Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
They Said It:
But we stand here representing people who are the equals before the law of the largest cities in the state of Massachusetts. When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.
We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.
It is for these that we speak.
William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” Speech (Address to the Democratic National Convention), July 9, 1896.
RAND PAUL: A VOICE IN THE DESERT?
As you may have heard, the only thing of importance that happened in Washington last week was a filibuster, which was executed by the junior Senator from Kentucky, who also happens to be the son of the man whom we’ve often described in these pages as “the GOP’s crazy old uncle in the attic.”
Oh sure, there were other things scheduled to happen in Washington. But none of them did. The sequester shut ‘em down. All of ‘em. Apparently, “cutting” from the budget the amount of money that the federal government borrows in just over a week was enough to bring the world’s largest and most powerful government to its knees. No White House tours. No meat inspections. No air traffic control. No federal government action at all. Even the little baby pandas at the National Zoo went hungry. What’s that you say? There are no baby pandas at the National Zoo? Well . . . not any more, there aren’t.
But we digress . . .
Senator Paul’s “talking filibuster” was, without question, the defining moment of the week – if not the year, or several years, frankly. Some people saw Paul’s act as a brilliant piece of political theater, designed expressly to raise his political profile. Some saw it as a principled defense of the nation, of the Constitution, and of the principles associated with limited government. Still others saw it as proof that the crazy doesn’t fall too far from the tree. For our part, we saw it as a little bit of all three – plus a great deal more. Indeed, we are a little surprised that the rest of the political world has not seen it for what really was, namely a portent.
Let us explain.
Theoretically, at least, Paul’s filibuster was motivated by the Obama administration’s unwillingness to discuss any possible limitations on its use of unmanned drones to kill American civilians, even on American soil. Paul insisted – rightly – that the administration and its representatives, namely the Attorney General Eric Holder, were stubbornly, and perhaps unconstitutionally, ignoring such matters as the limits to the power of the executive and an American citizen’s right to due process. The Senator wanted a straight answer from the administration, and he wanted that answer to be in keeping with long-established Constitutional principles. His demand for clarification seemed, to us at least, to be perfectly reasonable.
At the same time, one can be forgiven for charging that Paul’s protest-filibuster was unnecessary, at least in terms of defining policy. Over the past several days, we have read a great deal about Paul and about his case. And a great many people for whom we have a great deal of respect have argued that the Senator was largely wrong on the substance of his protest and therefore was wrong to have taken such extreme measures to get what he wanted.
The most convincing argument of this type was made by Andy McCarthy, the former lead prosecutor in the Omar Abdel Rahman/Trade Center bombing case and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. McCarthy argued quite persuasively that Paul’s protest was based on trivial differences with the Obama administration and on far-fetched scenarios that have no basis in reality. He may indeed have needed clarification, but this clarification was just semantic, a triviality that has no real impact on the relationship between the government and the people and that might actually hurt the government’s ability to defend the homeland against enemy attackers.
Whatever the case, the Obama administration gave in and agreed with Senator Paul that the President of the United States did not have the right to use drones to kill American citizens on American soil unless said citizens are engaged in war against their nation. Or, as the Attorney General put it in his letter to Paul: “It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ The answer to that question is no.”
So . . . there you have it. The matter is settled.
Except that it isn’t.
In our humble opinion, the reason that Paul’s filibuster was important has very little to do with the policies or the procedures involved or with the resolution of these policy and procedural questions. It has very little to do with the Senate, a Senator’s prerogatives, or with the President’s responsibility to seek the consent of Congress for his war powers. Indeed, it has very little to do with drones. Frankly, in the end, we expect that it has very little to do with Rand Paul.
A good way, we think, to assess the pertinence of Senator Paul’s protest is to look, at least in brief, at those who were most upset by it.
One can suppose that President Obama was upset by the precocious freshman Senator’s willingness to challenge the administration’s near-royal dictates. Obama, as he has admitted repeatedly, likes to win and hates to lose. And Paul made him lose, and lose embarrassingly.
Obama didn’t make that displeasure obvious, but anyone who has paid any attention to the man or his presidency knows that he had to be very unhappy about being shown up by a backward hick who not only didn’t go to Harvard, but went to some bible-thumping Baptist college in Waco, of all places! If Baylor and/or Kentucky – both bubble teams – are somehow left out of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, one might be forgiven for thinking that the guy whom Sport Illustrated calls the “44th most powerful man in sports” was exacting his revenge on Paul in the most painful way he could imagine.
As for the rest of the Democrats, they too were made to look like fools by the newcomer from Kentucky. At one point during his filibuster, Paul asked for unanimous consent for a “sense of the Senate” resolution declaring “that the use of drones to execute or to target American citizens on American soil who pose no imminent threat clearly violates the constitutional due process rights of citizens.” And Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip and the senior Senator from Obama’s home state of Illinois, was forced to make a pathetic objection to a resolution to which no sane person could object. Too weak to stop Paul, but too supine to challenge the President even on the question of wanton killing of Americans, the Senate Democrats were forced to do nothing more than to “object,” and then to bite their tongues for several more hours and watch as Paul continued his filibuster and their humiliation.
Of course the most relevant and amusing objectors to what has quickly become known as Paul’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, were the GOP’s other crazy old uncle in the attic and his little buddy, who lacks his hero’s intelligence, common sense, practicality, and good looks, but shares most of his nutty mannerisms. We speak here, of course, of the GOP’s dynamic duo, John McCain, the crazy old coot with an unrivaled temper, and Lindsey Graham, a man who has rightly earned his reputation as an “eccentric.” They, of all people, could be seen last week describing Paul – and his fellow Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Justin Amash – as “wacko birds,” to use McCain’s term. Hmmm. Pots and kettles?
Of course, the real reason that McCain and Graham are unhappy is the same reason that Reid and Durbin are unhappy, which just happens to be the same reason that Barack Obama is unhappy, indeed that all of “official” Washington is unhappy. They all got their heads handed to them by a young upstart nobody, who is best known as his father’s son, and whose father is best known as the kook who wants to make pot legal and the Fed illegal. How could he do this to them? Doesn’t he understand that they are not supposed to be made fools of, dammit! They’re the ones who are supposed to make fools of the OTHER guys.
The fact of the matter is that Rand Paul represents something deeply unsettling and terribly frightening to big shots in both political parties and their associated cronies in the government and the media. He represents an emerging center of power, one that is distinct from and is indeed hostile to the existing one. Rand Paul is a threat. And he is a threat specifically because he is not one of them, not one of the ruling class.
Now, we’ll be honest here. We’re not exactly what you would call “fans” of Rand Paul. We think he is wrong on a great many matters of policy, temperament, politics, and philosophy. We think he has inherited many of his father’s worst ideas and worst political tics. Moreover, we have our beefs with libertarians and libertarianism, which sounds like a lot of fun, but, like most things that sound like a lot of fun, isn’t really fully actualized, particularly if you think of it in terms of a governing ethos for a society such as ours.
All that said, the guy was pretty impressive last week. And a big part of the reason he was impressive is because he is moved by the animating spirit of the moment. Above, we said that the relevance of this filibuster has little to do with drones. It’s not that the drones do not matter. It’s just that they are only a part – a rather small part, in fact – of a much larger story. Consider just a handful of the stories that have landed in our reading pile over just the last several days. And then consider what they all have in common. We’ll start with a little George Will, from his column published last Friday and titled “Pop-Tart Terrorist”:
Joshua Welch — a boy, wouldn’t you know; no good can come of these turbulent creatures — who is 7, was suspended from second grade in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County last week because of his “Pop-Tart pistol.” While eating a rectangular fruit-filled sugary something — nutritionist Michelle Obama probably disapproves of it, and don’t let Michael Bloomberg get started — Joshua tried biting it into the shape of a mountain but decided it looked more like a gun. So with gender-specific perversity, he did the natural thing. He said, “Bang, bang.” . . .
While some might enjoy dog-paddling around in this deep philosophic water, Joshua’s school, taking its cue from Hamlet, did not allow its resolve to be “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” More eager to act than to think, the school suspended Joshua and sent a letter to all the pupils’ parents, urging them to discuss the “incident” — which the school includes in the category “classroom disruptions” — with their children “in a manner you deem most appropriate.”
Ah, yes. The all-purpose adjective “appropriate.” The letter said “one of our students used food to make inappropriate gestures” and, although “no physical threats were made and no one was harmed,” the code of student conduct stipulates “appropriate consequences.” The letter, suffused with the therapeutic ethic, suggested that parents help their children “share their feelings” about all this. It also said the school counselor is available, presumably to cope with Post-Pastry Trauma Syndrome.
Next up is Colin Campbell, writing in the “Politicker” column for the New York Observer:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be one of the world’s biggest proponents of government action to promote public health, but Hizzoner has his limits. In his weekly radio appearance on John Gambling’s radio show, the mayor was asked whether he would consider ordering mandatory gym memberships and he admitted that’s taking things too far.
“Well, you have to be practical about what legally you can do and what people will do,” said Mr. Bloomberg. “The nice thing about the soda thing is it’s really just a suggestion. So, if you want to buy 32 ounces, you just have to carry it back to your seat in two cups. And maybe that would convince you to only take one, but if you want two you can do it. I think government’s job . . . is to give you advice, not to force you do things.”
Mr. Bloomberg did note, however, that the government does force behavior under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, he said forcing physical exercise “probably” crosses the line of acceptability.
“Probably?” That’s a nice touch. Of course, (and this is a true story) fifteen years ago, the aforementioned Senator John McCain lost his temper at a dinner meeting comprised of our friends and clients when one individual had the temerity to ask him if his ongoing rent extraction from the tobacco industry might not lead to government trying to tell people what they should or should not eat. All of which is to say that to a guy like Michael Bloomberg, saying that compelling exercise “probably” crosses a line may well mean that he intends to propose the idea next month.
And speaking of Michael Bloomberg, it’s interesting, we think, that all of his overbearing intrusions into the dietary lives of his constituents has taken place in this, his THIRD term as mayor, despite the fact that New York’s Mayors were limited, by law, to two terms. Funny that.
Our next piece is a short one written by J. Christian Adams as commentary on yet another short film made by the guerilla-videographer James O’Keefe, who is probably best known for his first film, which showed Planned Parenthood workers offering to help get abortions for purported underage prostitutes. Adams, a former Justice Department official, commented on O’Keefe’s latest project thusly:
James O’Keefe’s latest video shows the ugly truth: if you don’t own a gun, you are on your own. In the video, he goes into police stations (predominately in the anti-gun Northeast) and collects a shocking harvest of responses from officers about how the police have no ability to protect them. Traffic and time prevent effective responses to 911 calls. O’Keefe’s undercover protagonist pushes the issue, “well, how am I supposed to protect my family if I don’t have a gun?”
“You’re on your own,” is the common response. Others suggest defending your family with bleach, 2 x 4’s, yelling, or holding a cell phone to your ear and pretending you are talking to the police. It demonstrates the immorality of gun control policies in places like New York and New Jersey. One New York cop says a “shotgun or rifle is a luxury.”
We’re glad, for O’Keefe’s sake, that he didn’t surreptitiously videotape Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. O’Keefe is not a big guy. And who knows what Chief Flynn might have said or done to him, not knowing the cameras were rolling, given how he feels about people who might want to exercise their constitutional rights. After all, four years ago, then fully aware that his words would be recorded, Flynn declared: “My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it.” Ahhh . . . yes. The spirit of constitutionalism and due process reflected by the Obama/Holder Justice Department.
We’ll end here with a couple of short bits from the Weekly Standard, the first by Jeffrey Anderson and the second by Daniel Halper, and then a quick blurb from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal online. First up is Anderson:
For someone who aggressively campaigned on the notion that the Republican party cares disproportionately about the rich, President Obama’s economic scorecard is rather illuminating. Since March 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — which tracks the stock prices of 30 large blue-chip companies — has risen 116 percent (from 6,627 to 14,329). That’s an increase of about 100 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Since that same point, however, real median American household income — the income of the typical American family — has dropped 6 percent and $3,168 (from $54,752 to $51,584, according to Census Bureau figures compiled by Sentier Research). What’s more, the portion of Americans who are employed has dropped by 1.3 percentage points (from 59.9 percent to 58.6 percent, according to the federal government’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics).
On Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture quietly released new statistics related to the food stamps program, officially known as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The numbers reveal, in 2012, the food stamps program was the biggest it’s ever been, with an average of 46,609,072 people on the program every month of last year. 47,791,996 people were on the program in the month of December 2012 . . .
Washington, D.C., with an estimated population of 617,996, had an average of 141,147 participants. Meaning, roughly 23 percent of folks living in D.C. are on food stamps, according to the numbers provided by the federal government.
And lastly, the Journal:
Stocks continued their march higher to start the week, shrugging off weakness in European markets and downbeat economic data in China.
After a flat opening, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 16 points, or 0.1%, to 14413 in midday trading. The blue chips are riding a six-session win streak and have closed each of the last four sessions at an all-time high.
We could go on (and on and on . . .), we suppose, but we think you get the idea. And the idea is that all of these stories have something in common with each other and with drones. All of them depict the fact that one group in this country is doing very, very well, accumulating vast stores of power and wealth, while the other group – a much larger group – is slowly but surely losing everything, beginning with relative wealth and ending with the right to make even the simplest and most benign decisions about how to live their lives and raise their children.
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago this November, Abraham Lincoln turned out at Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. While there, he rather famously praised those who had given their lives to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We hate to say that Lincoln was wrong, but it strikes us more and more that the Republic that Lincoln’s soldiers died to protect now mostly represents the government of the ruling class, by the ruling class, and for the ruling class. As for the people, well . . . who cares?
Well, Rand Paul does. And that, you see, is why he matters.
As we have noted before in these pages, populism has a rich history in American politics on both the Left and the Right. Its origins can be traced to the Anti-Federalists, and then to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, through the rise of agrarian populism, into the twentieth century with the Progressive and Prohibition movements, and in more recent times to bids for the White House from men like George Wallace, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
The populist message varies greatly depending on time, place and person. It can emanate from both the far Left and the far Right. But all populists pick and choose from a menu presented as follows by Michael Federici, a professor of political science at Mercyhurst College, in his marvelous book on the subject, entitled The Challenge of Populism, and published in 1991 by Praeger:
- Suspicion of elites, especially business figures, bankers, bureaucrats, intellectuals, plutocrats;
- Faith in the common sense and virtue of the ordinary people;
- Suspicion of metropolitan society;
- Preference for simplicity versus complexity;
- Idyllic assessment of agricultural life;
- Reverence for religion;
- Conspiracy theory;
- Staunch defense of small property holders versus corporations;
- Fear of trusts and monopolies;
- Mistrust of science and technology;
- Majoritarian democracy
The Tea Party, which was largely responsible for Rand Paul’s ultimately successful candidacy, is very much what might be called a pre-populist movement. Recall that the impetus for the Tea Party could be found in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the “stimulus” bill promoted by the public-sector unions, passed by the Democrats, and signed by Barack immediately after taking office.
Note as well that the Tea Party has been driven and repeatedly re-energized by the attacks leveled against it by its intellectual “superiors,” by the denizens of the nation’s largest cities, by the anti-religious mainstream, and so on. The Tea Party is without question a grass-roots political movement, but one that has not yet found that one single leader that can maintain its level of political enthusiasm without being co-opted by the mainstream/ruling class factions of the broader conservative movement.
Still, many of the young firebrands on the Republican side are driven by populist themes and sentiments. In addition to Paul, Senators Marco Rubio (FL), Mike Lee (UT), and Ted Cruz (TX) are what we might call constitutionalist-populists. So, for that matter are more than a handful of House members, including the aforementioned Justin Amash (MI). Like Rand Paul – and his father, for that matter – these young conservatives are part of a movement that is slowly but surely taking form and positioning itself in opposition to the half-century-old ruling-class hegemony.
It is notable, we think, that ALL of the members of this populist vanguard are on the political Right, since most of the truly successful populist movements of the last century have been Left-wing. Indeed, one could argue that the most successful American populist movement of all time was the Progressive movement, which radically changed the Democratic Party and from which today’s Democrats still claim to draw their inspiration. But given the contemporary prevailing sentiments in American Leftism, populism among that crowd today is simply incomprehensible, even if some on the Left still speak the language of populism.
You see, as its name suggests, populism speaks to the aspirations of and draws its energy from the people, while the contemporary Left, by contrast, speaks exclusively to the aspirations of the State. The people, such as they are, are allowed the crumbs that fall from the table at which the State and its ruling class dine. But theirs is an unhappy lot, destined as they are to a meager existence, placated with baubles and frills, but denied the opportunity to be masters of their own destiny.
The irony here is that Progressivism, the sacred ancestor of the contemporary Left, was a populist movement conceived to save democracy and its practitioners from the corruption and greed of the great urban party “machines.” But the tools by which the Progressives broke that machine – the professional bureaucracy, trade unions, and the like – evolved, in time, into cogs in a new, but all too similar, corrupt and greedy machine.
Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, this transformation of the Progressive spirit from a force for democracy to a force for tyranny is the subject of the great American political scientist Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, oft cited in these pages, as regular readers well know.
As the professional bureaucracy grew, it fueled the growth of the state, and the state grew without any reflection, consideration, or design. Before long – and at least a half-century ago – the state and the professional bureaucracy came to represent the very same perspective and the very same corrupt values that they purported to oppose. In other words, the state, its growth, and the emergence of the interest-group liberalism that characterizes Lowi’s “Second Republic,” served effectively to cut the people out of the legislative process and to warp their expectations for government.
Now, given the ethos of the nation and the fundamental principles behind the design of its representative institutions, this is a condition that cannot continue forever. And as the maxim has it: that which cannot go on forever, won’t. In this case, the people will eventually tire of their condition and will turn to someone who promises to change that condition for the better.
Enter the populists . . .
In his condemnation of Rand Paul last week, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard, accused the Kentucky Senator of being melodramatic and unserious. “Obama’s a bad president, and America’s got many problems,” Kristol wrote, but “it isn’t, as Paul sometimes seemed to suggest, hurtling towards tyranny.”
With all due respect to Kristol, he’s wrong. America is hurtling toward tyranny. And Kristol doesn’t recognize it as such because he is, in some ways, one of the tyrants. This tyranny, of course, is not of the traditional variety. But it is a tyranny nonetheless, perpetrated by the ruling class against the country class. And the guys like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Justin Amash are merely the first to conclude that there is a restlessness among the American people that is stirred by their discomfort with this tyrannical class.
Now, we don’t want to wander too far into the fringes of sacrilege, but it strikes us that the appropriate parallel for Rand Paul is, perhaps, John the Baptist. Paul is, we’re sure, not The One. But he is heralding The One’s eventual appearance. That is, if things continue as they are in American politics – and we have no reason to believe that they will not –at some point a populist, or several populists, will emerge to challenge the ruling order.
And while we believe that the ruling order desperately needs to be challenged, we make no normative judgments about the populist who will do so. Populism is disruptive. It is often excessively anti-intellectual. And it is always far too optimistic about what can be accomplished by mere politics alone. So, while we anxiously anticipate the challenge to the ruling class, we do not necessarily look forward to the rise of the populist who will issue the challenge.
We wish there were another way, a way in which the ruling class’s dominance could be broken and the ruling ethos smashed without the rise of a full-blown populist movement. In order for that to happen, though, the mainstream institutions in this country would have to be open to the possibility that perhaps the state isn’t and shouldn’t be the final arbiter of all human activity. And we fear that we are long past that point with most such institutions.
As we’ve said before, then, get your popcorn, sit down, and get comfy. This is going to be wild and riveting show.
We only hope it has a happy ending.