President Donald Trump at the State of the Union shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool via REUTERS)One of the reasons our politics is so contentious and angry is that we can’t agree on what the rules are.
Dear Reader (Including those of you about to be dropped off in a sanctuary city),
Damn Jim Geraghty. Damn him straight to hell, or Newark airport, whichever comes first.
He basically wrote about what I wanted to write about this morning, in spirit plagiarizing what I was going to write.
One of the reasons our politics is so contentious and angry is that we can’t agree on what the rules are. Some of us want to argue that certain policies are good and certain policies are bad. But a vocal chunk of Americans don’t really care about what the policies are; they would much rather argue that their side is right. They don’t care if these are the same policies or comparable to those they denounced earlier. The system is clogged with bad-faith arguments, hypocrisy, and flip-flopping.
Jim runs through a bunch of examples, the most obvious being the follow-the-bouncing-ball standards for Julian Assange, a hero for much of the American Left when he was undermining American national security and putting Americans and allies in jeopardy, but a villain when he helped Vladimir Putin damage Hillary Clinton.
Even as a I write this, I can hear a lot of conservatives saying, “Yeah, damn hypocrites!” about the Left’s changing standards.
But hold on. Assange became a hero for many on the right for the very same reasons. He was a villain for working with then–Bradley Manning for a lot of people. But that was all forgiven when he helped Putin damage Hillary Clinton.
Similar reversals can be found with regard to Vladimir Putin himself. In 2012, Mitt Romney says Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe, and Democrats laughed and laughed (“the 1980s called, Mitt, they want their foreign policy back,” hah-hah snort). Since 2016, lots of right-wing pundits have, like one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey with a glass of chardonnay, thrown that in the faces of Democrats who now think Russia is the focus of evil in the modern world. But the same right-wing pundits are pretty silent on the fact that Trump, and many rank-and-file Republicans, now themselves disagree with Romney. They enjoy pointing out the other team’s flips but mumble about their own team’s flops.
If it’s your view that Assange was noble for undermining the U.S. war effort or national security but evil for undermining the DNC or Hillary Clinton, then your standard for such things is entirely team-based. And if it’s your view that Assange was evil for undermining the U.S. war effort or national security but noble for undermining the DNC or Hillary Clinton, your standards are also entirely team-based.
In short, partisanship is a helluva drug.
As Jim selfishly noted before I could, this is an old story. When Republicans are in power, Democrats fret over the deficit while Republicans insist it doesn’t matter. When Democrats are in power, Republicans pound the table over the deficit while Democrats shrug. Of course, there are some exceptions, and the details of how Republicans and Democrats want to accrue more debt differ markedly. Democrats want to spend money, except on defense. Republicans want to cut spending, except in defense. Democrats want to raise taxes, but only on the rich. Republicans want to cut taxes, especially for the rich. Blah blah blah. These agendas have pluses and minuses on both sides, but concern about the deficit is something that moves with possession of the ball.
And the ball is power. For partisans, invoking principles — or simply the rules of the game — is very often a question of whether you are on offense or defense.
Of course, this stuff is so much more obvious — at least to me — and more pronounced in the age of Trump than it has been at any time in my life. But the dynamic is ancient, because it is human. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a concept that predates modern politics and philosophy by — someone check my math — a kajillion years.
Two Cheers for Partisanship
To be honest, I’ve always had some sympathy for this aspect of partisanship. Imagine you’re a defendant in a criminal trial. You want your defense attorney to be a partisan for your side. If the prosecutor violates the rules or simply contradicts himself, you want your lawyer to point it out as aggressively and effectively possible. In other words, partisanship is often the only force that causes political combatants to invoke the rules. In sports, when the other team breaks the rules, your team appeals to the ref to enforce them. Likewise, in politics, partisans invoke the rules for their team. The fact that they do it selectively for their own team’s benefits isn’t a bug of our Madisonian system, it’s a feature. And — here’s the important part — the hypocrisy of the partisans invoking the rules isn’t an indictment of the rules. If a teammate double-dribbles, it’s entirely understandable if you don’t go running to the ref to point it out, even if five minutes earlier you pointed out the double-dribbling of a player on the opposing team.
When Bill Clinton was in the hot seat (not the one that costs extra at the Bunny Ranch), his partisans invoked the argument that even the president deserved the full benefits of the legal system. When Donald Trump was in Mueller’s crosshairs, his partisans made the same arguments. Many of these players are, by conventional political standards, eye-watering hypocrites precisely because they switched positions based upon the party affiliation of the president in peril. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the rules they were invoking were wrong. What’s wrong is the inconsistent and selective application of them.
More on this in a moment.
Partisanship has another benefit. It forces the agenda of politicians to be about something more than pure political self-interest. A party, according to Edmund Burke, “is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” By requiring politicians to get the approval of parties, politicians become beholden to the party that brought them to the dance.
It was Martin Van Buren who basically invented the two-party system. Van Buren was arguably the most underrated thinker in the history of American presidents. He’s underrated in part because he was a decidedly meh president according to historians, though I think many presidential scholars were distracted by his indisputably bad-ass mutton chops. He set out to create two parties that united around policy programs instead of personalities or narrow regional interests. When parties are strong, they force politicians to be beholden to the party’s agenda. When parties are weak — or non-existent — then whoever is in power is effectively unconstrained by his own side. As Joseph Postell writes:
In addition, Van Buren suggested that party nominations would prevent elections from descending into contests of personality. Understanding that Andrew Jackson was likely to win election in 1828 whether or not he was the party’s nominee, Van Buren sought to constrain Jackson’s ambition by making him the instrument of the party rather than his own ambition.
Postell quotes a letter from Van Buren:
[T]he effect of such an nomination on Genl Jackson could not fail to be considerable. His election, as the result of his military services without reference to party…would be one thing. His election as the result of a combined and concerted effort of a political party, holding in the main, to certain tenets & opposed to certain prevailing principles, might be another and a far different thing.
The best things Donald Trump has done, from a conservative perspective at least, stem from catering to the demands of the GOP or the conservative movement. He appointed judges from the Federalist Society’s list because he had to (before this was made clear to him, he was still talking about putting his sister on the court). His positions on guns, taxes, healthcare, defense spending, abortion, etc. are products of his transactional relationship with the institutions of the GOP establishment and the conservative coalition. The best proof of this is that he used to be pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-socialized medicine, etc.
Three Cheers for Ideology
One of the strangest things — at least for me — these days is how partisanship and ideology have become almost interchangeable terms. A day doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t tell me I am a “fake conservative” because I remain both critical and skeptical of Trump. They also call me a “RINO” — “Republican in Name Only” — as if being insufficiently loyal to the party is the same thing as being insufficiently conservative. This reasoning would have seemed preposterous to many of the founders of American conservatism who often fought the GOP hammer-and-tongs. In 1944, Russell Kirk voted for Norman Thomas, the socialist candidate, to reward his anti-imperialism. National Review was a hotbed of anti-Eisenhower vituperation. Willmoore Kendall reportedly voted for LBJ over Goldwater. Frank Meyer couldn’t find a dime’s worth of difference between JFK and Nixon, and National Review refused to endorse any presidential candidate in 1960, thanks largely to opposition by Meyer and Bill Rusher, the magazine’s longtime publisher. William F. Buckley and Nixon sparred constantly, and, while he was friends with Reagan, he certainly didn’t refrain from disagreeing with him publicly when warranted. In 1988, Buckley helped topple Republican senator Lowell Weicker by backing his Democrat opponent Joe Lieberman. You can certainly make the case that such episodes are proof of RINOism. But if you want to argue that Kirk, Buckley, Meyer, et al weren’t conservatives, don’t be surprised when the nurse tells you it’s time for your medication.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s imagine that the totality of conservative ideology is defined by being pro-dog. You are pro-dog, and you support the GOP because it claims to be pro-dog as well. Then the Republican president starts talking about how great cats are. It appoints pro-cat people to key positions and imposes draconian leash laws in dog parks. Are you any less conservative for objecting to these moves?
Partisanship is an important source of authority, but it is best understood as a prudential one. You support a party because it is the most desirable or least objectionable vehicle for your agenda or principles. Ideology has prudential aspects, and wise ideologies take into account practical considerations of what is possible and at what cost. But ideology’s authority derives from something else: Truth. It can be revealed truth as in religion or experiential truth as discovered through the Hayekian or Burkean process of discovery over time. But the thing about truth is that it lies outside the election cycle and the vicissitudes of political fashion and circumstance.
The challenge of today is that partisanship is masquerading as principle, and principle is being denounced as a racket. Facts are becoming instrumental plot points in competing “narratives” bendable to the needs of the storyline. Kim Jong Il is a murderous thug, even if he’s friends with the president. Putin is a goon and enemy of American interests, even if he helped in the beclowning of Hillary Clinton. Tariffs aren’t paid for by foreign countries, even if the president says so all of the time. Assange and Manning are villains, regardless of the messaging problems they cause for one party or another. Sexual assault is repugnant, whether you have an R or D after your name, and the other side’s hypocrisy in selectively being outraged about it doesn’t validate your own.
This is what I am getting at when I tell people I’ve never been more politically homeless even though I’ve never been more ideologically grounded. Taken seriously, being called a RINO doesn’t bother me one whit because it’s true: I am a Republican in name only. If I wear a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and the team lets me sit on the bench one night as an honorary member, I would still only be a LINO.
And this gets us back to Jim’s point. Politics these days are so ugly because partisan considerations are turning into ideological commitments, and ideological commitments are becoming mere partisan tools.
Ideological commitments aren’t just the stuff of right and left, conservative and liberal. They’re the stuff of Americans. There was once a consensus about the rules of the game because Americans shared a broad idea about how the “game” was supposed to be played. Democrats now openly tout the need to pack the Supreme Court, a move that was once taught as out-of-bounds in civics class. Now it’s a great idea — but only if Democrats do the packing. If Court-packing is good, legitimate, and desirable, what is the principled argument against President Trump packing the court right now? If your answer is “But he’d appoint the wrong judges,” you’re not actually making an argument from principle, you’re using a principle as a partisan tool for power. If you’re against crony capitalism when it helps Solyndra but in favor of it when it supports sugar growers or car manufacturers, you’re not actually against crony capitalism, you’re against crony capitalism for “capitalists” you don’t like.
That’s what explains all of these double standards. They are merely tactical shifts in the name of the larger single principle: Our side should win, and their side should lose. The dilemma is that in this populist and romantic era, we no longer have any refs to appeal to enforce the rules. Because these days, when a referee rules against my team, it’s proof that he’s trying to rig the system for the other team.
Various & Sundry
This has been one of the busiest and most interesting weeks of my professional life. I was in NYC (with a detour to Wisconsin for a speech) working on that other thing. I think I’ll write an update on all that soon on my personal website. But for now, I’ll just say I am very excited and very exhausted (hence the relative paucity of jocularity in this week’s “news”letter).
I wasn’t around much for the doggers, but reports are that they were, yet again VGDs (Very Good Dogs). Many of you have asked about Pippa’s limp. It seems to be improving, but it comes and goes. Part of the problem is that once Springer Protocol Alpha is activated, Pippa basically goes numb to any physical restraints and can overdo it. It’s very hard to get her to calm down once she gets the zoomies, and when she’s doing her zooms, there’s no sign of any problem. But, as with 50-year-old cigar-smoking pundits, when the exertions end, the aches and pains materialize. But even then, Pippa is always ready to press her ideological commitments. Because they make her so happy. Zoë knows this, which is why she sometimes tries to exploit Pippa’s passions. The other day, Zoë treated a ball she found the way Ramsay Bolton treated Ricon Stark, simply as bait for Pippa in the role of Jon Snow. Anyway, they were very happy to see me last night, and Gracie at least acknowledged my return as well (I know what she wanted).
ICYMI . . .
Because I was out of town, this week’s Remnant was guest hosted by Jack Butler. I haven’t listened yet, but I hear nothing but good things. Jack is off to run in the Boston Marathon this weekend. Wish him luck.
And now, the weird stuff.