Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

They Said It:

What is at issue . . . is not just the question of religious liberty but the question of non-governmental institutions in a free society. Does civil society consist of a set of institutions that help the government achieve its purposes as [the government] defines them . . . or does civil society consist of an assortment of efforts by citizens to band together in pursuit of mutual aims and goods as they understand them? Is [civil society] an extension of the state or of the community? In this arena, as in a great many others, the administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state.

Yuval Levin, National Review Online, January 30, 2012.



If you pay attention to the folks in the conservative media, you might get the impression that Donald Trump is responsible for all that is wrong in the world.  He is crass, crude, vain, and ill-tempered.  He is destroying the Republican Party and appears intent on destroying the country as well.  He praises Putin, opposes war on ISIS, and roots for the Duke basketball team.  He is a recent convert to the Pro-Life cause.  He brags about having bribed government officials.  He played – GASP! – soccer in high school!  And that hair?  We can only guess that is there not to cover up balding, but to hide his horns.  The man is evil incarnate.

Or so we’re told.

Among the subtler arguments forwarded by Trump’s critics on both the Right and the Left is that his contempt is not solely aimed at the Republican Party, its leaders, and the two-party system itself; that he also has unique contempt for and thus poses a unique threat to America’s civil institutions.  Writing in The Week, Damon Linker makes the argument as follows:

Watching Donald Trump’s awkward and disorganized veterans benefit event on Thursday night, it was easy to lose sight of how audacious it was for the man leading handily in most state and national polls to refuse to participate in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Audacious — and also ominous.

The richest theories of liberal democratic government have recognized that to thrive a democracy requires three levels of social life: individuals capable of governing themselves, a state that abides by the rule of law, and a vast network of intermediary institutions serving as a buffer between the individual and the state. The last of these are the institutions of civil society: churches, businesses, unions, non-profits, lobbying and activist groups, political parties, journalistic outlets, and so on.

Though we may not often think of them this way, these institutions serve a vital, perhaps essential and irreplaceable function of sorting, vetting, and ranking people, with varying levels of formality, as they climb diverse ladders of achievement toward leadership roles . . .

Fox News takes a lot of heat for the way it’s leveraged its sky-high ratings to exercise enormous control over who gets to rise to the top in Republican politics.  But that merely means that the network functions as the single most powerful gatekeeper for the GOP, to some extent supplanting the Republican Party itself for power and influence . . .

As this week’s events have demonstrated, the gatekeeping process only works if the candidates accept Fox’s legitimacy to serve in that role.  With his prodigious use of Twitter, remarkable capacity to generate publicity for himself in more traditional media outlets, and willingness to make strident demands and stick to them, Donald Trump is testing the power of this institution like no one before him.  When the Republican candidate leading in every national and most state polls not only refuses to participate in a debate hosted by the most powerful media outlet on the right but actually organizes a competing event designed to undermine the legitimacy of the official debate, that’s an act of outright insubordination against the prevailing political norms and institutions of civil society.

Now we don’t think that Linker is terribly off base here.  In fact, we have written countless pieces on the importance of “institutions” in American life and on the ways in which those institutions distinguish American democracy from that practiced anywhere else in the world, often quoting the following from Tocqueville to support our argument.

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country.  Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.  They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.  The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.  If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association . . .

But there’s an important catch here that Linker misses and that we have hinted at previously – two, actually; one short-term; one long-term. Let us explain.

Last August, after Trump had seized control of the early pre-primary season, and after he had been deemed “done” at least twice by the political cognoscenti, we argued that his appeal was far more nuanced than most observers understood.  Trump, we said, is not just the empty vessel into which nominally Republican voters are pouring their frustration with the ruling class.  Rather he is the ostensibly “conservative” answer to Barack Obama.  He is to the Right what Obama is to the Left, a political neophyte whose real strength is entertainment and snark.  We put it this way:

Donald Trump is out on the stump doing what Obama has done for the better part of the last decade and what [the former host of “The Daily Show,” Jon] Stewart has done for longer.  He’s out there giving ‘em hell, poking fun at his opponents, making people laugh, and persuading a certain group of like-minded partisans that this is what REAL political dialogue is all about.  Or as Taranto put it, “All this helps explain why Trump appeals to some conservatives and Republicans.  Having endured this kind of abuse for years, why shouldn’t they be attracted to a candidate who seems willing and able to fight back in kind?”

The Obama-Trump comparison remains useful, we think.  For example, Linker knocks Trump for scorning Fox.  But where did Trump get the idea that it was OK to dismiss the most popular news network on television as a mere propaganda machine?  Where did Trump come up with the notion that he could call Fox “biased” and politically motivated?  Where did Trump get the impression that he could badmouth the “gatekeepers” and not only get away with it, but actually increase his popularity?  Heck, where did Trump get the idea to skip a Fox News debate in the first place?

If you answered “from Barack Obama” to any or all of these questions, then you’re smarter than Obama thinks you are, not that that’s saying much.  You know, the soft bigotry of low expectations and all that.  In any case, the point here is that there really is nothing that Trump is doing or promising to do that Obama hasn’t done already.

When we speak about the uniquely American “institutions” that serve as a buffer against government tyranny, we usually have in mind two different varieties, formal and informal, which is to say governmental and civil.  And Barack Obama has attacked, besmirched, bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated both kinds for entirety of his presidency.

In his first week in office, Obama told the opposition party – i.e. the party whose explicit role in Congress is to ensure that legislation is not past too hastily by the majority – that it should shut up because, after all, “I won.”  Over the course of the next 22 months, he proceeded to treat the GOP as if it didn’t exist, using every maneuver available to him to skirt the opposition.  Even after he was openly rebuked by Massachusetts voters, who elected the Republican Scott Brown as an expression of their displeasure with the health care legislation, Obama nevertheless pushed on with his plans.  The House bent the rules here to get a vote.  The Senate broke the rules there to get a vote.  The administration bribed, cheated, and lied to get a vote.  And in the end, the first major entitlement program passed with ZERO input from the opposition party was just barely enacted.

Of course, when the law didn’t reflect reality particularly well, the administration changed it, changed its implementation, or fudged the regulatory powers to suit its political purposes.  And it did so in contravention of both tradition and the LAW.  According to the Galen Institute, a non-profit health and tax-policy research organization, the Obama administration has unilaterally (and possibly illegally) changed the Affordable Care Act 43 TIMES since it was enacted.

In 2012, as the Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the legality of Obama’s health care reform, the President went out of his way to try to intimidate the Supreme Court, warning that a refusal to confirm the administration’s interpretation of the law would be unprecedented and outrageously damaging to the nation.  He even went so far as to castigate this “unelected group of people” – i.e. a separate and CO-EQUAL branch of government – in his State of the Union Address.

After the 2010 and especially the 2014 midterm elections, Obama openly expressed his frustration with a Congress that was unwilling to do as he demanded.  He declared his “envy” for the leaders of China, who didn’t have to convince a Congress, much less the people, to do as their leaders’ said.  He mocked the constitutional system of checks and balances, declaring that “America does not stand still – and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”  And he did.  On immigration, energy policy, global climate change, guns, minimum wage laws for government contractors, and a host of other policies, Obama bypassed the Congress – which is to say the representatives of the people – to enact and enforce his own will.

As for the “informal” institutions, those that Linker accuses Trump of attempting to destroy, here too Obama got there first.  Take Fox News, for example.  Obama has been waging war on that network for almost a decade, even before he arrived and unpacked his bags at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The DEMOCRATIC strategist and syndicated columnist Kirsten Powers noted, nearly three years ago, that the official war began during Obama’s first year in the White House, when “then-White House Communications Director Anita Dunn said this about Fox News to the New York Times:, ‘[W]e don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.’  On CNN, she declared that Fox was a ‘wing of the Republican Party.’  Then: ‘let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is.’”  And it was all downhill from there:

There is no war on terror for the Obama White House, but there is one on Fox News.

In a recent interview with The New Republic, President Obama was back to his grousing about the one television news outlet in America that won’t fall in line and treat him as emperor.  Discussing breaking Washington’s partisan gridlock, the president told TNR, “If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News . . . for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it.”

Alas, the president loves to whine about the media meanies at Fox News. To him, these are not people trying to do their jobs. No, they are out to get him. What other motive could a journalist have in holding a president accountable? Why oh why do Ed Henry and Chris Wallace insist on asking hard questions? Make them stop!

Of course, Obama’s war on the media didn’t stop with Fox.  Writing at FrontPage magazine, Ronn Torossian, an old PR hand, noted the following (emphasis in original):

This issue reared its ugly head publicly again today during an interview on Fox News with Investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who quit CBS News last month, seemingly as the result of her inability to do her job due to “pressures.”  The interview focused upon her comments that the Obama administration has had a “chilling effect” on news organizations, and places tremendous pressure upon journalists not to run stories which they don’t approve of. Attkisson claimed,  “There is pressure coming to bear on journalists for just doing their job in ways that have never come to bear before.”  “But it is particularly aggressive under the Obama administration, and I think it’s a campaign that’s very well organized, that’s designed to have sort of a chilling effect and to some degree has been somewhat successful in getting broadcast producers who don’t really want to deal with the headache of it.” . . .

In this administration, journalists at The Associated Press have had their phone records pulled as the government secretly subpoenaed and seized records for telephone lines and switchboards used by more than 100 AP reporters in its Washington bureau and elsewhere.  This included work and personal phone lines of multiple reporters, thousands of newsgathering calls on a wide variety of issues. Individual reporters from Fox News have been tracked – and that is just what we know about.

Six government employees have faced felony criminal prosecutions since 2009 under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press, compared with just three such prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations.

Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media watchdog organization, issued its first report on press freedom in the United States, and in their report, titled “The Obama Administration and the Press,” they report that President Obama has ushered in a paralyzing climate of fear for media.  The report contented that media is being severely pressured, and David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times said “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”

Four years ago, as part of the regulatory process associated with the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration released what has become known as the “contraception mandate,” which compels private employers to provide their employees with health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and chemical abortion procedures.  As we noted at the time, this was no mere innocent attempt to provide “health services” to women.  It was, rather, a transparent and deliberate attack on the nation’s religious institutions and employers.

The liberal state, we argued, cannot and therefore will not tolerate any sources of authority other than itself.  It cannot and therefore will not tolerate anything that serves as a legitimate buffer between itself and its subjects – and “subjects,” in this case, is indeed the proper word.  And so it would destroy to whatever extent it could the power of private, informal institutions to be this buffer.  George Weigel, the Catholic intellectual and biographer of Pope John Paul II, called the administration’s actions “a matter of a grotesque overreach by state power, one that threatens the entire fabric of civil society as well as the first of American liberties, religious freedom.”

Weigel was right, of course, but was also hopelessly naïve.  He believed that the “grotesque” attack on the American civil society would be repelled, that it would simply be too grotesque for the people to tolerate.  And yet, four years later, the Little Sisters of the Poor are awaiting their day in court – the Supreme Court – before whom their lawyers will plead their case next month.  The damage done to religious freedom and to American civil society by Obama administration is not only grotesque, but ongoing, and very, very real.

The problem here – or the long-term “catch” to which we alluded earlier – is the fact that Obama’s attacks on the institutions of government and of civil society are nothing new.  Indeed, they are merely part and parcel of the Progressive experiment that has plagued this nation for better than a century now.  We’d love to say that they are the “culmination” of a century-long push to undermine the nation’s republican and civil institutions, but we know better.  The statist trend in American politics won’t culminate unless and until civil society has been destroyed entirely, until the nation’s churches, clubs, guilds, families, and so on have been rendered so impotent, so defenseless as to allow the state total control.  In what amounts to the second half of the quote we used above, Tocqueville noted that once government oversteps its traditional bounds and challenges the purview of civil society, tyranny is the inevitable result:

No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere . . . than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands.  Worse still will be the case if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas; it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor.  Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.

Note that Tocqueville declares that “associations,” ought to serve as a counterbalance to the state.  And who, frankly, could argue the point?  Sadly, though, that’s not how things have worked out in the real world.  The noble American experiment was designed to keep the state at bay and to provide the people with the opportunity to maintain their associations and thus to maintain their liberty as well.  But that experiment was changed; the formulas were altered and the state was permitted – née encouraged – to slip the chains the Founders had placed upon it.  And so they have.

What does all of this mean?  Well, among other things it means that the next President of the United States will have to make a choice.  He (or she, we suppose) will have to decide what kind of government the country will have, a democratic federal republic or something else altogether.  We strongly suspect that both of the Democratic candidates would choose the latter and would follow in Barack Obama’s footsteps.  That’s what progressives do, after all.  They enlarge and embolden the state.  But the Democrats are hardly the only candidates in this race who would do so.  Donald Trump has repeatedly declared that he too will follow Obama’s lead and will crush the mitigating institutions of the republic.

On more than one occasion, Trump has said that he will use executive orders to accomplish the things that he has promised his supporters, but which he simply cannot deliver through the legislative process.  According to Trump, Obama has “led the way,” and “there’s a lot of precedent for what he is doing.”  Given that the Congress will never pass anything close to the immigration proposals he has made, we take the guy at his word.  We think he would, indeed, continue to wear down the republican and civil institutions that were intended to preserve the nation’s liberty.

In this sense, we suppose that guys like Linker are right.  Trump would, indeed, be a disaster for America’s institutions.  But he’s hardly alone.  Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a candidate from either party in any election over the last couple of decades who would be much different.  Guys like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul promise to revive the Constitution and thus to put the state in its proper place, and we don’t doubt that they mean it.  The question is whether they have the ability to do so.  And to be honest with you, we’re not sure that they do.  As Russell Kirk noted, this process of destroying civil society and replacing it with the state is largely unstoppable.  Once the state has been given the sanction to increase its purview, it does so, tirelessly, remorselessly.  To wit:

All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss.  In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor.  “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.”  There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.”  Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.  What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.  Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system.  The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.”  The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death.  All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

In short, then, the critics are right to worry.  What Linker calls the “fall of America’s Institutions,” is a real phenomenon.  Blaming it on Trump, though, both misses the point and makes the fall all the more inevitable.



In 70 B.C., Cicero undertook the prosecution of Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily, for corruption.  Verres was wealthy.  And the system was corrupt, and widely understood to be so.  Nevertheless, Cicero won the case.  The speech that delivered the victory has become a classic – or should we say used to be a classic in the by-gone days when there was such a thing as a classic.  Here are some excerpts, which would seem to be as pertinent in our time as they were over 2,000 years ago given the on-going debate over whether Hillary Clinton will be indicted for blatantly violating laws that have landed people less rich and powerful than her in prison.

Judges, at this grave crisis in the history of our country, you have been ordered a peculiarly desirable gift, a gift almost too opportune to be of human origin: it almost seems heaven-sent.  For you have been given a unique chance to make your Senatorial Order less unpopular, and to set right the damaged reputation of these courts.  A belief has taken root which is having a fatal effect on our nation – and which to us who are Senators, in particular, threatens grave peril.  This belief is on everyone’s tongue, at Rome and even in foreign countries.  It is this: that in these courts, with their present membership, even the worst criminal will never be convicted provided that he has money.

That, then, is the dangerous crisis with which your Order and your courts are faced.  Speeches have been prepared, laws drafted, with the purpose of inflaming still further this hatred that already rages against the Senate.  And at this very juncture Gaius Verres has been brought to trial.  Here is a man whose life and actions the world has already condemned – yet whose enormous fortune, according to his own loudly expressed hopes, has already brought him acquittal!  I, gentlemen, am his prosecutor, and the people of Rome are strongly and confidently on my side.  To increase the unpopularity of your Order is very far from my intention.  On the contrary, I am eager to remove your bad reputation – which is as much mine as yours.  And the defendant whom I am prosecuting, being the man he is, provides you with your opportunity to recover the lost prestige of these courts and to regain the favour of Romans and the outside world alike. . .

The people who have reason to fear prosecutions, Verres assures his friends, are those who have only stolen just enough for their own use: whereas what he, on the contrary, has stolen is enough to satisfy many people. . . .

This remind me of a remark I made . . . I asserted my belief that, one of these days, communities from the provinces would send deputations to the people of Rome requesting that the extortion law and its court should be abolished.  For if no such court existed, they suppose that each governor would only take away with him enough for himself and his children.  At present, on the other hand, with the courts as they are, a governor takes enough for himself, and his protectors, and his counsel, and the president of the court, and the judges.  In other words, there is no end to it.  A greedy man’s lust for gain they could satisfy, but they cannot afford a guilty man acquittal. . .

In God’s name, gentlemen, I pray you to devote all your care and all your foresight to facing this situation.  It is evident to me, and I give you solemn warning, that heaven itself has vouchsafed you this opportunity of rescuing our entire Order from its present unpopularity of rescuing our entire Order from its present unpopularity, disgrace, ill-famed, and scandal.  People believe that the strictness and good faith are not to be found in our courts – indeed, that the courts themselves no longer have any reality.  So we Senators are scorned and despised by the people of Rome: long have be labored under this painful burden of disrepute . . .

Your verdict upon the present defendant will decide another verdict also; and it is upon yourselves that this will be pronounced – by Rome.  For here is the man, and here is the case, that will provide an answer to this question: will a court of Senators convict a guilty man if he is rich?

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