Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

Free Photo: Harbors in Barcelona, Spain

In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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Economics, Law, Politics

“Finally, Whites Come First”

Free Photo: KKK Members With an Airplane

Like many white Americans, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump administration’s efforts to increase racial equality in the United States. After a lifetime of being denied opportunities based solely on the color of my skin, I now have a first, tentative sense of what racial justice must feel like.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I am free at last.”

I realize my reaction may be difficult to understand for the dominant groups in the United States today, such as blacks, undocumented immigrants, gays, and Muslims. If you have never been discriminated against, it can be difficult to appreciate the ways that racial oppression distorts and limits a life.

Let me share a parable that captures my experience. It comes from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent years talking with the white victims of racial discrimination in the United States.

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Law, Politics

Trump/Caesar

Free Photo: Investigating the KKK

From Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography:

Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions to guarantee law and security, but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . Thus what struck him most about the Senate was the fact that it was controlled by his opponents. It hardly seems to have occurred to him that it was responsible for the commonwealth. . . . In Caesar’s eyes no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. He classified people as supporters, opponents, or neutrals. The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight. Politics amounted to no more than a fight for his rights.

Quoted in Jeremy Waldron’s Political Political Theory (2016), a defense of the importance of political institutions to political theory. Waldron concludes: “And by ‘his rights’ Meier meant not Caesar’s interests or his wealth but due recognition for his greatness.”

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Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Economics, Politics, Religion

Constitutional Rot: A Thought Experiment

Free Photo: Dead Casualties, Russo-Japanese War

As more than three in four Republicans continue to support our dangerously unfit president, despite the daily accumulation of evidence that his unprecedented mental and emotional unwellness and incompetence threaten the security of our country, I find myself wondering: how much further can our democracy decline before it collapses? How much more steady constitutional rot can we sustain before there is a true constitutional crisis?

The greatest threat to the future of American democracy, I continue to believe, is the risk that there will be an attack on the United States or other mass-casualty catastrophe, such as an epidemic or cyberattack on critical infrastructure, during the Trump presidency. Whether or not Trump bears responsibility for the catastrophe, through his unfathomable incompetence or otherwise, it seems virtually inevitable that he will respond, as he characteristically does, by blaming his usual enemies—the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, and opposition political forces that may now include not only Democrats, women, and scientists, but apparently the FBI and the American intelligence community.

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Economics, Literature, Politics

Freedom

Free Photo: Path Through Debris, Galveston Hurricane

(Translated from the German.)

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

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Law, Politics

Negotiation Theory Argues for Constitutional Hardball Against Trump

Free Photo: Home Being Moved

In a 2004 article, the constitutional law scholar Mark Tushnet described the rise of what he called “constitutional hardball.” The article draws attention to a phenomenon that has become even more prominent in the United States over the ensuing thirteen years: the use of “political claims and practices … that are … within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine” but that nevertheless conflict with prior assumptions about how things are supposed to work–the assumptions that “go without saying” in a working system of constitutional government.

A historical example would be Roosevelt’s court-packing plan. Already in 2004, Tushnet described a number of more recent examples of constitutional hardball by both Democrats and Republicans, but primarily by the latter–the Democratic filibuster against Bush’s judicial nominees in 2002-2003 and the Republican response, moves in Colorado and Texas to revisit districting decisions after the 2000 census, and the impeachment of President Clinton.

Many Republicans would argue that President Obama engaged in constitutional hardball by circumventing Congress through executive actions. Even if this is granted for the sake of argument, it would be hard to deny that the radicalized Republican Party of recent years has engaged in an escalation of constitutional hardball with no modern precedent. These hardball tactics include the transformation of the Senate filibuster into a hurdle for routine legislation, the Republican decision to hold hostage the nation’s credit by threatening to default on the debt, the unprecedented refusal to hold a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the North Carolina legislature’s recent attempt to rewrite the powers of their Governor after a Democrat won the office. The list could go on.

The most important example, I would argue, was the general Republican refusal to engage in ordinary legislative negotiation with Obama throughout the course of his presidency. As Mitch McConnell famously stated in 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans carried out this strategy for the next six years by vocally opposing virtually every initiative supported by the President, even those policies that Republicans had supported before Obama and now support again under President Trump, such as infrastructure investments.

McConnell understood a central fact of contemporary American politics, one backed by social science studies and now confirmed by the success of McConnell’s strategy. This fact is arguably the central fact of contemporary American politics, along with the phenomenon of partisan polarization grounded in antipathy for the opponent’s party. As Jonathan Chait has repeatedly, persuasively reminded us:

The truth is that voters pay little attention to legislative details, or even to Congress at all. They make decisions on the basis of how they feel about the president, not how they feel about Congress. And a major factor in their evaluation of the president is the presence or absence of partisan conflict. If a president has support from the opposition party, it tells voters he’s doing well, and they then choose to reward the president’s party down-ballot.

In fact, voters “are so single-minded in their focus on the president that voters actually base their vote for state legislature on their assessment of the president.”

Welcome or not, this is a fact of contemporary American political life. Voters will reward Democrats in 2018 and 2020 for opposing everything that Trump and the Republican Party attempt to do between now and then–and punish Democrats for any perceived Republican legislative or executive victories. Despite what voters sometimes say in surveys, they will not reward Democrats for cooperating to get things done. No one is actually paying attention to that.

In addition, there are only so many seats in the Senate and the House: a win for Republicans is a loss for Democrats and vice versa. Partisan representation is a zero-sum game, with no possibilities for mutual advantage through negotiation.

As a result, Democrats have an obvious self-interest in opposing congressional Republicans and Trump on every possible front, including the forms of constitutional hardball that Republicans used throughout the Obama presidency. The most obvious and important example is Democratic refusal to vote for Republican legislation, including legislation that Democrats might support based on its substance alone.

Another example would be Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Democrats have an interest in obstructing the nominating process through every means possible, using whatever flimsy justification comes to mind. The justification would certainly be no less flimsy than the one used by Republicans to obstruct Garland’s nomination.

But sensitive, fair-minded, principled Democrats may hesitate to embrace such a flatly oppositional approach–as Senator Schumer and no doubt many other moderate Democrats appear, very much, to be hesitating. If Democrats begin to play routine constitutional hardball just like the radicalized contemporary GOP, descending to their low game rather than rising above the fray, what will become of our constitutional system?

Once the unwritten norms of fair play and settled tradition are routinely, unapologetically violated, will the Constitution not cease to “make politics possible,” leading to a serious constitutional crisis?

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