Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They Said It:

In every free government, the people must give their assent to the laws by which they are governed. This is the true criterion between a free government and an arbitrary one. The former are ruled by the will of the whole, expressed in any manner they may agree upon; the latter by the will of one, or a few. If the people are to give their assent to the laws, by persons chosen and appointed by them, the manner of the choice and the number chosen, must be such, as to possess, be disposed, and consequently qualified to declare the sentiments of the people; for if they do not know, or are not disposed to speak the sentiments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sovereignty is in a few. Now, in a large extended country, it is impossible to have a representation, possessing the sentiments, and of integrity, to declare the minds of the people, without having it so numerous and unwieldly, as to be subject in great measure to the inconveniency of a democratic government . . .

In a republic, the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be a constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other. This will retard the operations of government, and prevent such conclusions as will promote the public good. If we apply this remark to the condition of the United States, we shall be convinced that it forbids that we should be one government. The United States includes a variety of climates. The productions of the different parts of the union are very variant, and their interests, of consequence, diverse. Their manners and habits differ as much as their climates and productions; and their sentiments are by no means coincident. The laws and customs of the several states are, in many respects, very diverse, and in some opposite; each would be in favor of its own interests and customs, and, of consequence, a legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogenous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other.

Brutus, (Robert Yates), Anti-Federalist Paper #1, “To the Citizens of New York,” October 18, 1787.



Two weeks ago, in a move noticed by almost no one anywhere and lamented by even fewer, the University of California Berkeley ended negotiations with the University of Kansas for a home-and-home series between the two schools’ men’s basketball teams.  According to athletics officials at Cal, their athletes simply would not be willing or able to make the trip to Lawrence.

Why, one wonders, would Cal officials want to deprive their athletics department of a clear money-making agreement?  Why would Cal want to deprive its student-athletes the opportunity to play against one of the nation’s most storied and most important college basketball programs?  Likewise, why would Cal want to deny those student-athletes the opportunity to play at the legendary Allen Fieldhouse – in front of a sold-out and raucous crowd and in a high-profile nationally televised event?  Most importantly, why should you, or anyone, care?

As it turns out, Cal didn’t cancel the negotiations because it felt it was getting a raw deal.  It didn’t cancel the negotiations because it didn’t want the revenue or the publicity.  It didn’t cancel the negotiations because it feared being beaten soundly both at home and away.  Indeed, Cal officials didn’t call the whole thing off for any of the reasons one might usually expect.  They called the series off because they had to, because their moral superiority demanded it.  The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World provides the details:

There will be no Jayhawk basketball games with the University of California anytime soon, largely due to a law Kansas enacted last year that the state of California has said discriminates against the LGBT community.

University of Kansas officials confirmed Friday that athletic teams from public colleges and universities in California are no longer allowed to travel to schools in Kansas because of a “religious freedom” law in Kansas that says campus student groups here can discriminate in their membership against people who do not share the group’s religious beliefs or practices.  That includes religious groups that ban gay students from joining due to the group’s religious beliefs.

KU Athletics spokesman Jim Marchiony said KU had been in preliminary talks with the University of California-Berkeley to schedule a series of “home-and-home” games.  But a new law in California that took effect Jan. 1 now prohibits that.

“Cal said they couldn’t do it,” Marchiony said.

The new California law, passed in 2015, prohibits state-funded or state-sponsored travel to states with laws deemed to be discriminatory against the LGBT community, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has determined it applies to Kansas as well as Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

In brief, then, Kansas legislators decided that it was their duty to protect the religious liberty of their constituents, to allow Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and countless others to congregate for the purpose of discussing and strengthening their faiths only among those who share the tenets of those faiths.  Meanwhile, California legislators thought it was their responsibility to protect members of groups that have historically been victimized by discrimination from further discrimination and to refuse to use state funds to enrich those whom they deem guilty of discrimination.  The student-athletes – a bunch of 18, 19, and 20-year-olds – are caught in the middle, casualties of competing notions of moral justice and the responsibilities of government.

The day after the states of Kansas and California succumbed to their irreconcilable differences, Ross Douthat, the token conservative on the editorial pages of the New York Times, penned a column pondering the question “who are we?”  The American Left, Douthat wrote, is convinced that the values it espouses are the REAL American values, historical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  The American Right, of course, thinks that IT represents real America, that IT is “who we are.”  He put it his way:

“That’s not who we are.”  So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans.  And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself.  If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are. . . .

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended.  Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian.  Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual.  We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist.  Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions.  Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms.  Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. . . .

For a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history.  They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  They still embrace the Iliadic myths that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Regular readers of ours will undoubtedly recognize Douthat’s thesis here as a familiar one.  Indeed, we have been writing for almost two decades about the differences Douthat identifies in this column.  We have labeled and characterized the competing narratives somewhat differently than he does; and we have explained the rise of the “new” narrative in somewhat different and less complimentary terms than he does.  But this is, nevertheless, a fairly accurate reproduction of our “clash of moral codes” hypothesis.

Douthat calls the competing codes “old” and “new.”  We have called them “traditionalist” and “post-modern,” respectively.  Whatever case, we currently live in a country in which roughly one half of the populace defines itself by one moral code, while the other half defines itself by another.  Some, for example, believe in the supremacy of the values enshrined in the Constitution, religious liberty and the like.  Others believe principally in non-judgementalism and the primacy of multiculturalism.  Neither side upholds its ideals perfectly, but both believe theirs is superior.  And neither feels the need to compromise, at least not anymore.

Douthat, understandably, is not especially optimistic that there is any solution to the conflict between old and new, traditional and post-modern.  He fears ongoing conflict and ongoing political chaos as a result.  And, truth be told, he is certainly justified in thinking so.  As things stand today, the two sides in this clash are so far apart and so different from one another that it seems sometimes that compromise is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, that fighting the fight until the other side surrenders is the plan both camps have adopted.  Indeed, both sides, it would seem – and the post-modern side in particular – seem intent on punishing everyone, including their constituents, just to prove their righteousness and their dedication to those constituents.  Under these circumstances, Douthat can hardly be blamed for taking a pessimistic view of the immediate future.

As luck would have it, however, Ross Douthat is not the only conservative to chime in on this matter of late.  In response to Douthat’s column, John O’Sullivan, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and a former editor of National Review, suggested that the old/traditional/particularist narrative can and should triumph over the new/post-modern/universalist.  The problem, he insists, is that the Old American vision is not properly defined or properly understood.  When it is, he says, it can and should be considered a proper political ethos to guide a second American century.  To wit:

The Old America vision has a greater prospect of prevailing precisely because, as Douthat would wish, it makes an honored place for “the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance,” but not an exclusive place nor even a privileged one.  Today the richest Americans are not white Protestants but Asian and Asian–white mixed-race families.

It is a capacious and expanding vision that incorporates a long procession of ethnic and religious groups (Quakers, Catholics, Mormons) that initially faced opposition but were embraced when they had worked their passage morally (did they accept the U.S. Constitution and liberty?) as well as economically.

It’s a realistic vision that doesn’t divide American groups in history into heroes and villains but as people good and bad who had to change to make themselves and America succeed.  It is a progressive vision of people who once suffered hardship, pioneer settlers as well as migrants, but who — given both opportunities and a sense of opportunity — became Americans in surprisingly short order.

The Old America vision seems to me to be a better basis for continued fellowship than a New America vision that rests too much on grievance.

Now, if you ask us, we think that O’Sullivan has the better of the argument as to the nature and the scope of the traditional moral code/narrative.  Unfortunately, we also think that Douthat has the better of the argument as to the likelihood of a traditionalist restoration occurring.  As much as we’d like to believe that the traditionalist code can win this longstanding “clash,” we tend to think that such a “victory” is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.  The post-modern/new narrative is far too firmly ensconced in the institutions of culture and education to be dislodged without a massive, coordinated effort.

So where does that leave us?  Is Douthat right, then?  Are we likely to see discord, chaos, and even violence into the foreseeable future?  If the traditionalists are unlikely to mount a serious effort at restoration, are we, as a nation, doomed to this perpetual struggle?

We can’t say for certain, obviously, but we don’t believe that this struggle is necessarily interminable.  We agree with Douthat that there is little likelihood of a truce between the warring factions.  Nevertheless, we are not as pessimistic as he is about the near term prospects of a compromise of sorts.  You see, there is another possibility that neither Douthat nor O’Sullivan seems to have contemplated, that being that these two moral codes/narratives could co-exist, without one necessarily crushing the other and asserting its dominance.  In fact, we are beginning to think that this third possibility is actually among the more realistic scenarios for the near-term governance of our divided nation.

As you may have heard, the Golden State and many its residents are unhappy that they have to be subjected to the will of the rest of the country.  California voted for Hillary Clinton by more than 4 million votes, which accounts for her margin of victory in the so-called “popular vote” and then some.  So it was no surprise that in a recent poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos, roughly one-third of Californians supported the idea of seceding from the United States; that is, from the country bumpkins who do not share their beliefs and who have saddled them and the rest of the world with a neo-fascist president.  Support for “Calexit,” as the secession movement is colloquially known, is up some 75% since 2014.  In a recent essay, the historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson describes Californians’ attitude in the wake of the Trump victory:

Since Clinton’s defeat, the state seems to have become unhinged over Trump’s unexpected election.  “Calexit” supporters brag that they will have enough signatures to qualify for a ballot measure calling for California’s secession from the United States.

Some California officials have talked of the state not remitting its legally obligated tax dollars to the federal government.  They talk of expanding its sanctuary cities into an entire sanctuary state that would nullify federal immigration law.  Californians also now talk about the value of the old Confederate idea of “states’ rights.”  They whine that their state gives far too much revenue to Washington and gets too little back.

Residents boast about how their cool culture has little in common with the rest of the U.S.  Some Californians claim the state could easily go it alone, divorced from the United States.

As you may have guessed, Hanson is comparing his fellow Californians to the pre-war Confederates, and he’s none too happy about their regressive ideas.  And while we agree with him that the secession business is both foolish and treacherous, we’re not as convinced as he is that this entire “states’ rights” movement is such a bad thing.  We’re fairly sure we don’t have to tell Victor Davis Hanson this, but ours is federal system, a system of governance in which power is diffused and divided between the federal entity and various state and local bodies.  The text of the much-ignored 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

For more than 150 years now, the idea that states have rights and that the federal government has infringed too far on those rights has been associated with racism and slavery.  That’s understandable, but it’s also unfortunate.  To this day, the Left insists that Ronald Reagan was a closet racist who blew “dog whistles” for the white supremacists, based solely on the fact that he ran for president advocating “states’ rights” and urging that the federal government be restrained in its powers.  The irony is that Reagan had served as governor of California and had seen firsthand how important it was for state that unique, that important, and that creative to have some autonomy both from Washington and from the rest of the country.  Today, Reagan’s ideas are coming round full circle, only at the urging of the political Left.

Federalism may well have been the Founders’ most brilliant idea for maintaining peace between the states while restraining the power of a potential tyrant and protecting the rights of the people.  It was designed to ensure that a diverse people with diverse values could nevertheless coexist under one overarching worldview.  Or, as President Reagan’s Domestic Policy Council Working Group on Federalism states:  it is a “constitutionally based, structural theory of government designed to ensure political freedom and responsive, democratic government in a large and diverse society.”

We have long believed and have long written that the inevitable outcome of the clash between moral codes would be an ongoing and perhaps disastrous bifurcation of the nation, with “red” and “blue” distancing themselves from one another.  We continue to believe that the bifurcation is inevitable, but we are no longer convinced that it will be disastrous.  What we didn’t foresee – what NO ONE could have foreseen – is the effect that Donald Trump would have on the blue states, the rebirth of federalist sentiments as an antidote to a right-wing populist.

We are not, we should note, the only people to see federalism as a possible solution to the seemingly irresolvable differences between red and blue America.  In a recent essay, Joel Kotkin, one of our favorite demographers and observers of political trends, argued that “decentralization” was the nation’s only hope.

America is increasingly a nation haunted by fears of looming dictatorship.  Whether under President Barack Obama’s “pen and phone” rule by decree, or its counterpoint, the madcap Twitter rule of our current chief executive, one part of the country, and society, always feels mortally threatened by whoever occupies the Oval Office.

Given this worsening divide, perhaps the only reasonable solution is to move away from elected kings and toward early concepts of the republic, granting far more leeway to states, local areas and families to rule themselves.  Democrats, as liberal thinker Ross Baker suggests, may “own” the D.C. “swamp,” but they are beginning to change their tune in the age of Trump.  Even dutiful cheerleaders for Barack Obama’s imperial presidency, such as the New Yorker, are now embracing states’ rights . . . .

The entire point of the country’s founding was to give communities control over their own money and their own fate.  The decades-long rush to centralize power — whatever the political orientation — has tended to only weaken our union, and leave the country on the road, inevitably, to a new kind of interminable civil war.

Unlike Kotkin, of course, we are not advocating for a return to federalism.  That’s not our job.  What we are doing is suggesting that the conditions are ripe for a reemergence of federalist thought and federalist sentiment.  It is important to remember that we are now less than one month into the Trump administration, and already blue states like California, Oregon, and Washington are grumbling about the federal government and the undue influence it has over their day-to-day activities.  We expect this trend to spread and to grow over the course of the next several years, particularly if “red” America gives President Trump a second term.

Residents of red America believe that traditional values and traditional interpretations of freedom serve both the people and the nation best.  Residents of blue America believe something quite different.  They believe that new demographic and globalist realities require new conceptions of morality and freedom, ones that are less individualistic and more “communal.”   Obviously, we have a preference as to which we believe is more authentically American and more earnestly reflective of the founding principles of the nation.  Of course, we aren’t likely to convince many people in blue America that we’re right and they’re wrong.  Likewise, they aren’t going to win many arguments with red Americans, especially if they continue to believe that the best way to conduct such arguments is by burning stuff and hitting people in the face.

Fortunately, it is possible for us all to live together under the same national umbrella, even as we adamantly refuse to get along.  Sure, the men’s basketball players at the University of California will never get the chance to play at Allen Fieldhouse and to experience the thrill of that beautiful old barn, but that’s probably a small price to pay for more peaceful coexistence among the bifurcating tribes of this country.

Watch California closely.  The more you read about votes to maintain sanctuary cities in the face of federal disapproval; the more you see riots in response to federal policies; the more you hear legislators talking about how much the state has to offer the rest of the country and how little the rest of the country has to offer it; the more real this restoration of federalism will become.  The Left built this monster and never thought it would regret it.  Regret, however, is starting to set in.  And that could well be the salvation of the nation.


Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.