look like a reasonable facsimile of a conservative. Not perfect, but better than the other choices. Or so we thought.
But then the guy started running his mouth and he went from “likable enough,” to “are you kidding?” The first thing he did, of course was to pick a running mate, choosing William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. Weld, you may recall, was one of the Northeast Republicans who were going to “change” and improve the GOP back in the 1990s, making the party more likable and amenable to the masses. He didn’t. Moreover, he left Washington in a tizzy; he was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by Bill Clinton, but never served a day and, in fact, never had a Senate hearing because Jesse Helms (NC) objected to Weld’s adamant pro-abortion position.
We honestly thought we were past the whole “Libertarianism = Pro-Abortion,” business after Ron and Rand Paul – two physicians and the two most prominent libertarians over the last two decades – made it clear that they thought that the Declaration’s invocation to protect “LIFE, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” took abortion off the table. Apparently we were wrong, at least in Weld’s case, since he has made his pro-Abortion bona fides one of the selling points of his candidacy.
And it’s been all downhill from there.
Last week, the proverbial caca hit the fan. Timothy Carney – a Senior Political Columnist for the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute – ran into the publicity-hungry Libertarian nominee and somehow managed to convince him to sit for an interview. We’re glad he did, although we wonder if Johnson shares our sentiment. The key bits of the interview went as follows:
Do you think New Mexico was right to fine the photographer for not photographing the gay wedding?
“Look. Here’s the issue. You’ve narrowly defined this. But if we allow for discrimination — if we pass a law that allows for discrimination on the basis of religion — literally, we’re gonna open up a can of worms when it come stop (sic) discrimination of all forms, starting with Muslims . . . who knows. You’re narrowly looking at a situation where if you broaden that, I just tell you — on the basis of religious freedom, being able to discriminate — something that is currently not allowed — discrimination will exist in places we never dreamed of (sic).” . . .
You think it’s the federal government’s job to prevent—
In all cases?
“Yes, yes, in all cases. Yes. And you’re using an example that seems to go outside the bounds of common sense. But man, now you’re back to public policy.
This is, to put it mildly, COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY NUTS! The Libertarian candidate for president thinks that it is “the federal government’s job” to prevent discrimination “in all cases.” Repeat that over and over to yourself a few times: The Libertarian candidate for president thinks that it is “the federal government’s job” to prevent discrimination “in all cases.” The Libertarian candidate for president thinks that it is “the federal government’s job” to prevent discrimination “in all cases.” That’s certifiable.
In response, Ilya Shapiro from the libertarian Cato Institute, shook his head sadly and wrote the following:
But then look at the most recent news made by the man at the top of the LP ticket. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, in an interview with (my friend) Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, calls religious freedom “a black hole” and endorses a federal role in preventing “discrimination” in all its guises. More specifically, he’s okay with fining a wedding photographer for not working a gay wedding – a case from New Mexico where Cato and every libertarian I know supported the photographer – and forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptives (where again Cato and libertarians supported religious liberty). He also bizarrely compares Mormonism to religiously motivated shootings.
In other words, Johnson doesn’t just come off as anti-religion, but completely misses the distinction between public (meaning government) and private action that is at the heart of (classical) liberal or libertarian legal theory. That’s a shame: it makes him no different than progressives in that regard – or social conservatives, who miss the distinction in the other direction, restricting individual rights in addition to government powers.
And what, pray tell, does classical liberal (or libertarian) legal and political theory say about the government’s role in “preventing discrimination.” Well, for the most part, it says nothing, because in the days of classical liberalism the idea that government could, much less should, do such a thing was considered absurd. Beyond that, though, classical liberalism is very specific about how to handle the question of the government’s role in such sticky wickets. Last year, in a Washington Post piece, David Bernstein, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University and a contributor to the highly regarded “Volokh Conspiracy” libertarian blog, sorted it all out nicely.
Supporters of antidiscrimination laws typically focus on laws banning racial discrimination. They do so because opposition to race discrimination has great historical and emotional resonance in a nation that had institutionalized racial oppression, including chattel slavery, for hundreds of years. However, federal antidiscrimination laws also apply to discrimination based on religion, sex, age, disability (including one’s status as a recovering drug or alcohol addict), pregnancy, marital status, veteran status, and even military recruiters. State and local antidiscrimination laws cover everything from sexual orientation to political ideology to weight to appearance to membership in a motorcycle gang.
The proliferation of antidiscrimination laws explains why libertarians are loath to concede the principle that the government may ban private sector discrimination. There is no natural limit to the scope of antidiscrimination laws, because the concept of antidiscrimination is almost infinitely malleable. Almost any economic behavior, and much other behavior, can be defined as discrimination. Is a school admitting students based on SAT scores? That is discrimination against individuals (or groups) who don’t do well on standardized tests! Is a store charging more for an item than some people can afford? That is discrimination against the poor! Is an employer hiring only the best qualified candidates? That is discrimination against everyone else!
The obvious retort is that antidiscrimination laws should be limited to “real” discrimination. But there is no consensus as to what constitutes “real” discrimination, nor, not surprisingly, does there appear to be any principled definition that legislatures have followed.
One can, for example, define discrimination as treating the alike unequally, but antidiscrimination law does not always follow this definition. Federal antidiscrimination law, for example, requires employers not simply to treat disabled and non-disabled alike, but to make costly “reasonable accommodations” for the disabled. Employers have the same legal obligation to their religious employees.
In short, to concede the general power of government to redress private discrimination through legislation would be to concede virtually unlimited power to the government. Libertarians, however, are often willing to make certain exceptions to their opposition to antidiscrimination laws, so long as they can identify an appropriate limiting principle.
Obviously, one of the “limiting principles” to which Bernstein alludes is the notion that produced the Civil Rights Acts and which made them tolerable, even to libertarians. As Bernstein writes, “indirect harms from hate speech can be catastrophic if advocates of racist views are able to win control of the government.” The entirety of the South was consumed by racial discrimination; it was pervasive. And thus banning only public acts of discrimination would not have addressed the broader problem. That would have left the ubiquitous, and indissoluble “indirect harms” of private discrimination in place and thus have left the de facto conditions in the South unchanged. In that case, government prevention of private discrimination was both justified and necessary. Again, Bernstein writes:
Jim Crow segregation involved the equivalent of a white supremacist cartel. The cartel was enforced not just by overt government regulation like segregation laws, but also by the implicit threat of private violence and extra-legal harassment of anyone who challenged the racist status quo. This violence and extra-legal harassment was often undertaken with the approval of local officials; the latter, in fact, were often the perpetrators.
But that’s hardly the case in most circumstances. Indeed, it has almost never been the case since. Apparently, though, no one ever bothered to point that out to Gary Johnson, who seems happy to harness the power of the state to deny religious freedom and to pursue the chimera of non-discrimination.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that there are three “liberal” tickets running for president. The Democratic ticket of Clinton-Kaine is unabashedly leftist. The Republican ticket of Trump-Pence is unabashedly statist. And now, we know that the Libertarian ticket of Johnson-Weld is also unabashedly statist, in addition to being totally insane. As Ilya Shapiro noted above, that’s a shame.
Two weeks ago, you may recall, we suggested that you should “get stronger” – either literally or figuratively – because the next few years will demand some real strength. Unfortunately, what we have now are three presidential tickets suggesting precisely the opposite, arguing that you shouldn’t get stronger individually, but should let the government get stronger for you and protect you from the big, bad, mean ol’ world. That’s not just a philosophical disaster but a political one as well. This is probably the first time in four decades – since Ford-Carter – that there has been no major party advocating “liberty” as a foundational and critical principle. Worse yet, that will still be the case, even if the Libertarian Party candidate successfully sells himself as a viable alternative to the other two and thus manages to win a coveted spot in the televised debates. There is no candidate for liberty. Period. Liberty, which is to say THE founding principle of the American experiment – is dead.
And that, we’re afraid, is more than a shame. It’s a tragedy. The greatness of these here United States was built on the complementary principles of liberty and strength. And when the world needs the United States the most; when the American people need those founding principles the most; they will not only be in short supply, but will be actively discouraged by nearly the entirety of the ruling class, from the former Secretary of State to the former Governor of New Mexico to a billionaire real estate tycoon.
If things continue as they are, then it doesn’t really matter all that much who takes the oath of office next January. The results will be the same: a world in need, economically and militarily, but with America “sheltering in place,” looking for government to calm its fears.
It’s going to be a long four years.