Tag Archives: democracy

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.

What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?


I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.


[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

The Peril of Potemkin Democracy

Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler to bring an end to the Republic.


One of the most difficult puzzles of the Trump administration is figuring out which dystopian scenario to worry about. Depending on who you listen to, everything Trump does is a feint meant to misdirect us away from the main threat, which is somewhere else.

Maybe Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts“, Stephen Miller’s assertion that the president’s power “will not be questioned“, or the president’s own declaration that CNN and the other mainstream news sources are “enemies of the American People” are assaults on the fundamental basis of democratic governance, or maybe they’re shiny objects intended to distract the press from digging into Trump’s radical appointments. Or maybe putting a buffoon like Rick Perry in charge of our nuclear energy programs is itself meant to split Congress on partisan lines so that neither party will get around to investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia. Maybe Russia is a red herring, and we ought to be paying attention to all the ways Trump and his cronies are setting themselves up to profit from his presidency. Or maybe the profiteering is small potatoes next to the alt-right influence of Steve Bannon, whose prophecy of a global war with Islam might be self-fulfilling if Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban recruit enough young people into terrorism. Or maybe the Muslim ban is just a stalking horse meant to produce a clash with the judiciary, which Trump hopes to crush in the ensuing constitutional crisis.

I could keep going. Like a comic-book villain, Trump seems to be advancing towards the Apocalypse in all directions at once. Does that mean all roads need to be guarded equally? Or are all but one or two of the threats just distractions intended to split opposition forces? Is each proposal just the first step on a long march towards tyranny? Or is Trump like any other new president, checking off boxes on his list of campaign promises and hoping his various constituencies will be satisfied with a few symbolic baubles, so he can eventually focus on the things he really cares about? And what are those things?

Uncertainty of threat leads to uncertainty of response. Should we focus on throwing Trump’s allies out of Congress in 2018, or will that be too little too late? Right now, should we be calling our congresspeople? Marching in the streets? Planning our escape to Canada or Sweden? Or stockpiling arms for the inevitable civil war? Is paranoia making you worry too much? Or is denial making you too complacent?

A key point in Trumpian strategy is to keep your opponents rattled, and in that he is definitely succeeding. Probably the best line in SNL’s People’s Court skit wasn’t trying to be funny at all. The judge says: “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” Lots of us do.

So, acknowledging the uncertainties and the twin risks of paranoia and complacency, let’s see if we unrattle ourselves and focus our concern in the right places.

Why do people do what they do? This observation isn’t terribly deep, but it does help organize my analysis: What people do is always a combination of what they intend and the opportunities they happen across. For example, some people are in the careers they’ve pictured since they were kids, while others went wherever the jobs were when they graduated. Two people might work across a desk from each other, but one got there through a long-term plan and the other happened into it.

World leaders are the same way: They do some things because that’s why they set out to become world leaders in the first place. They do other things because the opportunity presents itself or some situation thrusts itself upon them. Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society because that’s what he always wanted to do; he saw himself as a protege of FDR, so he wanted to be remembered as the president who completed the New Deal. But his response to an unanticipated challenge also made him the Vietnam War president.

So there are two parts to figuring out what to fear from Trump. First, what drives him, so that he will set out to make it happen? And second, where are the opportunities he might try to exploit?

Drives. Let me start by saying that I’ve never met Donald Trump, so all my opinions about him come at a distance. But at the same time, he has been in the public eye for decades and hasn’t exactly hidden his personality, so I’m not just shooting blind.

My take on Trump is that his drives are all personal, and he has no fixed political goals at all. This is the biggest reason why comparisons to Hitler are misguided. Hitler was ideological. Any unscrupulous German politician might have opportunistically used anti-Semitism to rabble-rouse. But Hitler was so identified with it that he carried out the Final Solution in secret, and speeded it up as the war began to go badly. He seemed haunted by the idea that he might lose power before he finished his genocide. Similarly, he was always planning to attack Russia; the German people needed to expand in the east at the expense of the racially inferior Slavs.

You’ll search in vain for any similar fixed political goals, good or bad, in Trump. He’s been both pro- and anti-abortion. He’s been a libertine and the candidate of the Religious Right. He was for the Iraq War until he decided he had always been against it. During the campaign, his policy prescriptions were all over the map: The government spends too much, but should start a massive infrastructure project. It should both get out of healthcare and make sure everybody gets covered. He is simultaneously a hawk and an isolationist, a champion of both the working stiff and the billionaire who keeps wages low.

One reason Congress is so frozen at the moment is that even after face-to-face meetings where public pandering can be put aside, Ryan and McConnell still have no idea what Trump really wants them to do. Even ObamaCare repeal — which every Republican from Trump on down pledged to do on Day 1 — is frozen, largely because Trump has not committed himself. He has left Congress to face the real-life difficulties of healthcare, while he floats vaguely above them, ready to tweet out his wrath if Congress’ program doesn’t fulfill his impossible promises.

But Trump is a bundle of personal drives: He wants to be the center of attention, to be admired and idolized. He needs to win, to never be wrong, and to be better than whoever people might compare him to. Fame and TV ratings and crowds are a few ways he measures his success, but the biggest is money and the appearance of money.

Politics is just another game that he can win, and so prove his superiority. And if being president also makes him a lot of money, that’s a double win. Everything else is just a move in that game. Does he hate Muslims or Mexicans? Not really, I think. But a lot of people do, and they’ll cheer for him if he says and does anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican stuff.

While he is not ideologically racist, he is favorably inclined towards any argument that justifies his own superiority. In practice, that can sometimes lead to the same result. Sexism, I believe, runs a little deeper: Women are simultaneously individuals to be dominated as well as chips in his competition with other men. Being shown up grates on him, but being shown up by a woman is doubly galling.

What I don’t see in him is an urge to remake society in his own image. He has no vision like a thousand-year Reich, a new Soviet man, or anything else that would lead to a micro-managed totalitarian system.

The opportunity that doesn’t exist. Even if Trump didn’t intend to go there, you might still imagine him opportunistically drifting into a Hitler-shaped or Stalin-shaped hole in American society. I firmly believe that there is no such hole. The 21st-century authoritarian model is quite different (as we’ll discuss below).

Germany in 1933 and Russia in 1917 were both countries in great economic distress, dealing with the aftermath of a humiliating defeat in war. Both had nostalgia for a former era when a strong ruler was firmly in charge.

Trump’s appeal is based on a dim echo of that situation. Many Americans are disappointed in their economic prospects, but compared to Depression-era Germany, few are desperate. (Wondering whether your salary will ever justify your student loans is a world away from wondering what bread will cost next week.) America’s persistent inability to wipe out enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria is frustrating, but doesn’t compare to Russia’s or Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.  Trump’s rhetoric is nostalgic, but the leaders of those warmly-recalled eras were grandfatherly men like Eisenhower or Reagan, not iron-fisted czars or kaisers.

Trump has many fans, but Trumpism runs shallow compared to Hitlerism. In 1933, virtually every part of German society had its own Nazi movement eager to take power. In 2017, it’s hard to picture what a Trumpist takeover of the universities or of California would even mean, much less who would do it or how. The difficulty Trump is having staffing his administration is a symptom of this shallowness. He won with 46% of the vote, after all, and many who voted for him were not happy about it.

The appeal of Potemkin democracy. While America as a nation is not experiencing the kind of despair and defeat that leads to totalitarianism, many groups within America have seen a long-term decline in their influence and status, with no end in sight. Many members of these groups are deeply nostalgic, and prior to Trump’s election felt the kind of hopelessness that yearns for radical change.

These are the people I described in 2012 in “The Distress of the Privileged“: whites, men, conservative Christians, native-born English-speakers, and so on. These groups have never been oppressed in America and face no prospect of it, but they used to dominate society to an extent that they no longer do. That relative loss of power feels like persecution, even if in reality it is nothing more than a loss of privilege. [1]

But many of them experience that pseudo-persecution intensely, and believe it is being thrown in their faces constantly: when their doctrines are no longer taught or their prayers recited in public schools; when they have to compete in the workplace on near-equal terms with blacks and immigrants and women; when courts take the side of gay couples against the Christians who want to discriminate against them; when they express their distress in public and do not see their problems move immediately to the top of the agenda; when history classes call attention to the flaws of their heroes, or to the contributions of members of other groups; and on many other occasions. Those who look for these insults to their pride, and seek out media that highlights and exaggerates them, can find something every day.

These are the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s base, and who will be willing to watch democracy crumble if it allows them to regain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. While the extreme edge of this group contains open white supremacists, theocratic Dominionists, and even self-proclaimed Nazis, for the most part its members are not that radical: They’re happy with an American-style democracy as long as they’re comfortably in the majority and the elected government favors them. That’s what they’re nostalgic for.

But as they have sunk towards minority status, more extreme methods have begun to appeal: suppressing other voters in the guise of preventing “voter fraud”, gerrymandering legislative districts so that their minority of votes can dominate Congress and the state legislatures, shutting down immigration from people not like them, suppressing protest with police violence, and so on.

For the most part, their ideal America would be a Potemkin democracy. It would have the appearance of free institutions: elections, media not directly controlled by the government, opposition politicians not in jail, and so on. But the outcomes of those elections would never be in doubt, and democratic methods would never be sufficient to achieve equality for non-whites, non-Christians, or those that white Christians disapprove of (like gays).

The autocracy model that works. In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Frum described how democracy slipped away in 21st-century countries like Hungary, South Africa, and Venezuela. The Washington Post paints a similar (if less fully developed) picture of the year-old populist government in Poland.

What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

In Poland:

In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

The national broadcasting network has lost much of its independence, and the Catholic media outlets are happy with the new regime, so the overall news coverage is positive. Cosmopolitan Warsaw is dumbstruck, but in the countryside the new government is quite popular. Some say its economic policies — subsidizing couples with children and lowering the retirement age — aren’t sound in the long term, but facts and numbers aren’t making much of an impact on the public debate.

The ultimate model of a 21st-century autocrat, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose praises Trump often sings. Putin’s situation gives him many advantages that Trump lacks: Pre-Putin Russia in many ways resembled the pre-totalitarian societies I discussed earlier, with extreme economic distress, national pride wounded by defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of its Soviet empire, and nostalgia for past dictators. But even as Putin becomes (by some accounts) the world’s richest individual, and as his hold on government is increasingly unassailable, Russia continues to have many of the trappings of democracy. There are elections, even if it’s hard to participate in them. [2] Some limited media criticism is tolerated, though sufficiently annoying critics do sometimes drop dead under suspicious circumstances. Putin even respected Russia’s presidential term-limit law, stepping into the Prime Minister’s role for a term to let someone else serve as a figurehead president.

Frum sums up:

Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.

First steps. It’s not hard to find steps Trump has already taken down the Potemkin democracy path. As often as he verbally attacks CNN, there is virtually no chance of troops seizing its studios in a totalitarian coup. But Jared Kushner has already met with a high executive of CNN’s corporate master, Time Warner, to criticize CNN’s coverage of the new administration. According to The Wall Street Journal, he called out two commentators by name: Van Jones (a black) and Ana Navarro (a Nicaraguan immigrant). The implied threat is all too obvious: Billions of dollars hang on whether the Trump administration approves Time Warner’s proposed merger with AT&T.

There is no need for Trump critics like Jones or Navarro to wind up in Guantanamo. It is sufficient if he can get them shunted off to media outlets that only liberals or people of color pay attention to.

Similarly, Trump has talked about expanding the scope of libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations. Melania is already suing one, using the lawyer that Peter Thiel used to kill Gawker. The point, apparently, is not to recover damages, but to put critics out of business.

Under the guise of “reforming the bureaucracy” or “draining the swamp”, Trump seeks to populate government service with people loyal to him rather than to the missions of their departments.

His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business empire, his lack of transparency about his finances, and his flagrant use of his position as president to promote his profit-making properties are all part of this pattern. Frum projects these trends into 2020:

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

The repeatability of 2016. As Trump is fond of reminding us, the experts said he couldn’t win in 2016, and they were wrong.

But it’s worth considering exactly what they were wrong about. What made Trump’s victory so implausible was that he consistently spoke to a base that was nowhere near a majority of the American people. It seemed obvious that his appeal could not translate into a majority of the votes cast.

And it didn’t: He got 46% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48%, a difference of nearly three million votes. What everyone failed to see was that:

  1. The combination of sexism, a long-term build-up of anti-Hillary hype, Trump’s relentless lock-her-up negativity, and unethical meddling by Russia and the FBI would make Clinton unacceptable to enough voters that the election would be close, despite Trump’s general unpopularity.
  2. The inherent gerrymandering of the Electoral College would allow Trump to win despite being outvoted by a clear margin.

After taking office, Trump has continued to speak only to his base, which is still an electoral minority. Unsurprisingly, a whopping 55% of Americans now view him unfavorably after only one month of his presidency.

But couldn’t the same strategy work again in 2020? Given enough repetition, a sufficiently cowed media, new illicit meddling (maybe by a Trump-tamed NSA this time), and relentless efforts to smear whoever the leading Democrat turns out to be — “Pocahontas” Warren, for example — couldn’t he repeat the same trick and be re-elected with no more popularity than he had in 2016?

What to expect. What Trump wants and has always wanted is to make vast amounts of money, to be courted by his fellow billionaires, and to have the power to take revenge on those who slight him. The repressive kleptocracy model offers all that.

To stay in power — and ideally to hand power off to a chosen successor like son-in-law Kushner or daughter Ivanka — Trump must keep the loyalty of his distressed/privileged base. In order to do that, he will offer them some substantive benefits. But ultimately he has no loyalty to them, so he will consistently attempt to give them symbolic victories that cost him nothing, or to take credit for far more than he actually does. The most efficient way for him to maintain their loyalty is to keep them constantly agitated by imaginary insults from their enemies, which Trump will defend them against. [3]

That base will continue to be an ever-shrinking minority, but by making it increasingly harder for others to vote, for immigrants to enter the country, for resident aliens to become citizens, for opposition parties to bring their case to the general public, and for voting majorities to achieve actual power, Trump will endeavor to enlarge that minority’s power far beyond its numbers. In doing so, he will simply be extending and exaggerating policies the Republican Party and the conservative media have pursued for many years.

Accompanying these policies will be the constant attempt to increase public cynicism. Sure, Trump lies, Trump profits from government, Trump bends the rules in his favor, but that’s just politics. Everybody lies, everybody cheats, all news is fake.

The threat, then, isn’t that some Reichstag-fire incident will set off a well-planned takeover that overnight makes America unrecognizable. On the contrary, America in 2020 will be very recognizable, as long as you don’t look too deeply.


[1] This is not to say that some members of these groups don’t have genuine problems worthy of government help — ex-workers of dying industries in dying-industry towns, like West Virginia coal miners, for example. But even here, what thrusts them into public attention isn’t the degree of their distress, it’s that they’re native-born English-speaking white men in distress. It’s the my-problem-should-move-to-the-top-of-the agenda privilege.

Tim Wise comments:

When white people are hurting economically we’re supposed to feel their pain and “bring the jobs back” to their dying rural towns. But when people of color lack jobs in the cities (in large part because of the decline of manufacturing over 40 plus years, as well as discrimination) we tell them to “move,” to go to school and gain new skills, and we lecture them on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps because the government doesn’t owe them anything. But apparently we DO owe white coal miners and assembly line workers their jobs back because remember, out of work white men are “salt of the earth” while out of work people of color are lazy.

[2] Garry Kasparov discusses the difficulties of getting on the ballot and campaigning in Russia in his book Winter is Coming. For example, the rules require your party to have a nominating convention of a certain size, but what if no one is willing to displease the government by renting you space for it?

[3] A good example was his rally this week in Florida, which Melania opened with the Lord’s Prayer. Not only does that give conservative Christians a we’re-still-in-charge-here thrill at no cost to Trump, it allowed the pro-Trump side of the media to further their Christian-persecution narrative.

Supposedly liberals were up in arms about the prayer, but I would never have heard about it if not for Fox News’ coverage of how up-in-arms people like me are. The liberal web sites I regularly cruise didn’t find it worth mentioning. (Fox’ sources are social-media posts by ordinary people. You could find similar posts objecting to more-or-less anything that happens.)

In fact, a campaign rally is a private event, so opening it with prayer does not violate church-state separation. If Trump wants to signal to non-Christians that they are not welcome at his rallies, that’s up to him. I was not offended and I suspect very few liberals were.

How Populism Goes Bad

Perversely, sometimes “We the People” are anti-democratic


The word populism sounds like it ought to mean something close to democracy. Both are based on ancient words for “the People” (demos and populi), so you might expect them to be just different ways of saying the same thing: rule by the People.

The Trump campaign has been widely (and I think accurately) described as populist. He has constantly talked about “giving government back to the People”. The Tea Party rhetoric he built on was all about “We the People”. I don’t think that rhetoric was cynical: Tea Partiers really believe that they represent the People.

And yet Trump has also been widely described (again accurately, I think) as authoritarian and anti-democratic. Populist and anti-democratic: How is that even possible?

Like this: Populism differs from democracy in a few important ways:

  • In populism, “the People” isn’t everybody.
  • While democracy is “government of the People, by the People, and for the People”, populism can get so focused on the for that it stops caring about the of and by.
  • Because democracy is of and by the People, democratic government is defined by process. But populist movements want results.

Let’s go through that in more detail.

Who are the People? By its nature, populism is oppositional. In addition to the People, there is also an Elite they need to struggle against. As John Judis puts it in The Populist Explosion:

Leftwing populists champion … a vertical politics of the bottom and the middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.

But in fact the problem in rightwing populism lies even deeper. In my Conservative-to-English Lexicon, I make fun of the Tea Party practice of describing some Americans as more “real” than others.

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”
Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

But this isn’t just a quirk of language, it points to a genuine difference in worldview. For comparison, consider what people mean when they describe someone as “a real man”. Being biologically male isn’t the half of it. To be real, a man has to match a cultural ideal of how men are supposed to look, think, and act. So gays are out, as are men who have effeminate voices or gestures, are too fat or too skinny, or  aren’t interested in sports.

Similarly, in populism “the People” are the real people — the real Americans, real British, real Poles, real Austrians. There is an implied ideal of the kind of people the nation is “for”. Some people match that ideal model and some don’t.

For Trump/Tea Party populists, the real Americans are as I described: mature white conservative Christians. They’re also English-speaking (with a native-born accent), straight, and pro-capitalist. They are comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, and if they happen to be unemployed, divorced, or without children, it’s not their fault; they identify as hard-working family people, whether they really are or not.

If you define the People that way, then I suspect Trump did win the “massive landslide victory” he claimed. The “millions of people who voted illegally” he tweeted about might be a pants-on-fire lie, but the notion in his supporters’ minds that millions — even tens of millions — of votes were cast by someone other than the People is absolutely true. Black lesbian Spanish-speaking atheist socialists voted, and those votes counted just as much as their own. It doesn’t seem right to them, because America is for real Americans, not just the people who satisfy the legal requirements to become citizens and vote.

This is why they aren’t bothered by what Democrats describe as “voter suppression”. If blacks or immigrants or people who don’t speak English have to jump through some extra hoops before they vote, and if some large number of them get frustrated and give up before they manage to cast their votes, that’s all good. The franchise wasn’t really meant for them anyway.

A lot of liberals interpret this attitude as hatred of the left-out groups, but it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. More accurately, it is a sense of ownership and entitlement: It’s my country, not your country, but I’m content to let you live here in peace as long as you recognize that. The hatred only shows up when that ownership feels challenged.

For, not of or by. As the Trump administration took shape after the election, most of the key positions went either to billionaires, generals, or people connected to Goldman Sachs. The top-level departments (State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Intelligence) are all to be headed by white men. Of the top White House staffers, all are white men but Kellyanne Conway, who holds the vague title of “counselor”.

It’s been a long time since an administration looked so little like America.

The white male dominance comes from what we just talked about — who “the People” are, and what it means to be “real”. (Real women don’t want to rule the world. Even Conway had to explain how she could work in the White House but still put her family first. Nobody raises this question about Trump’s male appointees, and Trump himself has no similar worries about his responsibilities to his 10-year-old son Barron, who at least for now will remain in New York with Melania.) But it’s hard to understand how the stereotypic white-working-class Trump voter can see himself in the 3G (Goldman, generals, and gazillionaires) axis.

And the answer is: He doesn’t expect to see himself, any more than he sees any resemblance between his own life and Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle of celebrity and wealth. Trump is supposed to be his champion, not his buddy. Likewise, he expects the Trump administration to be for him, but not to listen to him or be filled with people like him.

Results, not process. If you look at the Constitution, you’ll see that it says practically nothing about results. The Preamble is a mission statement expressing broad hopes about what the new government might accomplish with the powers the Constitution defines. But beyond that, the document is all process: This is how you pass a law. This is how you elect Congress and the President. This is how judges get appointed, treaties get approved, and so on.

It doesn’t tell you much of anything about the results that will come out of that process: who will serve in the government and what laws or treaties they might approve. It doesn’t specify a maximum tax rate, a balanced budget, the size of the army, an official language, or much of anything else.

The reason for that focus on process is that government of and by the People doesn’t happen by itself. A constitution for an absolute monarchy could just be one line: “Do what the King says.” But any large group of people is a cacophony. The larger the group and the more democratic it wants to be, the more processing it needs. (Occupy Wall Street encampments were famous for their General Assemblies, whose meetings could go on for hours each day.)

But populists typically don’t care that much about simply being heard or having representation. They are fighting a battle against the Elite (whatever that term means in their particular situation) and they want to win it.

To his critics, one of the most mystifying aspects of Trump’s nomination and election has been why the voters didn’t hold him responsible for his repeated violations of democratic norms. Every major-party candidate since Nixon has released his tax returns, but Trump never did and apparently never will. Presidents since Lyndon Johnson have used blind trusts or generic investments like government bonds or index funds to avoid financial conflicts of interest, but not Trump.

His supporters don’t seem to care. If foreign governments want to put money in Trump’s pocket by holding events in his hotels or by giving regulatory favors to his construction projects, they’re free to do so. It may seem incestuous for Trump to have regulatory authority over banks he owes money to, but so what? Who cares whether he holds press conferences, whether there’s any way to make him answer a question, or whether his answers bear any resemblance to reality (or even to what he said last week)?

Those are process issues. His supporters want stop illegal immigration, and perhaps legal immigration as well. They want manufacturing jobs to come back from China, and coal miners to be able to make the kinds of wages their fathers did. They want to stop gays from getting married and women from getting abortions. They want terrorist attacks to stop, ISIS to fall, and America’s enemies to be sorry they messed with us.

They’re sick of good process, and of politicians who check the right boxes and say the right things, but don’t get the results they want.

How democracies die. Democracy does have a way of getting tangled in its own processes, and American democracy has gotten more and more tangled as polarization has increased. Back in October, I listed a series of situations where the country is stuck in a status quo that nobody wants: millions of undocumented immigrants living off the books, a budget process that yields perpetual deficits and lurches from one threatened government shutdown to the next, unfilled judicial vacancies, and a Medicare system that creeps ever closer to bankruptcy.

At some point, people stop caring about good process, they just want it all fixed. If a Julius Caesar can come in and make things happen, that sounds like an improvement. (I’ve been discussing this prospect for a while in my “Countdown to Augustus” posts.)

But all those processes are there for a reason, as countries that discard them usually find out fairly quickly.

How populism turns very, very bad. If a populist movement’s definition of the People matches the voting rolls closely enough, or if it includes a lot of people who can’t vote but wish they could, then that movement will be pro-democracy, as Occupy Wall Street or the Bernie Sanders campaign were.

But that’s not the only way things can go. If a populist movement feels blocked by the checks-and-balances of democracy, or by the votes of people it thinks shouldn’t have a vote at all, then democracy itself can become the enemy. If it is forced to choose between democracy and the results it wants, it may choose the results.

That’s why authoritarian populism is not a contradiction. The pattern of a popular dictator enacting laws to defend the common people against an entrenched aristocracy goes back not just to Caesar, but before that to the Greek tyrants. (The word tyrant didn’t pick up its cruel, negative connotation until Plato — an aristocrat — wrote about tyranny generations later.)

The ultimate example of populism gone bad is Nazism. We don’t usually tell the story that way: In pop-culture references, Hitler’s regime is usually presented as a totalitarian pyramid of fear, which nearly everyone would have liked to topple if they hadn’t been so intimidated. [1] And many certainly were cowed into submission, but most were not. The sad truth of Nazism is that for most of its reign, the Hitler regime was popular.

This comes through in a book I mentioned last week, They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. After the war, Mayer went to Germany and befriended ten low-level Nazis in a small town. Almost unanimously, they faulted Hitler only for making tactical errors, like attacking Russia. But until the war, or even until the war started going badly, they felt that Hitler had come through for them: He pulled Germany out of the Depression. Good jobs were plentiful. Roads got built. Social services (for the People) improved. Law and order was restored. Germany was great again.

Unless you were Jewish, of course, or belonged to some other disapproved or disloyal group. But if you were a member in good standing of the German Volk, you were probably doing OK. A few thugs were expected to do horrible things in the name of the regime, but most people only had to avert their eyes from time to time, and not wonder too much about those who had been sent away.

Having a restrictive definition of the People, letting a leadership cadre govern for you without much oversight, ignoring process issues to focus on results … it doesn’t necessarily have to go to a bad place, but it certainly can.

The present moment. It’s usually a mistake to invoke the Nazis in a political discussion. [2] In our pop culture they’ve become cartoon villains [3], so associating them with your opponents often becomes a cheap shot.

So I should explicitly state that I don’t think Trump is Hitler, and I have no specific reason to think he wants to be. A few of his supporters are openly Nazis, but the vast majority are not. I invoke the Hitler regime as a cautionary tale, not a prediction.

If we want to make sure that the Third Reich continues to be nothing more than a cautionary tale, though, we need to learn its lessons.

  • It’s dangerous to exclude anyone from the People. Any time some infringement of rights has an implicit justification of “It’s only Muslims” or “It’s only inner-city blacks”, that implication needs to be called out. It’s hard to explicitly defend the contention that certain people don’t count, but it’s easy to slip such an assumption into the background.
  • The inability of democratic government to make progress on widely recognized problems is itself an argument for authoritarianism. So Democrats need to be very careful about how they use obstruction. “Turnabout is fair play” is a dangerous principle. We should block things because they’re bad, not just because we want to be as big a nuisance to Trump as Republicans were to Obama.
  • While continuing to call Trump to account for ignoring good process, we can’t make our stand entirely on process issues. We always need to be looking for the connection between bad process and bad results. It’s not enough to point out that there’s a hole in the fence; we need to catch the sheep getting out or the wolves getting in. For example, it’s not going to bother most Trump supporters if he profits from being president, but it will bother them if he sold them out.

We always need to keep in mind: Trump a the symptom, not the disease. Healthy democracies don’t get taken down by demagogues. Trump’s version of “the People” may not be everybody, but it is a lot of folks. The way to save democracy is to make it work for everybody, them included.


[1] That’s the reason so many believe the Hitler-confiscated-the-guns myth that so often comes up in gun control debates. He certainly didn’t want Jews to have weapons, but Jews were not part of “the People” as he defined it. Racially pure Germans (as Hitler defined them) remained armed, because there was no reason for them not to be. By and large, they supported the regime.

[2] I could also have used the Reconstruction South as an example. Here the People means Southern whites, and the KKK is their champion against the Yankees above and the blacks below. A semblance of democracy is maintained, but only after blacks are disenfranchised. This is justified by the assumption that America isn’t really for blacks.

[3] An occasionally disturbing exception is the current Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle, which often brings out the ordinariness of the American Nazi regime, and at times even shows how human generosity can still express itself. In an early episode of the second season, Juliana, who has been approved as racially pure, is being resettled in the Reich by the wife of an SS officer. The officer has ulterior motives, but the wife doesn’t know that. “I don’t know what to say,” Juliana tells the wife.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she responds. “You’ve come a place where good people take care of each other.” If good means “racially pure”, she’s not entirely wrong.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Are we overdoing the Founding Fathers?

When we turn Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton into divinely inspired prophets, our political disagreements become religious schisms.


We Americans love our Founding Fathers, especially on the Fourth of July. How did you honor them over the weekend? Did you go out and hear a speaker praise them? Watch 1776 on TV? Listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, or read the best-selling biography it was drawn from? Call up HBO’s John Adams mini-series on demand?

Or maybe this year you did it up right and took the kids to the Washington and Jefferson Monuments near the Capitol, or to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or even to the Founders’ holiest shrine, Colonial Williamsburg, where Washington, Jefferson, and the other great Virginians still give speeches and answer your questions every day.

Personally, I devoted a chunk of the weekend to a book that asks whether we’ve overdoing it, or maybe just doing it wrong: The Jefferson Rule: how the Founding Fathers became infallible and our politics inflexible by David Sehat. [1]

Looking around our current political landscape, it’s not hard to find examples of people going overboard in ways that embarrass the Founders’ memory. The WWFFD (“What would the Founding Fathers do?“) billboard above comes to us courtesy of fringe congressional candidate Rick Tyler, whose more famous billboard instructs us to “Make America White Again“. As they seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge and held it by force, the Bundy militamen waved tiny booklets of the Constitution — as annotated by right-wing crank W. Cleon Skousen. “What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government,” Cliven Bundy told the L.A. Times. Apparently America is so far gone from the Founder/Skousen vision that this teaching can only be done by heavily armed men threatening to shoot any officials who come to enforce the law.

Political fundamentalism. If you’ve ever paid attention to debates between fundamentalist sects — be they Christian, Islamic, or whatever — this is what they sound like: One particular interpretation of sacred scripture is projected onto the text, as if it were literal and inescapable. Anyone who reads it differently must be an infidel; to entertain their heretical ideas, even briefly or for the sake of argument, is flirting with damnation.

Voting cannot resolve such conflicts. At some point you either have to let an issue go or resort to violence.

That fundamentalist style in American politics is not just a fringe phenomenon. Even as he constructed justifications for torture and placing the decisions of the unitary executive beyond the reach of Congress, high-ranking Bush-administration legal adviser David Addington carried a well-worn pocket Constitution with him everywhere. In the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign, one candidate after another cast himself as the pro-Founder, pro-Constitution candidate — as if President Obama led an anti-Founder, anti-Constitution party. Ted Cruz, for example, made “Restore the Constitution” one of the key planks of his campaign, and Donald Trump said, “The Constitution of this country has been absolutely riddled with bullets from the Obama administration.”

To such opponents, President Obama is not a constitutional scholar with different — and discussable — interpretations, he’s an infidel. His actions are not based on a different understanding of the laws, they are “lawless“.

Ironically, such a heresy-avoiding and heresy-denouncing conversation is a far cry from the kind of debate the actual Founders had at the Constitutional Convention, where everything from a new monarchy to the abolition of the states was open for consideration.

Such hero-worship demands that the human and historical flaws of the Founders be papered over. They weren’t slave-owners who made sure the founding documents protected their human property, they “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States“. If they reserved the vote for white male property owners like themselves, they were right to do so. To the extent that subsequent generations have altered their system — say, by letting the voters rather than the state legislatures elect senators — we should change it back.

America the Exceptional. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the United States have a hard time recognizing how strange our Founder-worship is. But other democracies don’t talk this way. From time to time French politicians may still invoke the Liberty-Equality-Fraternity ideals of their Revolution, but they don’t feel obligated to explain away the Reign of Terror. Rousseau and Voltaire still get quoted occasionally, but not as holy writ.

The English understand their evolution towards democracy as a long messy process that remains unfinished. King John stumbled his way into the Magna Carta, which was a great advance in its day, but not a timeless capital-T Truth. No one expects a proof-text from Edmund Burke or John Locke to end a debate once and for all. And Germans are more likely to quote their history as a cautionary tale than as Golden Age that needs restoration.

Maybe that’s healthy.

Locating the problem. Sehat’s criticism of the WWFFD approach to contemporary politics has two main parts:

  • It’s false history. The Founders were not a collective consciousness with a single point of view. The Constitution is full of compromises, and its authors began arguing about its meaning almost immediately. [2]
  • It’s destructive. Policy disagreements are hard enough to resolve without turning them into schisms of religious intensity. Republics depend on the ability of conflicting factions to work things out. That’s much harder if you view your opponents as infidels disloyal to the whole idea of America.

What would the Founders do? They’d argue. If the Founders really had formed a solid consensus around a well-worked-out worldview, the Washington administration would have been a time devoid of political tension. After all, the first Congress and the first cabinet didn’t have to ask what the Founders would do; they were the Founders.

In actual history, though, Washington presided over factions intriguing against each other, and many of their disagreements are still with us.

For example, today one of the marks of faithfulness to the Founders’ vision is supposed to be a “strict construction” of the Constitution, limiting the powers of the federal government to the ones very specifically granted in the text. For example, this is the essence of the conservative critique of ObamaCare: The Constitution nowhere mentions a power to force citizens to buy health insurance.

On the surface the strict-construction folks seem to be on firm ground. After all, the very phrase strict construction goes back to one of the holiest of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson coined that phrase in an argument with another ranking member of the Founder pantheon: Alexander Hamilton, who had already coined the phrase most often used to oppose strict construction: implied powers.

They were arguing about Hamilton’s proposal to establish the Bank of the United States. Secretary of State Jefferson’s reading of the Constitution did not see any bank-establishing power there. But Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the Constitutional Convention — where he had been a delegate and Jefferson hadn’t — had never intended to spell out every detail. In his view, whenever the Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for an area of governance, it also implicitly granted it the powers necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.

Hamilton’s job would have been impossible without such implied powers, and he had already exercised them on numerous occasions. The Constitution had, for example, given Congress the power to impose a tariff; it had done so, and Hamilton was collecting it. But the Constitution never specifically mentioned the power to construct custom houses, hire port inspectors, or deploy a coast guard against smugglers — which he had also done, and without which the taxing power was meaningless. To him, the Bank of the United States was a similarly implied means to assigned ends: managing tax receipts, paying down the national debt, and supervising the currency.

This disagreement got as vicious as anything we see today: Jefferson painted Hamilton as a monarchist seeking to return us to British rule, while Hamilton painted Jefferson as a France-loving Jacobin, ready to unleash the guillotines on unsuspecting Americans.

Jefferson lost on the Bank, but won the larger political struggle: Hamilton died in middle age and his Federalist Party collapsed, while Jefferson and his Virginian successors Madison and Monroe held the presidency from 1801 to 1825. In practice, though, Hamiltonianism survived under the surface: Jefferson and the other Virginians often made use of implied powers of their own, as when Jefferson stretched the treaty-making power to allow the Louisiana Purchase.

It was during this period, in Sehat’s telling of the story, that the history of the Founding Era was rewritten into an orthodoxy: Jeffersonianism represented the one true vision of the Revolution. To this day, politicians who invoke “the Founders” as a unified consciousness are probably invoking the Founders as re-envisioned by Jefferson. [3] The more ambitious government of Hamilton — and the pragmatism of Washington, who often saw Hamilton’s approach as the best way to solve practical problems [4] — has been swept under the rug.

The fundamentalist style in American politics. The bulk of Sehat’s book is a history of how the Founders have been invoked in American politics through the centuries. He portrays the influence of this style of argument as pernicious: It has hardened disagreements and mythologized politics. Rather than discuss the pluses and minuses of available policy options, Americans have instead cast themselves as the true successors of the Founders’ vision and demonized their opponents as treacherous infidels. As a result, it has been easier for each side to overlook the other’s love of country, and harder to reach the compromises necessary to move forward together.

The most extreme example of Founder-fundamentalism hardening a position beyond any compromise was that of the Southern nullifiers and secessionists from Calhoun to Jefferson Davis. On the other side, Lincoln tried it both ways. In 1862 he told Congress “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” But his Gettysburg Address reclaimed the Founders for “a new birth of freedom”.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Founders lost their central position in political debate, as leaders saw little resemblance between their problems and those of the 18th century. As President Grant wrote in his memoirs:

It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them.

And Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed in his 1905 inaugural:

Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.

But 20th-century conservatism revived Founder rhetoric. President Harding is credited with coining the term Founding Fathers, and opposition to FDR’s New Deal built its message around the myth of a single founding vision. FDR’s central opponent, the Liberty League — representing the 1% of its day — invented the technique of defending “the Constitution” as a vague unity rather than discussing any particular passages, which might bear divergent interpretations.

The progressive temptation. Another point Sehat makes is that Founder-worship inevitably looks backwards, and so privileges conservative arguments over progressive ones. Progressives are often tempted to enter into WWFFD arguments, because the conservative mythologizing of the Founders so often approaches the ridiculous, and is easily refuted by reference to historical facts. Also, it can be hard to resist harnessing the mythic and symbolic power of the Founders to more worthy causes than the preservation of slavery or the further aggrandizement of the propertied class.

In the short term, this often is very effective, as when Martin Luther King framed the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “All men are created equal” as a “promissory note” that the nation had never redeemed for its black population.

But as much as the idealism of certain individuals from the Founding Era can still inspire, in the long run the ahistorical fusion of “the Founding Fathers” is going to work mischief on contemporary politics. Once welded together, the Founders are a slave-owning propertied class that wants to preserve its privileges, and is suspicious of spreading power to too many people. Any fair reading of the Constitution has to recognize the sheer distance its system places between the People and their government. The People are not supposed to govern themselves; they are supposed to recognize their betters, and choose them to administer the government. [5]

Government of the Living. Americans can rightly be proud of our founding generation. Most revolutions fail, and when time-honored systems are swept aside, they are often replaced by something worse. The first democratic revolution in England produced Cromwell; in France, Napoleon; in Germany, Hitler. The newly created 20th-century nations of Africa again and again saw the pattern of “one man, one vote, once”, as the winner of the first election saw no reason to hold a second.

The United States avoided all that. We have had our turbulent moments, including one of the bloodiest civil wars you’ll find anywhere. We have done terrible things, from the Native American genocide and African slavery through the many vicious and greedy strongmen we inflicted on third-world nations during the Cold War. And from time to time we continue to do terrible things, as global superpowers have always done.

But we have also often been a force for progress in the world or for liberation from tyranny, and our example has inspired progressive change in many other countries. The documents left behind by the Founders, and the example of their conduct, has a lot to do with that.

So absolutely, we should honor them. They deserve to have monuments in our capital, to appear on our money, and to have fireworks and parades in their honor every summer.

But they were men and women, not prophets or gods. The argued with each other, compromised on important issues, and in general did what they could with the problems of their day, just as every generation does. The did not foresee nuclear weapons, or even automatic ones. They had absurd medical theories, primitive notions of macro-economics, and self-serving beliefs about race and culture.

To the extent that their opinions still make sense today, we should quote them. But the fact that they believed something does not obligate us (or our opponents) to agree. Those who disagree with them should be met with evidence and arguments and a willingness to consider that their disagreement might be justified.

A government of the People must always be a government of the Living. If our ancestors would have disagreed with us, so be it. They had their day, and now we have ours.


[1] Ironically, I found the book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor’s Center.

[2] This mistake is typical of fundamentalisms. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, picture the early Christian community as a model of the pure doctrine they want to recover and preserve. But if you actually read the documents of the era, they are more theologically diverse than Christian churches are today.

Similarly, Muhammad didn’t have a worked-out theory of governance; he just governed. Sharia was constructed centuries later.

Unified doctrine is usually achieved by some later generation — often through political power or by force — rather than by those who actually heard the gods or prophets speak.

[3] Or possibly as re-re-envisioned by slavery advocate John Calhoun, as I explained in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

[4] In the Hamilton musical, Jefferson and his allies sing, “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

[5] The most egregious example of this is the Electoral College. The popular vote in presidential elections was not even tabulated until 1824.

The Broken Senate is Breaking the Courts

Merrick Garland is just the tip of a dangerous iceberg.


There have been a few cracks, but Mitch McConnell’s blockade of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination is holding. The quick threat of a primary against Kansas Senator Jerry Moran (when it looked like he might break ranks) not only got him back in line, but served as a warning to any other Republican who might consider taking the Senate’s constitutional duties seriously.

Ironically, the court blockade is one of the indirect effects of the Supreme Court’s dismantling of campaign finance laws, and shows the advantage that development gives extremists in the Republican Party. A few cycles ago, the threat of whipping up a statewide primary challenge from scratch against an otherwise popular incumbent in just a few months (the Kansas Senate primary is in early August) would have been laughable. And it still would be laughable if the far Left made a similar threat against a Democratic senator over some progressive issue. But everything changes when a handful of deep-pocketed donors can call up a potential challenger and say: “We’ve got the money, are you ready to go?”

Jennifer Bendery, Huffington Post‘s congressional reporter, points out that Garland is just the highly visible tip of a much deeper iceberg: The Senate has all but stopped processing judicial nominees up and down the federal court system.

For some broader perspective, consider that Republicans have only confirmed 16 judicial nominees since becoming the Senate majority in January 2015. At this same point in President George W. Bush’s eighth year, when Democrats controlled the Senate, 40 judicial nominees had been confirmed.

… The last time the Senate confirmed a judge was in mid-February, and that was only because McConnell postponed a package of judicial nominees from 2015 into the new year. There are 15 judicial nominees ready for a confirmation vote right now, but only one of those votes has been scheduled. Another 32 are waiting on the Judiciary Committee, which hasn’t held a hearing for a nominee since January. Federal courts, meanwhile, are at 79 vacancies and climbing.

That kind of behavior almost forces the Democrats to respond in kind if the political situation reverses. To do anything else — to let the Senate resume its constitutional duties as soon as a Republican enters the White House — would mean conceding that only Republican presidents are empowered to appoint judges. Such acquiescence would guarantee a conservative judiciary for the foreseeable future.

That exemplifies why it’s nearly impossible to be the Good Government Party once the other side decides to be the Bad Government Party. And so the deterioration I’ve been tracking in my Countdown to Augustus posts goes on.

Last fall, Bendery explored the effects of a broken judicial-appointment system: overloaded judges who burn out and cases that drag on forever. Courts prioritize criminal cases for good reason: A long delay risks either leaving a predator on the streets or wrecking an innocent defendant’s life by letting him rot in jail. But something has to give, as Chief Judge Morris England of the U.S. District Court for California’s Eastern District explains:

What happens is you have to keep pushing civil cases further out. They’ve already been waiting sometimes three to four years. I get concerned when cases are so old. Memories are fading; people are no longer around. It’s not serving anyone trying to get justice.

Take that a step further: As the federal court system continues to deteriorate, any right those courts enforce deteriorates as well. Little by little, we wind up living in a country where “Yeah it’s illegal, but what are you going to do about it?” is a viable strategy.

That, in turn, creates a temptation to flip the situation around: to get even with your own illegal act, and let the other side beg for justice from the broken courts. And so the back-and-forth of political hardball begets a similar back-and-forth of hardball in everyday life.

Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues

If we can’t make our republican system of government work, eventually the people will clamor for a leader who can sweep it all away. Many of them already do.


In the 2013 post “Countdown to Augustus” I laid out a long-term problem that I come back to every year or so:

[R]epublics don’t work just by rules, the dos and don’t explicitly spelled out in their constitutions. They also need norms, things that are technically within the rules — or at least within the powers that the rules establish — but “just aren’t done” and arouse public anger when anyone gets close to doing them. But for that public anger, you can often get an advantage by skirting the norms. And when it looks like you might get away with it, the other side has a powerful motivation to cut some other corner to keep you in check.

… As Congress becomes increasingly dysfunctional, as it sets up more and more of these holding-the-country-hostage situations, presidents will feel more and more justified in cutting Congress out of the picture.

We know where that goes: Eventually the Great Man on Horseback appears and relieves us of the burden of Congress entirely.

The immediate motivation for that post was the debt-ceiling crisis of 2013, when Congress was threatening to blow up the global economy unless President Obama signed off on the repeal his signature achievement, ObamaCare. Various bizarre ways out were proposed, including minting a trillion-dollar coin to deposit with the Federal Reserve.

I had previously raised the declining-norms theme in “Escalating Bad Faith“, about the tit-for-tat violation of norms relating to presidential appointments and the filibuster, going back several administrations. And I returned to it in 2014 in “One-and-a-half Cheers for Executive Action” as Obama tried to circumvent the congressional logjam on immigration reform.

The historical model I keep invoking is the Roman Republic, which didn’t fall all at once when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or his nephew Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, but had been on such a downward spiral of norm-busting dysfunction for so long (about a century) that it was actually a relief to many Romans when Augustus put the Republic out of its misery. In “Countdown” I pointed out the complexity of that downward trend:

About half of the erosion in Rome was done by the good guys, in order to seek justice for popular causes that the system had stymied.

So now we are experiencing a new escalation in norm-breaking: The President has nominated a well-qualified judge to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and the Senate is simply ignoring him.

At various times in American history, individual senators of both parties have postured about the Senate’s prerogatives, usually in the abstract, and usually in an attempt to influence the president to choose a nominee more to their liking than the ones they suspected he had in mind. But in the long history of the American Republic, we have never been in this place before. The Senate has never simply ignored a nominee for the Supreme Court.

The gravity of this may not be apparent to most Americans. Day to day, the country is continuing just fine without a fully staffed Court. Justice Scalia died over a month ago, and his absence isn’t causing anything in particular to go wrong. In some ways it’s like operating a nuclear power plant with the emergency-response systems turned off: As long as there’s no emergency that needs a response, nobody notices.

But what happens if the 2016 election comes out like the 2000 election? What if the outcome hangs on some dispute that only the Supreme Court can resolve? As hard as it was on the country when the Court’s poorly reasoned 5-4 decision in Bush v Gore handed the presidency to the man who lost the popular vote, imagine where we would be if the Court had tied 4-4 and been unable to reach a decision?

Constitutional crises are rare in this country, but they happen, and only the Supreme Court can resolve them in a way that preserves our system of government. Legally, a tie at the Court means that the lower-court opinion stands, whatever it was. But in a true crisis, would a lower court have the prestige to make the other branches of government respect its decision?

Go back to the Watergate crisis, and the Court’s order that the Nixon administration turn over to Congress its tapes of Oval Office conversations. At the time, some advised Nixon to defy the Court and burn the tapes. What would have happened next is anybody’s guess, but the unanimity of the Court’s decision gave it additional moral force, and Nixon complied — even though the tapes led quickly and directly to his resignation. If that decision had split 4-4, along what were seen to be partisan lines, history might have played out differently. Nixon might have reasoned that he wasn’t defying a lower court, he was just breaking the tie.

Disputes between lower courts also happen, and if the Supreme Court can’t resolve them, we wind up with different laws applying in different jurisdictions. Imagine, for example, if the availability of ObamaCare or whether you could get married, depended not on which state you live in, but which federal appellate district.

What if appellate courts disagree about jurisdiction? If a government computer in Utah captures a phone conversation between Georgia and Wisconsin, that one case might lead three courts to rule simultaneously on whether the Fourth Amendment has been violated. Whose order should be followed?

Scenarios like that show why leaving a vacancy at the Court is playing with fire. Maybe we’ll get away with it this time. Maybe nothing that can’t be put off or papered over will happen between now and whenever the Senate starts processing nominations again — say, next year. (Or maybe something will happen, and some other branch of government will decide to seize whatever illegitimate power it thinks is necessary to keep the country running.)

But an optimistic reading of the situation only works if we ignore the larger trend. This is not an isolated incident, and we will not return to “normal” after it resolves. Once broken, a norm is never quite the same. The next violation is easier, inspires less public outrage, and usually goes farther. Jonathan Chait elaborates:

It turns out that what has held together American government is less the elaborate rules hammered out by the guys in the wigs in 1789 than a series of social norms that have begun to disintegrate. Senate filibusters were supposed to be rare, until they became routine. They weren’t supposed to be applied to judicial nominations, then they were. The Senate majority would never dream of changing the rules to limit the filibuster; the minority party would never plan to withhold all support from the president even before he took office; it would never threaten to default on the debt to extort concessions from the president. And then all of this happened.

More likely than a return to the prior status quo is that blockades on judicial appointments will become just another “normal” tactic. After all, the Constitution may assign the Senate the duty to “advise and consent” on nominations, but it sets no time limit. Founding-era commentary, like Federalist 78, may envision a Court that is above politics. (The whole point of a lifetime appointment is to make any political deal with a nominee unenforceable. Once a justice is in, that’s it; he or she is beyond reprisal and requires nothing further from any elected official.) It may take for granted that the Senate will consider nominees on their individual merits, rather than on which partisan bloc chooses them. But the Founders didn’t explicitly write any of that into the rules, so …

If Hillary Clinton wins in November and Republicans retain the Senate, they may feel shamed by their promises to let the voters decide the Court’s next nominee and give her a justice. Or maybe not — maybe some dastardly Clinton campaign tactic, or reports of voter fraud on Fox News, will make them rescind their promise. The Supreme Court could remain deadlocked at 4-4 for the remainder of her term, causing federal rulings to pile up and further fracturing the country into liberal and conservative zones with dramatically different constitutional interpretations.

Conversely, if a Republican wins the White House while Democrats retake the Senate, the new Senate majority leader may decide that, rather than let Republicans reap the benefit of their new tactic, he’ll just push it further. Chait describes what either course leads to:

A world in which Supreme Court justices are appointed only when one party has both the White House and the needed votes in Congress would look very different from anything in modern history. Vacancies would be commonplace and potentially last for years. When a party does break the stalemate, it might have the chance to fill two, three, four seats at once. The Court’s standing as a prize to be won in the polls would further batter its sagging reputation as the final word on American law. How could the Court’s nonpolitical image survive when its orientation swings back and forth so quickly?

… The Supreme Court is a strange, Oz-like construction. It has no army or democratic mandate. Its legitimacy resides in its aura of being something grander and more trustworthy than a smaller Senate whose members enjoy lifetime appointments. In the new world, where seating a justice is exactly like passing a law, whether the Court can continue to carry out this function is a question nobody can answer with any confidence.

Our awareness of our dissolving norms ought to be sharpened by the current presidential campaign. Donald Trump makes a lot more sense as a candidate when you realize that he’s not running for President, he’s running for Caesar. His fans and followers are looking for that Man on Horseback who will sweep away all the rusted-over formalities and just make things work.

The Washington Post provides the following graph, based on data from the World Values Survey. It’s disturbing enough that 28% of American college graduates think it might be good to have “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress and elections”, but among non-graduates it is actually a close question: Democracy still beats authoritarianism, but only 56%-44%.

Vox has several graphs like this one, showing that frustration with democracy is increasing:

The pundits, representing an educated class that still mostly thinks democracy is a good idea, are horrified whenever Trump breaks one of the norms of American political campaigns by endorsing violence, or insulting entire religions or ethnic groups, or talking about the size of his penis during a televised debate. Yet his popularity rises, because here is a man who won’t be bound. He refuses to be tied in knots by rules or traditions or archaic notions of courtesy and honesty and fair play. His willingness to break our taboos of public speech symbolizes his willingness to break our norms of government once he takes power — not one at a time, like Mitch McConnell, but all of them at once. And lots of people like that.

Some of the biggest applause lines in a Trump speech are when he imagines exercising powers that presidents don’t have (if Ford tries to move an auto plant to Mexico, he will impose punitive tariffs until they back down), or using American military power for naked aggression (if Mexico won’t pay for the wall he wants to build, he’ll attack them), or committing war crimes (if terrorists aren’t afraid of their own deaths, he’ll have to kill their families).

Establishment Republicans are currently wringing their hands about the prospect of Trump leading their party into the fall elections. They are searching party rules for norm-bending ways to deny him the nomination in spite of the primary voters. But long-term, the way to stop Trump and future prospective Caesars is simple: Make democracy work again.

It’s not rocket science: End the policy of blanket obstruction. Pass laws that have majority support rather than bottling them up in the House or filibustering them in the Senate. Seek out workable compromises that give each side something to take pride in, rather than promoting an ideal of purity that frames every actual piece of legislation as a betrayal. Stop trying to keep people you don’t like from voting, or gerrymandering congressional districts so that voting becomes irrelevant. Come up with some workable campaign-finance system that lets legislators pay attention to all their constituents, rather than just the deep-pocketed ones.

In short, don’t just follow the rules in the most literal way possible, grabbing every advantage they don’t explicitly forbid; govern in good faith, fulfilling to the best of your abilities the duties you have been entrusted with.

They could start by holding hearings on Judge Garland, as if he were a presidential nominee and one of the most widely respected judges in the country (which he is). By itself, that may not save the Republic, but it would be a welcome gesture of good faith.

The 2016 Republican primaries, in which none of the establishment candidates seemed to understand where the real threat was coming from until it was too late, have a lesson for politicians of both parties: The most important fight of our era is not the Republicans against the Democrats, the liberals against the conservatives, or even the collectivists against the individualists. The battle we have to win is the Catos and Ciceros against the Caesars.

If the American Republic is going to survive, its mechanisms have to work. If they don’t work — if the system stays as clogged as it has been these last few years, and each cycle of attack-and-reprisal gums things up worse — then eventually someone will sweep it all away. Maybe not Trump, maybe not this year, but someone, someday sooner than you might think possible. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, but crowds would cheer as it happened.

Say — you want a revolution?

Changing presidents or even changing minds isn’t enough. A real revolution has to change a lot of people’s political identities.


Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a couple blocks from my apartment when that cycle’s Democratic congressional candidate (Katrina Swett, which would make the year 2002) came in to campaign. It was late enough that most of the lunch traffic had left already, so shaking every hand in the room didn’t take her very long.

After the candidate left, our waitress — a pleasant young woman who had been doing a perfectly fine job as far as I and my friend were concerned — came over with an inquisitive look on her face. I thought she was going to ask us whether we knew anything about Swett, and whether she would be a good person to represent us in Washington. Instead, she asked whether we knew anything about Congress. “Is it, like, important or something?”

I’m not particularly good at answering a fundamental question when I was expecting a specific one, so let’s just say that I doubt my pearls of wisdom changed her life, or even that she remembers me at all. But I’ve remembered her ever since.

By telling this story, I don’t mean to denigrate the political sophistication of young adults or the working class or women or any other category that this waitress coincidentally belonged to. But to me, she represents a group that pundits and armchair political strategists often forget: people who just don’t care about politics. They aren’t stupid or any more self-centered than the rest of us, and they aren’t discouraged or embittered or angry. They just look at politics the way other people might look at football or fashion or Game of Thrones: They have never bothered to pay attention to it, and they don’t see that they’re missing out on anything.

It’s hard to say exactly how many such people there are. But certainly they could constitute a significant voting bloc, if they saw any point in it.

The truly silent majority. In a typical presidential election, voter turnout is somewhere between half and two-thirds of the voting-age population. Mid-term congressional elections usually draw less than half of the electorate, and less than a third bother to participate in some state and local elections. (A shade over 30% voted in Kentucky’s recent gubernatorial election, yielding a surprise Republican win.) As you can see from this graph of the turnout in every presidential election since 1824, this phenomenon is nothing new; to see significantly larger turnout, you have to go back to 1900.

So in virtually every contested election in the entire country for the last century, the margin of victory has been less than the number of people who didn’t vote. That massive lack of participation provides a blank wall onto which many people can project their conflicting fantasies.

Like Ted Cruz:

The last election, 2012, 54 million evangelicals stayed home. Fifty-four million. Is it any wonder the federal government is waging a war on life, on marriage, on religious liberty, when Christians are staying home and our leaders are being elected by nonbelievers?

“Imagine instead,” he told the students at Liberty University, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

Real Clear Politics’ election analyst Sean Trende attributed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to “the missing white voters“, and argued that the GOP wouldn’t have to work so hard at appealing to Hispanics if it could just raise white turnout.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you can imagine that the apathetic masses only appear not to care about public affairs. Actually, they just haven’t heard the right motivating message: your message. As soon as they do, then everything will start to change.

Heck, some version of this thought pattern occurs even in the fringiest, most radical circles. The armed yahoos who took over that wildlife refuge in Oregon didn’t figure on overpowering the federal government by themselves. They imagined a nation full of anti-government patriots, ready to take up arms as soon as someone was brave enough to sound the clarion call.

When they sounded that call and only a few dozen wackos showed up, I imagine they were pretty surprised.

The discouraged liberal majority. In spite of the daydreams of militiamen and social conservatives, the statistics say that marginal voters trend Democratic. That’s why relatively high-turnout elections like Obama’s first presidential race in 2008 (57.1% of voting-age citizens participated; that would be a low turnout in a lot of other democracies) are good for Democrats, while low-turnout elections, like the midterms in 2010 (41%) and 2014 (36%), strongly favor Republicans. That’s also why Republicans like to make voters jump through hoops: They believe the ones who won’t bother will mostly be Democrats.

Those numbers justify the Great Democratic Turnout Fantasy: If everybody voted, Democrats would win every election, everywhere. The Democratic advantage would be so insurmountable that the Party wouldn’t have to compromise on wedge issues like abortion or gay rights or gun control. Democrats wouldn’t have to pander to powerful interests or rich individuals. They could put the unalloyed New Deal/Great Society message out there and wait for the votes to roll in.

In particular, what if all the young people voted? What if all the women voted? What if all the low-wage workers voted? But we’re zeroing in on my waitress, and that should make us all stop and think: Who are the people who don’t vote, and what level of participation can we reasonably expect out of them?

Levels of engagement. People relate to politics in all sorts of different ways, and devote different levels of energy to it. Here’s a rough categorization, varying according to the depth and quantity of the thought and effort involved.

  • Apostles. These are people who have a political worldview and can lay out their political philosophy — liberal, conservative, anarchist, communist, white supremacist, or whatever. They can state their principles and apply them to whatever issues come up, without any outside guidance.
  • Activists. Some cause — anything from the environment or abortion to something as local as establishing a new park or putting a stoplight on a dangerous corner — got them interested in politics. Their interest in that issue placed them on one side or the other of our deep political polarization, so they have come to identify with other activists on a wide range of issues.
  • Players. Like a sports team, a political party can be part of a personal identity; issues are just opportunities to argue that your team should win. For example: From the end of Reconstruction to the New Deal, the South was solidly Democratic. That wasn’t because the Democratic Party represented a philosophy universally accepted by Southerners. Rather, the Republicans were the party of Yankee invaders (and disenfranchised Negroes), so the Democrats were the home team.
  • Fans. Left to their own devices, many people wouldn’t care about elections. But personal identity connects them to people who do care. When election day gets close, they look to a family member, a minister, a union leader, or some admired public figure to tell them who the good guys are.
  • Impulse voters. These citizens have only a tangential connection to politics. They might not vote, or they might vote for some whimsical reason: They like or dislike a candidate’s face (or, more ominously, race or gender). Or they heard a story that made him/her look good or bad. Or a slogan appealed to them; maybe “Yes We Can” in one election and “Taxed Enough Already” in the next.
  • The alienated. Disinterest in politics can also be part of a personal identity. Politics is some stupid thing that people yell at each other about. Politicians are like televangelists or get-rich-quick swindlers: They’re in it for themselves, and if you pay any attention to them at all you’re just being a sucker.

Most public discussion of politics comes from apostles or activists, and tends to project that level of interest onto non-voters: People don’t vote because the major parties aren’t addressing their issues or speaking to their philosophy. If only we changed our platform or the emphasis of our rhetoric, they’d flock to us.

But I don’t think my waitress had a political agenda in mind, or was turned off when Candidate Swett didn’t speak to it. I believe she was in the low-engagement impulse/alienated region, and honestly had no idea why she should care who went to Congress.

Paradoxes. When you picture non-voters as disgruntled apostles and activists, the world seems full of mysteries: What’s the matter with Kansas? Why do so many working-class whites vote against their economic interests? Why do so many Catholic Hispanics vote for pro-choice Democrats? How can the country whipsaw from a Democratic landslide in 2008 to a Republican landslide in 2010, and then re-elect Obama in 2012?

But while some apostles and activists don’t vote (holding out for a candidate with the proper Chomskyan or Hayekian analysis, I suppose), I believe that the vast majority of non-voters are in the low-engagement categories. You can’t understand turnout without accounting for them.

What’s the matter with the working-class whites? Thomas Frank’s book tells you, if you read carefully: As union membership declined, players and fans who used to identify with their unions (and vote that way) started identifying with their fundamentalist churches (and voting the other way).

Why does the immigration issue worry the Republican establishment so much that they want to pull against their base? Because they see Hispanics developing a team identity and deciding that the Democrats are on their side. If that happens, a lot of impulse and alienated Hispanics (and Asians and Muslims, for similar reasons) will become reliable Democratic players and fans, regardless of other issues.

What happened between 2008 and 2010? Liberal apostles and activists will tell you that Obama betrayed their high ideals. He failed to be the transformational FDR-like leader they had hoped for, and so the excitement they generated in 2008 was gone by 2010. But that should lead to another question: Why didn’t 2010 see a progressive wave similar to the Trump/Cruz/Carson rebellion we’re seeing on the right this year? Why didn’t all the disappointed liberals of 2008 send a more liberal Congress to Washington in 2010, one that would force Obama to come through on the hopes he had raised in 2008?

My answer is that the 2008 wave wasn’t primarily ideological or issue-based. While he presented well-defined positions on major issues and had the support of many thoughtful people, Obama also brought a lot of impulse and alienated voters to the polls on the strength of his personal charm, the Bush administration’s failures, and a message that resonated at a level not much deeper than “Hope and Change”. In 2008, Obama represented not just national health care and ending the Iraq War, but something he could not possibly have delivered: a “new tone in Washington” where politicians would start working together rather than yelling at each other.

Do I wish Obama had pushed harder on progressive issues (the way he started doing after 2014, when he had no more elections to face)? Yes, I do. But do I think he could have turned the 2008 coalition into a permanent electoral force that would have transformed American politics the way FDR did? No. I think that reading of recent political history is unrealistic, because the transformation Obama was supposed to catalyze depended on alienated and impulse voters suddenly deciding to change their personal identities and see themselves progressive activists and apostles.

Why would they have done that?

The kind of political revolution we won’t have. My rough categorization has fluid boundaries. At any given moment, people are migrating in both directions across the border between the alienated and impulse voters. Fans are getting energized and becoming players, while players are getting burned by their experiences and retreating back into fandom. Disengaged people are running into some issue that hits them on a deep level and makes them dig into politics in a way they never thought they would.

But (absent some huge crisis I don’t want to wish for) big changes in the personal identities of large groups of people don’t happen overnight. In particular, they don’t happen in one election cycle. So the vision of “political revolution” that I’m hearing from a lot of Sanders supporters (though Bernie’s own use of the phrase seems a little more cautious, if a bit vague) is not going to happen: We’re not going to sweep Bernie into office and then hold that majority together as a pressure group that will either make Congress pass his agenda, or toss them out of office in 2018 if they don’t. If we get a 2008-like progressive vote in 2016, a lot of that total will be low-engagement voters who will already have lost interest by Inauguration Day.

Change in America has never happened in a single election, through the election of a radical leader. The abolition movement, for example, didn’t start by sweeping Abraham Lincoln into office. It was a long, hard grind that began decades before Lincoln’s campaign. [1]

How big changes happen. When you look at American politics on a larger timescale, though, it does include a few big changes and re-alignments: the 1776 Revolution, abolition, the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, the New Deal, civil rights, and the conservative counter-revolution we’ve been living in since the Reagan administration.

But none of those turnarounds happened quickly. Take civil rights: The Democratic Convention of 1948 split over civil rights, and Truman won without the break-away Dixiecrats. But the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965.

Ronald Reagan made it to the White House in 1980 on his third attempt, after failing to get the Republican nomination in 1968 and 1976. Republicans didn’t get control of the House until the Gingrich wave of 1994.

Between 1968 and 1994, a lot happened outside of electoral politics: Starting in the 1970s, billionaires and big corporations pooled their resources to create the intellectual infrastructure to make conservatism respectable. [2] Economic conservatives made common cause with religious fundamentalists; combined with union-busting, that instituted a shift in the way Americans found their political teams. Spin doctors developed ways to appeal to white racism covertly, without setting off a backlash. [3] Conservatives developed talk radio, then Fox News and a whole media counter-culture, with its own celebrities and cult identity. [4]

The next turning point. By now, the Reagan counter-revolution has gotten long in the tooth, and its plutocratic nature gets harder and harder to deny. If you look at inequality graphs, things started going wrong for the middle class after the Democrats lost seats in the midterm elections of 1978, which pushed them towards deregulation and letting unions fend for themselves. [5] Reagan’s tax cuts accelerated that process, and by now the ascendancy of the rich — and the plight of the average American — should be obvious to everyone.

The outsized influence of money on our political process has also become obvious, to the point that majority opinion influences government action only when it happens to coincide with the opinion of the wealthy. To a large extent even before Citizens United, and much more boldly and obviously after, large corporations and wealthy individuals buy the laws they want.

It’s not hard to make the connection between these odious results and the conservative principles that have dominated our politics since Reagan: low taxes on the rich, loose regulations on corporations and banks, and a Supreme Court that believes money is speech and corporations are people.

So the Reagan paradigm should be vulnerable.

What is success? In The Democracy Project, David Graeber measures the success of a revolution not by whether it seizes and holds power, but by whether it changes “political common sense”. By that measure, he judges the French Revolution a success: It may have ended up giving power to Napoleon rather than the People, but afterwards the divine right of kings was dead as a political principle, while “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” lived on.

Conversely in America, changing the party in power does not always (or even usually) start a new era. The Republican presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon did not end the New Deal/Great Society era of liberalism, and the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did not end the conservative Reagan era. Here at the end of the Obama administration, political common sense has not changed much in decades: The basic assumptions of what government does, what problems it should and shouldn’t address, and the range of possible solutions that can be debated are more or less what they were in 1995 or 1982. To the extent those things have shifted, they’ve flowed ever further to the right.

So a real political revolution will not happen just because we elect a new president, not even one whose agenda is as transformational as Bernie Sanders’. It’s not hard to imagine conservatives repeating against President Sanders the game plan that worked against Obama: Obstruct everything he tries to do, then present him as a failure and a disappointment in the 2018 midterm elections. If Sanders’ 2016 victory has depended on impulse voters liking the sound of him (but not changing their political identities), that plan should work again. By 2018 they will have lost interest, and Republicans will sweep a low-turnout midterm.

What would a real political revolution look like? We can’t start a new progressive era in American politics by getting low-engagement voters to show up once. The revolution does have to have an electoral component, but it also needs to proceed on two other levels.

Most simply, our appeal to impulse and alienated voters needs to be more sustainable. [6] 2008’s “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” were inherently single-use slogans. In 2010, it was impossible to pivot from “Yes We Can” to “We Would Have If Those Bastards Hadn’t Stopped Us”. (Contrast those single-use slogans with Reagan-era memes that are still with us: small government, strong defense, family values.) Here, things are improving: Bernie Sanders’ focus on “the rigged economy” is something that progressives can keep coming back to until we get it fixed. We need more such phrases.

At an even more fundamental level, though, we need to change the ways that people identify with politics. We need more Democratic players and fans, who stay loyal from one cycle to the next, so that we aren’t depending on unreliable impulse voters to put us over the top.

This level of social engineering is beyond my competence, but it’s not impossible.

The old-school method, which I believe still works, is to build on our initial success by connecting the changes we’ve achieved to positive change in people’s lives. My own family is an example: I don’t know what political identity the Muders had in the 1920s, but a story I heard again and again growing up was how in the 1930s my grandfather managed to stall the bank from repossessing the family farm until the New Deal’s farm loan program started. That saved the farm and we’ve been Democrats for four generations now.

But that snowballing sense of progress is exactly what Republican obstruction has tried to deny us these last seven years, with considerable success. The only major advance we’ve seen recently is ObamaCare, which is why — even as we push for a single-payer system — we need to stop running it down. It’s saving lives. If the saved people realize that and tell their family and friends, we’ll have a lot more reliable votes. Maybe soon all the minimum-wage workers who get a raise will join them.

But while snowballing progress is the fastest way to change political identities, it’s not the only way. An alternative is to create and support and grow local institutions that create liberal community, as the Reagan conservatives did with fundamentalist churches. Unions would be ideal, but if that clock can’t be turned back, there are other possibilities: What if instead of relating to politics through her fundamentalist church, a housewife started getting her political identity from her co-op grocery or a local environmental group? Even something that isn’t overtly political — say, a folk music cafe — can liberalize the identities of the people who feel part of a community there.

The wild card in this process — which I hesitate to speculate on because I’m such a novice myself — is social media and the various forms on online community. What can we create that people can belong to, that will reinforce their identities as progressives?

When people decide to vote or not vote, or when they stand in the voting booth deciding which oval to darken or which lever to pull, they shouldn’t feel alone. They should feel part of a community that is interested in what they are doing and why. Which community that is will determine elections for decades to come.

When you change that, you’ve made a revolution.

What about that waitress? I never became a regular at that restaurant, and young waitresses switch jobs often anyway, so I didn’t keep track of her. For all I know, by now she might have changed and become deeply political. Who can say what might have caused it? Maybe she had children and started wondering who regulates the corporations who make the processed food she’d been feeding them. Maybe she got to know the Hispanic workers in the kitchen, and realized they can’t be what’s wrong with America. Maybe she found Jesus and became an anti-abortion crusader. When you’re talking about individuals, anything can happen.

But whether she has changed or not, America still has lots of impulse voters and citizens alienated from the political process completely. You can win a single election by convincing a bunch of them that you are sufficiently different that they should take a chunk out of a single day to come vote for you. But you can’t make a revolution that way.

To make a revolution, you need to get a large number of them to change their political identities and become players or fans of your team. You need to inspire fans of the other team to get their political identities from a different part of their lives, some part that will connect them to your team instead.

That’s a lot more complicated than just getting out the vote, and it takes a lot longer. But that’s what needs to happen, if you want a revolution.


[1] Lincoln’s success, in fact, depended on finding the right compromise position on slavery — one a bit less radical than that of Seward, the early Republican front-runner.

[2] That story is told in Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money.

[3] See Ian Haney Lopez’ book Dog Whistle Politics, which I summarized in “What Should Racism Mean?“.

[4] Part of the credit for the Ted Cruz victory in the Iowa Caucuses has to go to the endorsement of Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, who appeared with Cruz in an ad.

[5] That interpretation was already apparent by 1984 when Thomas Edsall wrote The New Politics of Inequality.

[6] At an even more basic level, we need to recognize the existence of low-engagement voters, and stop being ashamed of appealing to them. Idealistic liberals look askance at Madison Avenue tactics. But phrases that speak to low-engagement voters — like Sanders’ “rigged economy” — need not be empty. If we’re communicating something real to voters — something we can back up with data and policy for anyone inspired to dive into the details — rather than just trying to trick them into voting for our candidates by taking advantage of their ignorance, we have nothing to be ashamed of.