Nothing Funny About Nullification

State Senator Damon Thayer was on The Daily Show recently arguing that Kentucky had the right to nullify laws that it did not agree with. The show mocked Thayer, and plenty of other people have piled on, but it seems like a good time to actually address the issue of nullification.

Thayer’s argument was that the people of Kentucky did not vote for President Obama so they don’t necessarily have to comply with laws he supports. He also mention in an interview in the newspaper that he discussed the Tenth Amendment on the Daily Show, but that argument was cut.

The Tenth Amendment says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Conservatives frequently argue that this amendment proves that the nation was envisioned as a federation, and that the states are equal to, if not supreme over, the national government.

The only problem with this argument is the Supremacy Clause, which says that “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme law of the land …..” Courts, including the Supreme Court, have consistently held that this provision means that Federal laws supersede state laws, and that the states cannot nullify federal laws.

States have long sought to nullify federal laws that they don’t like. In the early years of the nation southern states attempted to nullify federal laws regarding slavery that they opposed. The first attempt was the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, drafted and pushed largely by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in opposition to President Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, that said the states had the power to interpret the Constitution and could not be forced to apply laws they found unconstitutional. Jefferson attempted to get other states to pass similar resolutions, but every other state rejected the idea.

There were numerous subsequent cases where the Supreme Court rejected the idea of state nullification of Federal Law. In 1809, in the case of United States v. Peters, 9 U.S. 115 (1809), the Supreme Court held that the state of Pennsylvania could not pass a law nullifying a federal court decision. In McCullock v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819) and Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 22 U.S. 738 (1824) the Supreme Court held that states could not impose restrictions on the Federally chartered Bank of the United States. In Worcester v. Gorgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832), the Supreme Court held that the state of Georgia could not pass a law making Georgia law applicable on Indian Territory, which is governed by federal treaty.

The “Nullification Crisis” involved an attempt by the state of South Carolina to nullify the Tariff of 1828 (known as the Tariff of Abomination) which imposed duties on imports of certain manufactured goods. The Tariff benefited the industrial Northern States, but hurt the South. South Carolina passed a law saying the Tariff was unconstitutional, and that the state would not enforce it. President Andrew Jackson, no friend of federal power, threatened to send in federal troops to enforce the laws, but the issue was resolved by a compromise Tariff bill.

The Court dealt with nullification and slavery in a number of cases, particularly involving the Fugitive Slave Act, which required free states to send slaves back to slave states. Pennsylvania tried to prevent enforcement of the law, but the Supreme Court said they could not nullify federal law, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842). The Wisconsin Supreme Court held the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Wisconsin decision, and also set out a detailed analysis of the idea of nullification. See, Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1859).

The Civil War ended many arguments over the balance between state and federal power, but the issue arose again starting in the 1950’s, and the national government began to deal with civil rights for African-Americans. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Court held that the ideas of equal protection in the Federal constitution superseded state laws segregating schools. Most Southern states were outraged, and they dredged up the theory of nullification. Arkansas passed a law that said that the state did not have to integrate its schools, and the federal government could not make them. The Supreme Court, in a 9 to 0 decision, said that the states had no power to nullify federal law. See, Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).

I find it troubling that conservatives are again trying to revive this long discredited legal theory. I also find it strange that conservatives, who are supposed to believe in and respect the lessons of history, are so ignorant of history.

The Cost of Discrimination

A recent book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, by Gavin Wright, argues that the civil rights movement not only gave blacks basic civil rights, but also has a major beneficial economic impact on the economy of the south.

(Note: I have not yet read the book. I am basic my comments on excerpts and reviews.)

Wright notes that, as barriers to participation for blacks fell away, the overall economy of the south improved.

What we see, in other words, is not a redistribution in the name of historical justice, but an integration of black workers into the regional economy. When we consider that the civil- rights movement opened the South to inflows of capital, creativity and new enterprises from around the world, it becomes clear that most white Southerners were also long-term beneficiaries of this revolution. From:

If the removal of discrimination improved the economy then it seems likely that the imposition of discrimination harmed the economy. That should be painfully obvious to anyone who spends time thinking about it. There were obvious costs to Jim Crow. It cost money to install additional drinking fountains and rest rooms. Clearly businesses lost money by not serving black customers. And clearly it cost money to have a police force that spent time enforcing racial restrictions rather than dealing with crime. It cost time and money for state legislatures to debate and enact racially discriminatory bills.

Discrimination not only cost the subject of discrimination, but it costs those who discriminate. They spend time and money discriminating when they could spend that time and money on more productive things.

If discrimination is bad for an economy then it seems likely that the corollary is true: non-discrimination – openness, acceptance, tolerance – are good for the economy.

Science and Government Support

The Federal government has supported scientific advancement since Vice President Thomas Jefferson got Congress to fund Eli Whitney’s attempts to manufacture muskets with interchangeable parts. Whitney failed but government support for other continued until Sam Colt perfected it in the 1850’s.

The government has supported both practical and speculative science. The “space race” created a need for increasingly small electronics, and researchers working under government contract created the transistor and later the micro-chip.  Fear of massive infrastructure disruption in the event of a nuclear attack led to government funded research into the development of a fragmented communication system called ARPANET, which was the earliest form of the internet.

But beginning in the late 1980’s the Federal government spent less and less on support for science. In the last 25 years government support has been cut by fully half. The results have been most obvious in publications in scientific literature. Research from the US used to dominate, but now researchers from the European Union are now producing nearly as many papers as US researchers. And while US funding has declined, government funding in other nations has climbed significantly. China’s R&D spending is growing at 20% a year.

The reality is that scientific research will continue, but the US will no longer dominate as it had in the past. The problem with this is that scientific research often (very often) leads to new technologies, new products, and new businesses. Most of the world seems to understand this, which is why other nations are increasing government supported research. But a few people don’t seem to get it. And unfortunately those people — conservative Republicans — have an outsized influence in the American government. They are clearly being penny wise (watching every penny) but pound foolish.

Government support for scientific research has been an important component of American economic growth and supremacy, and I find it frightening that Congressional Republicans are willing to turn their backs on that history.


Ma Bell and the Modern Market

Conservatives like to complain that government regulation is stifling the economy. This implies that, once upon a time, the market was free of government interference. And likely they would point to the 1950’s as the glory days of the American free enterprise system. I suspect that if you were to ask most Republicans, they would likely say that the American economy was more free and open in the 1950’s than today. The reality, however, is quite different.

Remember “Ma Bell?” Ma Bell was the nickname for AT &T, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Ma Bell was the only phone company in the country until the early 1980’s. Ma Bell was a government sanctioned monopoly. There was no competition, there was no free market, in telecommunications in this country in the 1950’s.

Remember the Civil Aeronautics Board? Up until deregulation in 1978, the CAB controlled rates and routes in the American airline industry. There was no competition, there was no free market, in the airline industry in this country in the 1950’s.

Remember the Hays Code? Most people don’t know the name, but in the 1920’s the Motion Picture Association of America created a production code that prohibited the depiction of certain subjects in film. This was known as the Hays Code, and it was censorship, plain and simple. The MPAA kept a tight rein on films until the late 1960’s, when things began to loosen up. There was a tightly regulated market in films in this country in the 1950’s. In fact there was widespread censorship in this country until the late 1950’s, when judicial decisions allowed the importation and domestic printing of books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Most of the censorship occurred at the state and local level, but the federal government enforced these laws at the Post Office by refusing to mail books deemed obscene. These laws were largely overturned in the 1973 Supreme Court case of Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).

Before the deregulation movement of the late 1970’s, most of the American transportation industries were heavily regulated. Railroads were deregulated in 1976 (the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976), trucking was deregulated in 1980 (the Motor Carriers Act of 1980), and bus lines were deregulated in 1982 (the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982). There was no competition, there was no free market, in the transportation industry in this country in the 1950’s.

Banks and finance were heavily regulated after the market collapse of 1929, but things began to change in the 1980’s. In 1980, Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act, which removed many restrictions on the way Savings and Loans operated. Many went on a tear offering new loans, and the system collapsed in the late 1980’s, leading to the so-called “Savings and Loan Crisis.” Banks were largely deregulated in 1999, with the passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. There was no competition, there was no free market, in the banking industry in this country in the 1950’s.

(I have neither the time or expertise to discuss the widespread use of tariffs and import laws to protect domestic industry, but suffice it to say, the American economy didn’t have to deal with much worldwide competition in the 1950’s.)

The U.S. economy of the 1950’s was also operating in the shadow of World War Two, when the government, through various war time production agencies, essentially controlled the economy. War production rebuilt many industries that had languished during the Depression, and after the war many of these facilities that had been built at taxpayer expense, were given, or sold at very low cost, to private industry. War production nearly doubled the size and output of the American aluminum industry, and after the war these facilities were sold for pennies on the dollar.

So the so-called free market of the 1950’s was anything but, and exists not in reality but only in the febrile imaginations of conservatives.

There is no doubt that there is still a great deal of regulation in the American marketplace, but it is regulation of a different sort. Modern regulation does not regulate the operation of the market, but regulates the behavior of businesses. The most hated forms of regulation are environmental regulations, product safety regulations, and work place safety regulations. These are certainly a burden to business, but it not manipulation of the market like the government involvement of the 1950’s. This sort of regulation, however, is probably much more of an irritant to business owners because it seems to presuppose that they need adult supervision to run their businesses honestly and properly. It is also much more niggling and picayune. And so it is likely much more despised than earlier forms of regulation.

But just because it is more irritating doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more burdensome than the higher level of market control and regulation that existed in the 1950’s.

Science and the Modern World

The history of the modern world is the story of how science has altered human culture. You can date the beginning of the modern world in many different ways. Perhaps it started in 1439 when Gutenberg developed movable type and the printing revolution began. The printed word allows people to store knowledge, and Gutenberg’s invention allowed that knowledge to be distributed widely and relatively cheaply. Or you might say it began in 1765 when James Watt perfected a steam piston and made pumps effective, which then allowed him to modify the piston into an actual steam engine in 1776. That’s an important year: the American Declaration of Independence was signed and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published. The steam engine powered trains and ships, and led to industrial manufacturing and a whole new world.

There are many other turning points when science changed society: Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species, Pasture’s development of germ theory, the Wright Brother’s first flight, Marconi’s wireless, Farnsworth’s television, the first digital computer (ENIAC), and the first nuclear explosion.

From this short list it should be fairly obvious that the world we now live in is the product of scientific advances. It’s a fairly direct line from Watt’s steam engine to steam locomotives to steam driven horseless carriages to Daimler’s petrol powered internal combustion engine to Henry Ford and the mass production of automobiles. The cell phone is the end product of the telegraph (invented by Pavel Schilling but made usable by Samuel Morse’s code), the telephone (invented contemporaneously by Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Grey) and Marconi’s wireless telegraph. As another example, the compute I type this on relies, in part, on theories of quantum physics developed by Niels Bohr, and the mathematical theories of Kurt Gödel.

Despite the fact that virtually every aspect of the modern world was created by science, large segments of society are highly skeptical of science. Part of the reason for this is that each scientific advance has challenged deeply held beliefs. Copernicus’ heliocentric model set off a fire storm in the Christian church. William Herschel began his astronomical career looking for men on the moon (really) but the increasingly powerful telescopes he built allowed him to see stars billions of miles from the earth. This observation made it obvious that the universe was far older than described in the Bible, which set off a wave of skepticism of all forms of religious teaching.

Cars changed traditional living patters, planes changed international relations, television allowed us to see how other people lived, which changed our understanding of the world and the people in it. And modern biology changed agriculture and medicine, and the lives we lead. Modern medicine vastly improved our lives, but challenged the long held view that disease is God’s will.

The modern economy is a direct product of science. Many of the scientific advances noted above eventually led to the creation of vast new industries. Electricity not only lighted houses, but led to the development of a vast array of electronic appliances from air conditioners to vacuum cleaners and everything in between.

Despite the fundamental importance of science in the modern economy, we have politicians who are ignorant of, or hostile to, science. State Senator Mike Wilson (R. Bowling Green), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, recently said: “My concern is our students are indoctrinated into one way of thinking without any sort of intellectual freedom. The evidence doesn’t support evolution.”

Medical research is a multi-trillion dollar industry, and is one of the fastest growing fields in the new world economy. Yet we have politicians who want to prevent the teaching of basic evolutionary science, thereby limiting the ability of Kentucky’s students to work in this field.

The modern economy depends on science. In order to improve our economy, we need politicians who understand this, and are willing to support science, even when it challenges traditional ideas. If Kentucky is to fully participate in the Twenty-First Century economy, we need to train a new generation of students who understand this new world and can work in it. But we won’t be able to do that with politicians who are stuck in the past.

Roots of Poisonous Partisanship

[Related to Roots of Conservative Rage]

There has always been political partisanship in this country, but we seem to be at a stage where it has become so poisonous that politicians refuse to work with each other because many believe that the politicians on the other side of the political divide are untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and un willing to make policy choices that actually help the nation.

I’ve heard a great deal of talk about how to deal with this issue. There is a group called “No Labels” that is trying to bring politicians together to solve problems without concern to their partisan labels. There are also groups pushing a “civility oath” for politicians to sign pledging to deal with issues in a civil manner.
I think these ideas are nice, (actually I think they are “cute” but I don’t want to be dismissive and add to the tone of negativity and hostility), but I don’t think they’ll succeed because they don’t address the real root cause of the problem. The issue isn’t just that politicians are being disagreeable. The issue is that they have fundamentally different views of how the world works, and what the role of government should be within that world. Simply being nice is not going to bridge that divide.

But the other, deeper problem is that both sides have gone from believing that the other side is simply presenting a different policy choice to believing that the other side is choosing policies that are designed to harm the nation.

I don’t think we’ll ever truly solve the issue of partisanship because people will always have very different views on how things—economic, political, social—work. But I think we can deal with the issue of poisonous partisanship and minimize it if we understand where it comes from and what it means.

So what are the causes of our current poisonous partisanship?

There are a number of causes, and I will discuss them briefly. Each probably warrants more analysis, but I have neither the time nor inclination to do that now. But I will note that they are cumulative. One in isolation may not be a real problem, but in combination we reach critical mass and the pile melts down.

The Two Party System. The two party system creates a false dichotomy and the silly idea that every issue and problem falls neatly into the liberal v. conservative, or Democratic v. Republican paradigm. It also creates the silly idea that for every problem there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. This is obviously simplistic, but this false dichotomy creates the belief for some people that if there is a right solution and a wrong solution: if there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution, and if I’m a Republican and I think Republicans are right, then the Republican solution must be right, which must mean that the Democratic solution must be wrong.

So the two party system creates the idea that policy choices are choices between good and bad, and between right and wrong.

Political Shenanigans. Both parties engage in political shenanigans that only deepen the partisan divide. Perhaps the best example is partisan gerrymandering, where state level politicians manipulate political districts to ensure politically safe districts. Often, when Republicans control the process, they are willing to gerrymander a few districts to create safe Democratic districts while at the same time gerrymandering many more conservative leaning districts to produce many more safe Republican districts. And, of course, in those states where the Democrats control the state house they do the same thing.

Kentucky is unique because Democrats control the state House and Republicans control the state Senate. And so we have Democrats in the house gerrymander House districts and Republicans gerrymander Senate districts.

The result of these ideologically divided districts is that the real battles are in the primaries, between moderates and hardliners. And in those districts that are very conservative, or very liberal, you get very conservative or liberal representatives. And the result is that the current Congress, according to some studies, is the most ideologically rigid Congress in modern history. The other result is that these politicians don’t have to worry about talking to, or trying to appeal to, moderates or partisans on the other side, because they don’t have to rely on them for votes. And so the result is that many politicians have almost no experience dealing with partisans from the other party, which means that they don’t know, understand, or take seriously the views and policy positions of the other party. And this only exacerbates the partisan spiral.

The Adversarial Culture. We have a culture that is focused on, and rewards conflict. As mentioned, our political system is based on a head to head fight over ideas, policies, and candidates. We are also a culture that loves sports: we love competition and the head to head battles that sports represent. Even in those sports that are not based on head to head competition—like running or golf—we tend to focus on (or at least the media focuses on) the leader and nearest rival, so that the competition is presented as a head to head battle.

We revere the free market, and competition (which is a form of conflict) is the heart and soul of the free market. We like consumer choice and like the idea that through this choice consumers pick economic winners, and cast economic losers to the side.

Finally, we have an “adversarial” legal system that is based on the idea that we can determine truth an intellectual and evidentiary battle between litigants.
The result of all of this is that we have a culture that reveres conflict. And, unfortunately, we transfer this belief in the value of conflict to the public policy debate.

The end result is that policy debates become epic battles. So what should be, for example, a discussion of how to limit gun violence becomes a battle between those who want gun control and those who champion individual rights.

The Trivializing Media. We have a popular culture and a news media that likes drama over substance. The most popular movies tend to be action and conflict oriented. Occasionally deep and thoughtful movies do well at the box office, but that is the exception and not the rule. And often those movies are couched in conflict, as the recent movie Lincoln, which focused on the conflict over passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The news media finds it much easier to present every problem as if it were a dramatic battle between two opposing warriors, than to delve into the complexities of problems, issues and policies. Drama has become the sum and substance of our culture, and our news media’s approach to just about everything. The ever popular “how does that make you feel” question is about human angst—that is drama—and not about trying to understand an issue. And this interest in, or bias towards, drama fits in ever so nicely with our two party system. So our two party system creates a trivial duality, and the news media runs with it.

This duality is increasingly fed by the more partisan of the news outlets, FoxNews on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Each depends on the simplistic duality, and profits from it.

Conservative Rage. There are some segments of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that have come to view liberals as a force of evil. I discuss this in much more detail in my posts called “The Roots of Conservative Rage.”

This conservative rage means that some conservatives look at every issue, every political battle, as if it were an existential struggle for the very survival of America. Every political or cultural battle is a struggle between good and evil. Every issue becomes a crisis. Every vote is existential.

Liberal Response. I wish I could say that Liberals have taken the high ground in responding to the way some conservatives act. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Far too many Democrats respond to the Republican pettiness by being petty themselves. There was, for example, a web site devoted to “dogs against Romney” because Romney once put his dog in a crate on the roof of the car when the family traveled on vacation. I don’t know what to make of Romney’s action, but what kind of dufus actually spends time to create an anti-Romney web site based on that?

I find the general tone of Republican politics nasty and silly, but I can usually ignore it. When Democrats react in kind, I’m truly embarrassed.

The history of the last thirty years has also produced an unattractive smugness among some liberals. They look at Republican claims and behavior over that period and see little but failure. They see Republican claiming that tax cuts will increase revenue and shrink the deficit, and then see deficits balloon after each tax cut. They hear Republicans claim that any tax increase will kill the economy, and then note that the economy grew substantially after Clinton raised taxes, and stagnated after Bush cut taxes. They hear Republicans talk about the need for a robust national defense and an aggressive foreign policy, and then look at the disaster that ensued when President George W. Bush put those policies into effect in Iraq. They hear Republicans say such insightful things as “We will be welcomed as liberators” in response to the invasion of Iraq, and see that the opposite was true. For many liberals the Bush administration was the zenith of conservatism—the fulfillment of every conservative desire. And it was a complete disaster. And in the last five years it appears, more and more, that the truth is nearly the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. (Pre-election polling is but the clearest example.)

The result is that many Democrats have come to believe that the Republican Party has become a party of buffoons. But unfortunately it is also more than that. Some liberals have come to view conservatives in the same way that some conservatives view liberals. Some liberals look at the disaster of the Bush administration, and the insistence of many Republican politicians that the solution to our current problems are the exact same policies that failed for Bush, and they believe that conservatives are endorsing these policies not because they think they will improve things, but because they actually want to make things worse. They believe that, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell was willing to enact legislation that would harm the economy in an attempt to unseat President Obama. And so some liberals view conservatives as nefarious.

The end result is that both parties have come to believe that the other party has cracked. Republicans believe that Democrats want to introduce social legislation that will turn this nation into Sodom and Gomorra. Democrats believe that Republicans want to destroy the government and turn the nation into a naïve free market paradise where the riches go to the swiftest, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Now, I ask you, how are we supposed to get these guys to work together?

Do you really think a civility pledge will fix this?

Liberals versus Conservatives. As I noted in a separate post titled “The Roots of Conservative Rage” many conservatives see themselves as a firewall against liberal policies tha they view as harmful to the nation.

To paint this with a metaphor, conservatives tend to see themselves as defensive linemen lined up against the liberal offense, trying to stop the latest hail-mary pass into the end zone (to approve gay marriage or ban assault rifles or whatever outrage conservatives are aligned against). In some ways this makes conservatives focus on liberals in a strange and unhealthy way. Sometimes, if you watch Hannity, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you would think that conservatives are obsessed with liberals. And you would be right.

But liberals don’t tend to view the world this way. They see problems and then look for solutions. Sometimes those solutions involve chucking tradition, but in many cases they don’t. So liberals don’t see themselves as aligned against conservatives. Liberals don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on conservatives. (They do spend some time, and MSNBC seems to be strangely obsessed. But if you look at a great deal of the more thoughtful liberal press – magazines like Harpers or the Atlantic – they focus more on issues than conservative politicians.)

Unfortunately this liberal response only further enrages conservatives. Liberal indifference bugs conservatives. I think they would like it better if more liberals were as focused on them as they are on liberals. But liberals are not, and this gets under their skin, and makes it more difficult for the two parties to work together.

The Partisan Echo Chamber. Driving much of this partisanship (and driving the nation into the ground) is an increasingly partisan media. FoxNews and talk radio dominate the right, and liberal imitators (like MSNBC) are a pale reflection. But both operated within the simplistic worldview that there are only two sides, and the other side is crazy. The pervasiveness and repetition, particularly on the right, helps drive the message home (and drive rational people crazy).

So what is the solution? I’ll address some ideas in a post titled “An Antidote to Partisan Poison.” Stay tuned.

The Roots of Conservative Rage

[Note: This is a bit long. I may re-post in the future and break it up into bit size pieces.]

I’ve been trying to figure out why many conservatives are so entrenched and embittered. One of the causes of the deep and rancorous partisanship in Washington is that some conservatives totally distrust Democrats and refuse to work with them on anything, while many others are deeply hostile to Democrats and highly skeptical of everything they say and do. (Some Democrats certainly respond in kind, but one issue at a time.) This distrust and disdain for Democrats is a manifestation of their political and philosophical views (as I will discuss), but that only gets us part way. So the question remains: why are they so bitter? What is the cause of this conservative rage?

I think there are a number of causes, and I’ll try to briefly describe them.

I:         The History of Loss

In order to understand why conservatives are so bitter I think it helps to set out a very brief thumbnail history of liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism, as some conservatives know, began with Edmund Burke’s reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the culmination of over two hundred years of political liberalism, though before the French Revolution it wasn’t called liberalism. The first liberals sought to free individuals from the overbearing control of external forces. The first liberals were religious reformers, like Martin Luther, who said the church should not dictate matters of conscience. Once Luther broke the hegemony of the Church, other thinkers began to challenge the church in other areas, and the power of one of the dominant historic institutions began to erode. Eventually political philosophers started to question the power of the state (the other dominant historic institution). They sought to liberate the individual from the state’s overweening control over all matters of human affairs. These philosophers and politicians eventually became known as liberals, because they sought to liberate. The French Revolution began as a push for liberal reform, but devolved into a blood bath as some revolutionaries said that the only way to fully liberate French citizens was to (quite literally) decapitate the old order.

Watching from England, Burke was horrified, and said that there is much in traditional society and social norms worth preserving (or conserving, hence “conservatism”). He said that tradition is collected wisdom, and cultural norms and social institutions are the source of social stability. Burke was not opposed to “liberty” or the goals of political liberalism—he had supported the American Revolution as a member of the British Parliament—but he did oppose dramatic or radical change. Better the devil you know, he suggested, than the devil you don’t, particularly when history shows that many devils are released in the chaos of radical change.

Over the last two hundred plus years since the French Revolution the world has changed dramatically. At each stage, political liberals have been at the fore-front of this change. In many cases these changes improved society—the abolition of slavery, the broadening of the political franchise, the expansion of civil rights—but in other cases the changes were disastrous, most noticeably with communism and socialism. And at each stage, political conservatives have been yelling STOP. (The conservative writer William F. Buckley said that the role of the conservative is to “stand athwart history and yell STOP.”)

The history of the last five hundred years has been the history of conservative loss. From Luther on, liberalism has advanced and conservatism retreated. This is particularly notable if you focus solely on the United States. Conservatives lost the fight over slavery, the fight over laissez-faire economics, the fight over women’s suffrage, the fight over unions (though they are making a come-back in that one), the fight over civil rights and segregation, the fight over equality for women, and now it appears that they are losing the fight over marriage equality.

It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of years of losses don’t grind you down, don’t wear on you. I suspect that it has, and I believe that this record is one of the causes of conservative rage. They have been pushed far enough, and they don’t want to be pushed any further.

 II:        The Culture Wars

Conservatives seek to preserve what they view as traditional society. As noted, historic conservatism suggests that there is great value and collected wisdom in cultural traditions and social norms. (A point that I agree with in general, while noting that some traditions are quite odious.) Conservative politicians seek to preserve—to conserve if you will—traditional norms and social institutions. And so their political battles are not just about advancing conservative political goals—limited government, deference to the constitution, strong national defense, etc.—but also about achieving conservative social and cultural goals.  

Yet despite their best efforts the culture has changed, and changed dramatically. But it hasn’t changed because of the efforts of liberal politicians. Despite what conservatives believe, there really is no collusion between liberal institutions (like TV, movies, and music) and liberal politicians. They may share a similar world view, and liberal politicians may support the ideas of cultural openness that allow a wide variety of entertainment to flourish, but that’s not the same thing as saying that liberal politicians are causing cultural change. Put another way, just because the liberal idea of openness creates the cultural environment that allows pornography to exist, doesn’t mean that liberal politicians created, caused, or even endorse pornography.

Society has changed for innumerable reasons. Some are certainly political, but politics is not the main driver of social change. I personally believe that the major contributor to social change is science (and its offish step-brother technology). One example is progestogen—the birth control pill. The pill allowed women to control their bodies, and this had a dramatic impact on society. It spurred the “sexual revolution” (which eventually—though perhaps tenuously—led to the rise of pornography) and it allowed women to participate in the economy. This opened a floodgate which still has not closed. It changed gender roles and traditional families. It threw over our traditional male dominated society, and fundamentally altered our economy. And while liberal politicians were generally supportive of these goals, they did not create them. The effect was political, but the cause was not.       

And therein lies the problem. Despite the political gains that conservatives have made since 1980, the culture continues unabated on the same trajectory. Liberals might say that the culture has gotten more open and tolerant (and a majority of the public seems to agree) but conservatives say it has gotten more licentious and depraved.  

Conservatives have won a great deal politically in the last thirty years or so, but they have clearly lost the culture wars. And since culture is, in their view, intimately tied to politics, this means that many of their political gains are for naught. This produces a sense of futility and growing frustration.

 III:      The Manichean Worldview

Conservatives tend to see themselves as trying to preserve and protect society against those seeking change, and as a result they tend to see the world in an “us versus them” paradigm. This is true even though there isn’t really a single “them” trying to change society. There are many “thems,” and they are not necessarily related. For example, technological advances, as noted above, are one of the main drivers of social change. It is typically profit making businesses that exploit technology (and not liberal institutions like academia or non-profits). And here is the irony: conservatives proclaim themselves as the champion of profit making businesses, and so they are the champion of one of the main forces that erodes traditional society. In any event, and despite this glaring paradox, conservatives tend to feel embattled, and feel like the whole world is aligned against them.

This “us versus them” mindset fits nicely into the American political structure. We have two dominant political parties in the United States, and these two parties compete head to head in every election and over every political and social issue. The two party system is partly the result of historic happenstance, but it’s also partly the result of our “winner take all” electoral system. Other countries have systems that allow voters to vote for more than one candidate for an office, which helps third parties to get candidates elected. But our system doesn’t support this, and so we have two dominant parties.   

Having two parties make it seem like every issue breaks down into a choice between the liberal or conservative policy, and the Democratic versus Republican solution. This is silly and simplistic, but it has become the standard view. Unfortunately our news media seems to have embraced this simplistic worldview. It is, after all, much easier for a reporter to simply present the liberal argument versus the conservative argument than to actually analyze the problem and actually take time describing all of the possible solutions to the problem. (This isn’t really fair to reporters. Some might actually want to do that work, but have limited budgets and tight deadlines.) We also have a culture that likes simple head to head conflict, and the two party system seems to fit this perfectly.    

So, many impulses in American society present issues in a simplistic duality. And some conservatives have a tendency to see the world as aligned against them.  Some of those conservatives believe that they are fighting against the forces of evil, and since they are, in their minds at least, on the side of the angels, every battle becomes a fight between good (conservatives) and bad. And who is it that they are always fighting against? Who have conservatives been fighting against for five hundred years? Why liberals of course. Because of this Manichean “us versus them” world view, some conservatives have come to believe that liberals are constantly pushing policies that harm the nation. And some conservatives take this one step further and ask this question: what kind of person promotes, advocates, or endorses policies that are bad? Why, a bad person, of course. And so some conservatives come to believe that liberals are bad. If you don’t believe me, I commend you to at least two books: “Deliver us From Evil,” by Sean Hannity and “Treason,” by Ann Coulter. What do you think the Evil is that Mr. Hannity wants us to be delivered from? Liberalism. And the subtitle of Ms. Coulter’s book pretty much says it all: “Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.”

So some conservatives believe they are actually fighting against the forces of evil, and have come to believe that liberals are evil. Given that, is it surprising that some conservatives refuse to work with Democrats on anything? Is it surprising then that they act as if every political battle is existential?  Is it surprising that conservative politicians say that elections are about saving society?

 IV:      So Close They Could Taste It

Supposedly advance troops of the Wehrmacht, the German Army in World War Two, pushed far enough into Moscow in November 1941 that they could see the domes of the Kremlin in the distance. They were that close. But then Zhukov and the Russian Army began to push back, and pushed them all the way back to Berlin.

Starting with the election of Ronal Reagan in 1980 conservative principles, ideals, and political arguments have been in the ascendance. In 2000 George W. Bush won the presidency, and the Republicans held on to narrow majorities in the House and Senate (with Vice President Dick Cheney as the tie breaking vote.). In 2002 Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, and eight in the House, thus broadening their governing majority. In 2004 Bush won reelection and the Republicans picked up four seats in the Senate, giving them a commanding 55 seat majority, and five in the House, giving them a comfortable 232 to 201 majority. After a twenty year climb they had solid majorities in the House and Senate, and for six years (2000 to 2006) they controlled the executive and the legislative branches.

And? And did they turn the economy around? Nope. They got sidetracked by a war of choice in Iraq, and nearly totally discredited themselves. And rather than fight for their economic goals, they got sidetracked by divisive social issues. (But recall how the two are intertwined.) They did force through a massive tax cut, on a nearly party line vote, claiming that it would spur the economy and shrink the deficit. And how did that work? Well, we’re now fighting over massive budget deficits, so one could argue that it didn’t work very well. They also continued to push for deregulation, and it was an unregulated financial industry that nearly destroyed the world’s economy. Oops. And finally, did they save the culture? Nope again. Drug use and crime rates might have gone down, but have you turned on your TV lately? Most conservatives see out society as an open cesspit.

In 2006, the Democrats won six seats in the Senate, giving them a 51 to 49 majority (with two independents), and 31 seats in the House, putting them in the majority. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the Presidency, in a near landslide over John McCain, and Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses, and when Sen. Jeffords switched parties they had a 60 seat super majority in the Senate. The Democrats picked up twenty one seats in the house to take a 257 to 178 majority. And with those majorities, Democrats pushed through a number of bills Conservatives despise, chief among them Obamacare and a modest economic stimulus. 

Republicans were that close. And then the country rejected them. They are now fighting a rear guard action, trying desperately to dig in, get a toe-hold, to stop every liberal advance.

And not only are they fighting a rear guard action politically, but also culturally. (See II. above.) They believe that if they lose here, they will simply have to fight again, but this time further in their own territory. And so each fight is important. Each fight is, in some regards, existential.

The fight over Obamacare was existential because they knew that if they lost, they were losing the fight over government control of health care. After losing the main battle, every other fight would be a skirmish over the degree of government control of health care, not over the philosophical question of whether or not the government should be involved in health care. The 2012 election was existential because conservatives knew that if Democrats won, they would likely push for expanded rights for gays, possibly including marriage. And in their view, one more pillar of traditional society would fall.

And so every fight in Congress, no matter how minor or silly, becomes an existential fight for the soul of America. The result is that every fight is existential, and every issue a crisis.    

 Part V:                       The Echo Chamber

You can’t talk about conservative rage without talking about the rise of conservative media—particularly talk radio and FoxNews—and its impact on enraging conservatives. In fact it seem like the whole point of talk radio and FoxNews is to enrage conservatives.  They feed their listeners a steady diet of outrage. Their descriptions of liberals and the policies of the Democratic Party are nearly always negative, and descriptions of conservatives and the Republican Party nearly always laudatory. Both distil and refine the conservative message of the depravity of liberals and the nobility of conservatives. They almost always present every idea, every policy, every vote, as a fight between the forces of goodness and light (that is conservatives) against the forces of darkness and evil (that is liberals). This creates a reinforcing feedback loop, and the message gets purer and meaner, and the audience more outraged.

The topic is the subject of many books and magazine articles, and I don’t think I need to belabor the point. You need only turn on the television and watch a few minutes of Sean Hannity, or turn on the radio and listen to Rush Limbaugh, to understand what I am talking about.

Conservative media supports the trivial message of partisan duality. It provides a constant reminder to its followers of what they have lost at the hands of liberals, and what they stand to lose should Democrats win again. It is rage, pure and simple.   

Part VI:          The Results of Conservative Rage

In many cases (I am loath to say in all) some conservatives actually have come to believe that liberals are an evil force in the nation. We see this in the title of books by provocateurs like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, and hear it from talk radio and on Fox News. But this view permeates a great deal of conservative views towards liberals. Not long ago, here in Kentucky, a teacher got in trouble for writing on the board of her classroom that you can’t be a Democrat and go to heaven. I have heard from more than one person that they have heard ministers actually say that in church.

Adding to conservative rage is the fact that many liberals fail to understand how angry conservatives are, and how betrayed they feel by their society, their culture and their nation. And so many liberals mock their pain, ridicule their arguments, and laugh at their tears of frustration, which only makes matters worse.   

Most liberals do not understand the depth of conservative rage. They do not understand that many conservatives believe—really and truly believe—that liberalism is the main cause of most, if not all, of the problems facing the nation. Liberals fail to understand that many conservatives see liberalism as a destructive force and liberals as the hand-maiden of national decline.

The result of conservative rage is that some conservatives view liberals as evil, and say so, which ads an ugly dimension to our politics. And some conservatives believe that liberals are evil, and refuse to work with them on anything.

There can be little doubt that this view is one of the contributing causes to the poisonous level of partisanship in Washington, and much of the country. Many conservatives now approach many issues as if they are an existential struggle for the soul of the nation. They say that if Democrats win it will result in the destruction of the nation.

How can you be bipartisan when you consider your political opponent evil? How can a true conservative work with a liberal when they believe that liberals have been responsible for the destruction of the traditions they once held so dear? They can’t, and they don’t.

A conservative media (talk radio and Fox News) feeds this beast. And the Tea Party seems to have internalized this view, and now campaign against any Republican politician for merely working with Democrats (see, for example, former Republican Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar.)

In their need to fight everything liberal, and every Democratic proposal, Republicans end up doing silly things, like abandoning long held policy positions—Cap and Trade & The Individual Insurance Mandate are two recent prominent examples. They savage former allies for simply questioning conservative orthodoxy. Witness the opposition to former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

And so we have on party that opposes, in a reflexive, knee-jerk manner, everything the other side does. I saw a political cartoon that said that if Obama said he liked to breath the Republicans in Congress would announce that they oppose oxygen. It is almost that bad.

The consequences of conservative rage are political gridlock and a politics of constant crisis.       

The Hobgoblin of a Little Mind

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay Self Reliance

Senator Rand Paul took boyish delight in pestering Senator John Kerry at his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State over the fact that as a candidate Barack Obama had said “the president doesn’t have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack.” But as president he did something much different in his support for NATO action in Libya in support of anti-Gadhafi rebels.

He sounded giddy when he asked: “I’d like to know if you agree with me and candidate Barack Obama, or if you agree with President Barack Obama who took us to war in Libya without Congressional authority unilaterally?”

See, he had caught Obama being inconsistent, which apparently, to Senator Paul, proves something deep and disquieting about Obama.

But what does inconsistency prove?

Have great statesmen ever been inconsistent?

Well, here are a couple of examples of inconsistency from the founding period.

Alexander Hamilton left the Constitutional Convention in disgust on June 30, 1787, saying that the document they were creating would ruin the nation. He returned in early September, and signed the final document, though he noted his disapproval of some measure. He then went on to be the coordinator and chief author of the Federalist Papers, which were fundamentally important in the ratification of the Constitution. What a flip-flopper.

James Madison, during the debate in the First Congress over the bill to charter the first Bank of the United States, said that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the understanding of men who wrote it. During other debates he said that the meaning of the Constitution was the meaning as understood by the men who ratified it in the states, and not by the Framers. During the debate over the second Bank of the United States Madison said that the meaning of the Constitution was determined by actual use and public acceptance. Finally, after he had retired from public life, he was asked about Constitutional interpretation and said that the understanding of the actual framers was unknowable and irrelevant. That dude was all over the place.

Thomas Jefferson ran for President in 1800 against President John Adams. Jefferson noted that many of Adam’s actions exceeded the scope of Presidential powers, and he said that the powers granted by the Constitution should be strictly construed. Then, in 1803, when France was having a fire sale on foreign territory to fund their European wars, Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territories, despite admitting both at the time and later, that this clearly exceeded his powers as president and violated express provisions of the Constitution. What a hypocrite.

So, what does this say about Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson?

And what does it say about Senator Paul?

The World Keeps Spinning ‘round

I just saw Les Miserables. It was quite the epic. I’m not much for musicals, and there were quite a few scenes where I wondered why they were singing. But all in all an excellent movie.

Oddly enough we watched “The Grapes of Wrath” last night, so it was a weekend of social change and the depravations of poverty. And that got me thinking about our current economic situation. Les Mis occurred against the backdrop of a dramatically changing French society, and that change was a by-product of the Industrial Revolution and the effect that had on the French economy and society.

I think that today we are in the middle of a changing world economy, brought about by computers and information technology, and impacted by globalization and the growth of countries like China and India. We may be in the midst of changes that rival those caused by the Industrial Revolution. It is difficult to tell when you are in the middle of it. It might be as monumental, or it might be of trifling importance. But in any event, changed in the world economy are having a significant impact on this country. Manufacturing is effected by the rise of industrial China and the spread of industrialization and factories around the world. That is reverberating throughout the nation’s economy.

We are in the middle of dramatically changing times. And our politicians are arguing not about how to deal with this new world, but about the tax rate on high wage earners. This disconnect is bizarre.