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coreyrobin

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left.

Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive.

What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new generation of democratic socialists are to go on the offensive about democracy, not to shy away from it but to confront it head on. And again, not simply by redefining democracy to mean “economic democracy,” though that is definitely a major—the major—part of the democratic socialist argument which cannot be abandoned, but also by taking the liberal definition of democracy on its own terms.

The reason this generation of democratic socialists are willing and able to do that is not simply that, for some of them, the Soviet Union was gone before they were born. Nor is it simply that this generation of democratic socialists are themselves absolutely fastidious in their commitment to democratic proceduralism: I mean, seriously, these people debate and vote on everything! It’s also because of the massive collapse of democratic, well, norms, here at home.

First, you have the full-on assault on voting rights from the Republican Party. Then there’s the fact that both the current and the last Republican president were only able to win their elections with the help of the two most anti-democratic institutions of the American state: the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. In both cases, these men won their elections over candidates who received more popular votes than they did. There’s a lot of words one might use to describe a system in which the person who gets fewer votes wins, but democracy isn’t one of the ones that comes immediately to mind. Any notion that anyone from that side of the aisle is in any position to even speak on the question of democratic values—again, not robust democratic values but minimal democratic values—is a joke.

Second, you have the Democratic Party. Massively dependent in its nomination process on super-delegates. Massively dependent in its district-level wins on low voter turnout, in districts where the party structure resembles the Jim Crow South, as described by V.O. Key. You have incumbents like Joe Crowley who’ve not had to face a primary challenge in so long that, as we saw in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they don’t even know how to wage much less win electoral campaigns. You now have, in the case of Julia Salazar’s race for the New York State Senate (whose campaign I really encourage you to donate to), an incumbent, Martin Dilan, who’s trying to forgo an election challenge from her simply by forcing Salazar off the ballot, with the help of, you guessed it, the least democratic branch of the government: the courts. I can imagine the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) folks saying to these Dems: you really want to have a debate with us about democracy? Bring it on.

And last you have this very sophisticated take by Seth Ackerman, who has become in a way the intellectual guru behind the whole DSA strategy, on how the party system in America works. Right around the 2016 election, Seth wrote a widely read (and cited) piece, which has become something of a Bible among the DSA set, on how to think about a left party that can avoid some of the pitfalls of third-party strategies in the US.

Here, in this interview with Daniel Denvir, the Terry Gross of the socialist left, Seth explains how much our two-party system looks like those one-party states that socialists of the 20th century spent their lives either defending or being forced to criticize in order to demonstrate their bona fides.

Again, what I think this shows is that, maybe for the first time in a very long time, socialists have the democracy side of the argument on their side.

Here’s Seth:

In most places in the world, a political party is a private, voluntary organization that has a membership, and, in theory at least, the members are the sovereign body of the party who can decide what the party’s program is, what its ideology is, what its platform is, and who its leaders and candidates are. They can do all of that on the grounds of basic freedom of association, in the same way that the members of the NAACP or the American Legion have the right to do what they want with their organization.

In the United States, that’s not the case at all with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We’ve had an unusual development of our political system where, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the bosses of the two major parties undertook a wave of reforms to the electoral system that essentially turned the political parties into arms of the government, in a way that would be quite shocking — you could even say “norm-eroding” — in other countries.

If you took a comparative politics class in college during the Cold War, it would have discussed the nature of the Communist system, which was distinguished from a democratic system by the merger of the Party and the state, becoming a party-state. Well, the United States is also a party-state, except instead of being a single-party state, it’s a two-party state. That is just as much of a departure from the norm in the world as a one-party state.

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules. And of course when we say state governments, who we’re talking about the Democrats and the Republicans.

So it’s a kind of a cartel arrangement in which the two parties have set up a situation that is intended to prevent the emergence of the kind of institution that in the rest of the world is considered a political party: a membership-run organization that has a presence outside of the political system, outside of the government, and can force its way into the government on the basis of some program that those citizens and members assemble around.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose candidacy I’ve championed and worked for since May, had a bad moment late last week.

Appearing on the reboot of Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez was asked by conservative host Margaret Hoover to explain her stance on Israel. The question left Ocasio-Cortez tongue-tied and equivocating. Here was the exchange:

MH: You, in the campaign, made one tweet, or made one statement, that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza and called it a “massacre,” which became a little bit controversial. But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?

AOC: Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist. I am a proponent of a two-state solution. And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel. For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer, if sixty people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if sixty people were killed in the South Bronx — unarmed — if sixty people were killed in Puerto Rico — I just looked at that incident more through . . . through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores. But I am —

MH: Of course the dynamic there in terms of geopolitics —

AOC: Of course.

MH: And the war in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.

AOC: Well, yes. But I also think that what people are starting to see at least in the occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition, and that to me is just where I tend to come from on this issue.

MH: You use the term “the occupation of Palestine”? What did you mean by that?

AOC: Oh, um [pause] I think it, what I meant is the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.

MH: Do you think you can expand on that?

AOC: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d also just [waves hands and laughs] I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words [laughs] I know this is a very intense issue.

MH: That’s very honest, that’s very honest. It’s very honest, and when, you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides and visit Israel and visit the West Bank and —

AOC: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s one of those things that’s important too is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx, I come from a Puerto Rican background, and Middle Eastern politics was not exactly at my kitchen table every night. But, I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country, and I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue like I think many Americans are.


Let’s be clear. This is not good. Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern, and that affirming that right is the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

Even within the constraints of American electoral politics, there are better ways — better left ways — to deal with this entirely foreseeable question. Not only was this a bad moment for the Left but it was also a lost opportunity: to speak to people who are not leftists about a major issue in a way that sounds credible, moral, and politically wise.

As soon as I saw this exchange, I posted about it on Facebook. [click to continue…]

A long piece by Michiko Kakutani on “The death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump” is making the rounds. In it, Kakutani quotes Arendt:

Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the 20th century, and both were predicated on the violation and despoiling of truth, on the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today…


This is an Arendt quote that gets thrown around a lot these days, for obvious reasons, but it gives a very partial view of Arendt’s position on truth and lies. Sam Moyn pointed this out on Twitter. Sam also urged folks to read Martin Jay’s book on the question of lies and politics, which includes an extensive discussion of Arendt.

I haven’t read Jay’s book, but I did read a draft of it, or part of it, for a talk he gave at Columbia years ago. It was the Lionel Trilling Seminar, and I, along with Princeton poltical theorist George Kateb, was asked to be one of the discussants. I remember being a little discomfited by Jay’s treatment of Arendt. So I dug up my comment, and thought I’d reproduce it below. I think it suggests why Kakutani’s gloss is too simple, but also why Jay’s gloss (at least the earlier version of it; again, I didn’t read the final book) may be too simple, too.

The bottom line, for me, about Arendt’s treatment of lies and liars is this: One of the reasons she was so unnerved by liars was that the way they did politics was so close to how she thought politics ought to be done. She wasn’t endorsing lying or embracing liars. She just thought the distinction between the liar and the truth-teller was too easy because opposing oneself to reality—which is what the liar is doing, after all—is part of what it means to act politically. Part of what it means; not all of what it means. For Arendt also thinks there is a necessary dimension of factuality that undergirds our political actions. It’s part of our task as political beings to preserve that web or ground of factuality. It is between these two dimensions—opposing oneself to factuality, preserving factuality—that the political actor, and the liar, ply their trades.

By the way, I should note the date of that exchange with Jay: October 2008. We were still in the Bush era. The entire discussion—of lies and facts, the disregard for facts, and such—was framed by the Iraq War and the epic untruths that were told in the run-up to the war. It should give you a sense that the world of fake news that so many pundits seem to have suddenly awakened to as a newborn threat has been with us for a long time. The Bush era may seem like ancient history to some, but in the vast, and even not so vast, scheme of things, it was just yesterday.

Here are my remarks about truth and lies, Arendt and Martin Jay. [click to continue…]

In the wake of the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s been a dramatic shift in mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—toward Sanders-style positions. People who were lambasting that kind of politics in 2016 are now embracing it—without remarking upon the change, without explaining it, leaving the impression that this is what they believed all along.

As you can imagine, this causes no end of consternation in certain precincts of the left. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their change in position, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And for some less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016; they feel that they were unfairly maligned; they want folks to own up to it. That’s understandable from a human point of view, but it’s not really the way you build a coalition or a movement. Every mass movement is built on converts, and if the first thing a convert hears when they show up at the shul is ” Apologize. Apologize. Pull out his eyes.” (mixing my cultural touchstones here, I realize)—well, you can see where this is going. Or not going. If the left is going to grow, everyone should be welcome to join, without having to hand over a bill of lading upon their arrival.

But I’m not bringing this up now either to settle scores or to enforce some kind of norm of the welcome mat. I’m actually just super interested in this phenomenon, in this kind of change at the both the human and the political level. By “this kind of change” I don’t meant the deep transformations that some political people undergo over the course of a lifetime: the proverbial Whittaker Chambers-style migration from left to right, for example, that we saw throughout the 20th century. That’s a deep, one-time change that you don’t easily go back on. I mean more these micro-shifts that happen under the pressure of events, the subtle coercions of new opinion, the ever-finer movements we all make to keep up with the flow, so as not to be left behind.

I just finished reading the letters of Thomas Mann, who’s an exemplary figure in this regard. Leading up to World War I, he was a fairly standard old-school conservative militarist/nationalist. That continued until the end of the war. After the war, he became a dedicated liberal defender of Weimar. Once the Nazis took over, his liberalism morphed into a humanist anti-fascism. By the end of the war, that antifascism had come to include overt sympathy with communism and the Soviet Union (he even praised Mission to Moscow on aesthetic grounds!) That continued into the late 1940s, when he supported Henry Wallace for president and was outspoken in his opposition to HUAC.

But then, around 1950 or so, you begin to see, ever so slightly and subtly, Mann’s opinions starting to change once again. He never comes out in defense of McCarthyism, but you begin to feel a chill and distance toward the left. His criticisms of the repression in the US begin to modulate and moderate. Till finally, in a 1953 letter to Agnes Meyer, his close friend and matriarch of The Washington Post, he confesses that he has decided not to publicly oppose McCarthyism in the New York Times. He reports to her that when he was asked—”probably by someone on the ‘left’”—what he thinks about the censorship and restrictions on freedom in the US, this was his reply: “American democracy felt threatened and, in the struggle for freedom, considered that there had to be a certain limitation on freedom, a certain disciplining of individual thought, a certain conformism. This was understandable.” Though he adds some sort of anodyne qualification at the end of that.

It just about broke my heart. That “left” in scare quotes (previously Mann had seen himself as a part of the left), the clichés about freedom and the Cold War, the betrayal of all that he had said and done in the preceding decades—and most important, the seeming inability to see that he was betraying anything at all.

Who was the real Thomas Mann? The German militarist, the Weimar liberal, the humanist antifascist, the Popular Fronter, the Cold War liberal? Who knows? All of them, none of them? I think in the end, his most authentic moment was probably during the 1920s and early 1930s, when he made the migration from German nationalist to humanist antifascist. That was the one true shift that he could endure and narrate. But everything after that? It was just the way the game was being played. And he was a player. Not a self-conscious, strategic player. More un-self-conscious, moving with the times. Less player than played. As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But always without seeming to realize what he was doing. Watching how his positions changed—within a very short period of time—without him even seeing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.

During the McCarthy years, Arendt wrote in a letter to Jaspers how terrified she was of the repression. It wasn’t just the facts of the coercion she saw everywhere. It was how quickly it happened, how the mood of the moment had gone so suddenly from a generous and capacious liberalism to a cramped anticommunism. “Can you see,” she wrote, “how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun.” Victor Klemperer notices and narrates a similar shift among his friends and colleagues in his diaries of Nazi Germany.

We’ll never know what combination of incentives and forces and genuine beliefs are at play in one person’s shifting positions. And like I said, I welcome the change that is happening today. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was sometimes unsettled by it. Particularly when it’s unacknowledged.

Intellectuals like to think of themselves as above this kind of thing, but I think we’re especially prone to it. We live in the world of ideas, with an emphasis on that word “world.” The world is not what goes on in our heads; it’s what’s happening out there, between heads. Intellectuals want to be in that space of the in-between (that space was something Arendt talked about a lot). They want to be in the swim. That can make them chameleons of the first order.

Intellectuals are probably not that different from anyone else in this regard, but they do like to take and defend positions as if they were emanations of pure reason. Or the products of an unblinkered empiricism. The proverbial “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Which always gets attributed to Keynes but was in all likelihood said by Paul Samuelson.

I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.

Among intellectuals, that doesn’t always lend itself to an honest narration of change. Just the opposite: it can become an ever-shifting, ever-more baffling, and often unacknowledged, litany of changes.

Not sure what there is to be said about that. Just noting how universal, if sometimes eerie, it is.

The Creative Class Gets Organized

by Corey Robin on June 6, 2018

The staff of The New Yorker—the people behind the scenes: editors, fact checkers, social media strategists, designers—are unionizing. They’ve even got a logo: Eustace Tilly with his fist raised. If you’re a loyal reader of the magazine, as I am, you should support the union in any way you can. Every week, they bring us our happiness; we should give them some back. They’re asking for letters of solidarity; email them at newyorkerunion@gmail.com.

If you look at their demands, they read like a tableaux of grievances from today’s economy: no job security, vast wage disparities, no overtime pay, a lot of subcontracting, and so on.

The creative class used to see itself and its concerns as outside the economy. Not anymore.

A few years back, I read Ved Mehta’s memoirs of his years at The New Yorker under editor William Shawn. Shawn helped Mehta find his first apartment: he actually scouted out a bunch of places with a real estate broker and wrote Mehta letters or called him about what he had seen. Shawn got Mehta set up with a meal service. The money was flowing. Again, not anymore.

The sea change isn’t just economic; it’s also cultural.

When we first started organizing graduate employees at Yale in the early 1990s, we got a lot of hostility. And nowhere more so than from the creative class. People in the elite media really disliked us. Many of them had left grad school or gone to fancy colleges, and we may have reminded them of the people they disliked when they were undergrads. (Truth be told: sometimes we reminded me of the people I disliked when I was an undergrad.) In any event, they saw us as pampered whiners, radical wannabees, Sandalistas in seminars. It was untrue and unfair. It didn’t matter. Liberals have their identity politics, too.

As some of you know, my union experience didn’t end happily. I lost three out of four of my dissertation advisers. And two of them wound up writing me blacklisting letters. After that, I wrote a mini-memoir-ish essay about the whole experience. I had great ambitions to be a personal/political essayist; this was my first stab at the genre. Part of my dissertation had been on McCarthyism and the blacklist, so I wove that into my essay: the experience of writing a dissertation that I wound up living a version of in real life.

I shopped it around to The New Yorker. I even called a top editor there after they turned it down. He answered the phone. That’s how things rolled back then. It was an awkward conversation.

I sent the essay to another top magazine. An editor there read and rejected it. I can’t remember if we spoke on the phone or corresponded by mail, but I remember his objection clearly. He didn’t like my comparison between my being blacklisted and McCarthyism. McCarthyism, he said, was about people going to jail; my essay was about people losing jobs and careers (which had happened to one of my fellow unionists, a student of the conservative classicist Donald Kagan).

The editor, of course, was wrong about that. Relatively few people went to jail under McCarthyism. Thousands upon thousands, however, lost their jobs and careers. That’s what McCarthyism was: political repression via employment. It didn’t matter. He knew what he knew.

Fifteen years later, there was a union drive at the magazine where this editor worked. He led it. He was fired.

My piece wasn’t great; it should have been rejected. I was an amateur, and it needed work. But I can’t help feeling that some part of the disconnect back then—the easy ignorance and confident incuriosity that so often pass in the media for common sense—had to do with where the creative class was in the 1990s: liberal on everything but unions.

Again, not anymore.

Conservatism and the free market

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2018

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers.

The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse.

But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this.

Here’s the National Review on my book:

At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored.

And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and the modern conservative movement), to me, as quoted in my book:

 

The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.

I have a piece in The Chronicle Review about a genre that has annoyed me for some time:

Every few years an essay appears that treats the question of sexual harassment in the academy as an occasion to muse on the murky boundaries of teaching and sex. While a staple of the genre is the self-serving apologia for an older male harasser, the authors are not always old or male. And though some defend sex between students and professors, many do not. These latter writers have something finer, more Greek, in mind. They seek not a congress of bodies but a union of souls. Eros is their muse, knowledge their desire. What the rest of us don’t see — with our roving harassment patrols and simpleminded faith in rules and regulators — is the erotic charge of education, how two particles of mind can be accelerated to something hotter. In our quest to stop the sex, we risk losing the sexiness. Against the discourse of black and white, these writers plea for complexity: not so that professors can sleep with their students but so that we can speak openly and honestly about the ambiguities of teaching, about how the most chaste pedagogy can generate a spark that looks and feels like — maybe is — sexual attraction.

I call this genre The Erotic Professor.

The latest addition is Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran’s “The Erotics of Mentorship,” which recently appeared in the Boston Review. Like many practitioners of the genre, Figlerowicz and Ramachandran are professors of literature. (You’ll never find a professor of chemistry or demography among the authors of such pieces.) Also like many practitioners, they have a high estimation of the academy’s sexiness. “There are perhaps no places more vulnerable to the intertwining of work and romance,” they tell us, “than colleges and universities.” That belief, of course, reflects the happenstance of their being in the academy rather than any empirical comparison of the academy to other workplaces. The office romance is a ubiquitous feature of the culture, after all, its settings as various as a bar (Cheers), a detective agency (Moonlighting), a paper company (The Office), and an insurance firm (The Apartment).

One of the conventions of the genre, in fact, is for the erotic professor to imagine what her students must be feeling by reference to what she once felt, and then to state that feeling as if it were a universal law (“intellectual magnetism, a notoriously protean force, often shades into erotic attraction”), scarcely noticing that when she had that feeling, she was a student on her way to becoming a professor. What about the student on her way to becoming an HR rep? Or an accountant?

The question never arises because the real shadow talk of the erotic professor is not sex but class.


You can read more here.

 

Democracy Is Norm Erosion

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2018

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought.

And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zilblatt, two of the premier scholars of norm erosion, about the dangers of norm erosion. Nowhere in it will you find the word authoritarianism, though there is a glancing reference to “Trump’s autocratic impulses.” What you find instead is concern about “dysfunction” and “crisis.”

What you find is this: [click to continue…]

Trump’s power is shakier than American democracy

by Corey Robin on January 13, 2018

“As soon as Trump became a serious contender for the presidency, journalists and historians began analogizing him to Hitler. Even the formulator of Godwin’s Law, which was meant to put a check on the reductio ad Hitlerumsaid: ‘Go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump.’ After Trump’s election, the comparisons mounted, for understandable reasons.

A question for the political theorists, intellectual historians, and maybe public law/con law experts. The question comes at the very end of this post. Forgive the build-up. And the potted history: I’m writing fast because I’m hard at work on this Clarence Thomas book and am briefly interrupting that work in order to get a reading list.

In the second half of the 1980s, Clarence Thomas is being groomed for a position on the Supreme Court, or senses that he’s being groomed. He’s the head of the EEOC in the Reagan Administration and decides to beef up on his reading in political theory, constitutional law, and American history. He hires two Straussians—Ken Masugi and John Marini—to his staff on the EEOC. Their assignment is to give him a reading list, which they do and which he reads, and to serve as tutors and conversation partners in all things intellectual, which also they do.

These are West Coast Straussians. Both Masugi and Marini hail from the Claremont orbit in California (Masugi was in the think tank, Marino was a student). Unlike the East Coast Straussians—the Blooms and Pangles, who champion a Nietzschean Strauss who’s overtly celebratory of the American Founding but is secretly critical of natural law, natural rights, and the Framers—these West Coast Straussians follow Harry Jaffa, arguing that the American Founding is the consummation of ancient virtue in a modern idiom.

But what’s also true of these West Coast Straussians is that they are intensely interested in race. Jaffa’s great work is on Lincoln’s battle with Stephen Douglas over the question of slavery, and many of the West Coast Straussians dedicate themselves, in the 1970s and 1980s, to developing a view of the Constitution that, while acknowledging its embeddedness in slavery, nevertheless sees it as being redeemed by the egalitarian promise and natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.

This, of course, is an old struggle in American constitutionalism. Figures like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips saw the Constitution as inherently a pro-slavery document (ironically, agreeing with Chief Justice Roger Taney); Garrison said it was “dripping…with human blood.” Figures like Lincoln, Charles Sumner, and the later Frederick Douglass dissented from that view, seeing the possibilities of an anti-slavery Constitution.

The West Coast Straussians take up the latter view. Interestingly, many of them are at the forefront, in the academy (or at least among white political scientists), of introducing African-American thinkers—Douglass, DuBois, King, even Malcolm X—to the canon of American political thought.Consider, for example, this classic anthology from 1970, though as Jason Frank pointed out to me on Facebook, it’s edited by Herbert Storing, who wasn’t a West Coast Straussian. I’ve heard from not a few political scientists who got their undergraduate degrees or PhDs in the 1960s and 1970s that their first encounter with African-American political thought was in the classroom of one of these Straussians.

So these are Thomas’s tutors in the late 1980s. They lead Thomas to a natural law interpretation of the Constitution, in which the various passages of the Constitution should be interpreted (redeemed) by the egalitarian promise of the Declaration of Independence.

This, needless to say, is a somewhat heterodox view, not just on the left but also on the right. It gets Thomas into a lot of hot water during his Senate confirmation hearings—before the revelations of Anita Hill—as Joe Biden, chair of the Judiciary Committee, grills Thomas on his view that a strict defense of property rights, for example, is justified not so much by the literal words of the constitutional text but by the natural law philosophy that is said to inspire the text. (Political theory folks will be excited to learn that Thomas’s citing of Steve Macedo in various speeches plays a critical role in these contretemps. Biden thought he had Thomas in a gotcha, but it turned out to be a gotcha for Biden. But that’s another story for another day.)

Up until this weekend, I hadn’t planned to do much with this natural law moment in Thomas’s development. For the simple reason that once he’s on the Court, I see little evidence of its presence in his opinions. Despite what some scholars have claimed, I don’t find many references to natural law thinking in Thomas’s judgments, and I don’t think the real action of his opinions lies anywhere near that.

But a conversation with my friend Seth Ackerman convinced me that I should deal with this moment in my book. Not because it has any lasting impact on Thomas’s jurisprudence but for two other reasons.

First, because it shows that Thomas’s first sustained engagement with constitutional law, after law school, is motivated/inspired/animated by a single, solitary question: How is it possible to reconcile a document that is so imbricated with the institution of slavery with a fidelity to that document? From the very get-go, the most important, most pressing issue for Thomas, when it comes to the Constitution, is the question of race and slavery. Needless to say, there aren’t many recent Supreme Court justices one can say that about.

What the natural law episode reveals is precisely what Thomas told Biden during his confirmation hearings:

My purpose [in resorting to natural law] was this….You and I are sitting here in Washington, D.C., with Abraham Lincoln or with Frederick Douglass, and from a theory, how do we get out of slavery? There is no constitutional amendment. There is no provision in the Constitution. But by what theory? Repeatedly Lincoln referred to the notion that all men are created equal. And that was my attraction to, or beginning of my attraction to this approach.

Second, Thomas had two sustained periods of engagement with conservative thought. The first was in the mid 1970s, when he read Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics, and became fascinated with the question of slavery, capitalism, and black freedom. The impact of that moment over time was made evident two decades later, in a fascinating profile Jeffrey Rosen wrote for The New Yorker, in which Thomas recounted for Rosen his intimate knowledge of books like Roll, Jordan, Roll and Time on the Cross, which are classics of the debate around the relationship between slavery and capitalism. The second was in the late 1980s, in these tutorials with the West Coast Straussians.

What’s common in both moments is the presence and centrality of slavery and race. In both instances, Thomas’s engagement with the right is entirely refracted through the question of race.

And so at last we come to my question: What are the best works (articles or books) on the salience of the race question (particularly the relationship between slavery and the Constitution) in the work of these West Coast Straussians? Feel free to answer in the comments or email me at corey.robin@gmail.com.

Trump Everlasting

by Corey Robin on December 23, 2017

I’m glad I’m not a journalist. I don’t think I could handle the whiplash of the ever-changing story line, the way a grand historical narrative gets revised, day to day, the way it seems to change, week to week, often on a dime. Or a $1.5 trillion tax cut.

In my Guardian digest this week, I deal with the media’s memory, taxes, the state of the GOP, judges, sexual harassment, and leave you at the end with my assessment of where we are.

Here’s a preview:

Last week, after the victory of Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s senatorial election, the media began reporting that the Republican party was facing an epic disaster. Citing insider talk of a “political earthquake” and a “party in turmoil,” the Washington Post anticipated a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2018.

A year that began with dark premonitions of a fascist seizure of power, an autocrat’s total control of the state, seemed ready to end with sunny predictions of the Republican party losing one branch of the federal government to the opposition and a stalled right-wing agenda in Congress.

One week later, after the victory of the Republican tax cut, the media has changed its tune.

Like Trump, George W Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. Unlike Trump, Bush only won the Electoral College because of the US supreme court. Despite that added spice of illegitimacy, despite having smaller majorities in both houses of Congress (razor-thin in the Senate, almost razor-thin in the House), Bush still managed to push through massive tax cuts – and, unlike Trump, got 40 Democrats to vote with him. A full six months sooner than Trump did.

Cutting taxes is in the Republican DNA. Even an idiot can do it.

So that’s how we end 2017: on the one hand, a declining movement of the right, increasingly unpopular with the voters, trying to claim a long-term hold on power through the least democratic branch of government.

On the other hand, a rising movement of women and the left, trying to topple ancient and middle-aged injustices, one nasty man at a time.


You can continue reading here.

Moon of Alabama

by Corey Robin on December 16, 2017

My weekly digest for The Guardian, looking back on Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama with the help of Brecht and Weill, Sheldon Wolin, Matt Bruenig, and Eddie Glaude.

Some excerpts:

Since Tuesday’s Senate election in Alabama, when the mild centrist Doug Jones defeated the menacing racist Roy Moore, social media has been spinning two tunes. Politicians tweeted Lynyrd Skyrnyrd’s Sweet Home, Alabama. Historians tweeted the 1934 classic Stars Fell on Alabama.

My mind’s been drifting to The Alabama Song. Not the obvious reference from The Doors/Bowie version – “Oh, show us the way to the next little girl” – but two other lines that recur throughout the song: “We now must say goodbye … I tell you we must die.”

It’s a lyric for the left, which can’t seem to let go of its sense of defeat, even when the right loses.

After every defeat of the right, after every poll shows dangerously low approval ratings for Trump or the Republican, I hear the same response from the left, especially on social media: what about the minority of voters who still support the right? How can they do it? What is wrong with them?

Even though Tuesday’s election showed signs of a fairly large switch in the white vote of Alabama, from red to blue, even though 24% of the American people approved of Richard Nixon the day he resigned – eight points lower, incidentally, than Trump’s current approval rating – the left can’t let go of the voters who remain committed to Trumpism. Even when the candidates of those voters lose major statewide elections twice in a row. In southern states.

But the left doesn’t need to convince every last Republican of the error of their ways. It doesn’t need to put all Republican voters in the public square, forcing them to recant their beliefs. It doesn’t need Christian suasion, encouraging rightwingers to apologize and confess their sins.

In an electoral democracy, the way to break your opponents – especially opponents like these – is to demoralize them, to make them feel they are a small and isolated minority, that their cause is a loser.

On election day, the left needs to convince the right – not through voter suppression or intimidation but through rhetoric and speech – that their movement is going nowhere, so they shouldn’t either. That’s exactly what happened in Alabama, where “the biggest reason for the shift” in counties that voted for Trump last November going for Jones this December is that “GOP voters stayed home”, according to MCIMaps.

What black voters, particularly black women, have gotten instead is a lot of thank-yous. From liberals and Democrats, on Twitter and Facebook: thank youblack people, for saving “us” or America or democracy from “ourselves”.

It’s a weird move, with weird overtones. Rather than treating black people as political agents in their own right, acting in their own interest, rather than viewing black people as part of an inclusive movement of the left, the thank-you-note writers treat African Americans as if they were the indispensable helpmates of an addled white upper-middle class, a class that’s too harried, busy, or distracted to deal with the hassle of everyday life, the drudgery of daily upkeep, the housekeeping of democracy.


 Keep reading, there’s a lot more!

Back in early January, I wrote:

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation.

It’s about to come to pass.

Schumpeter famously said that taxes are the “thunder of world history.” So what kind of history are the Republicans about to make?

Here I am in The Guardian, answering that question with four takeaways on the GOP tax bill.

Meanwhile, I just stumbled on this from last year: Paul Ryan, at CPAC, asking us to “take Obamacare—not literally, but figuratively.”

Never underestimate the philosophical impulse of the right.

Next he’ll be incanting, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Read the rest of Ryan’s comments where he criticizes school lunch programs: fills the stomach, empties the soul.

Libertarian Judges Rule!

by Corey Robin on December 9, 2017

Prominent libertarian jurist Alex Kozinski has been accused of sexual harassment by six women, all of them former clerks or employees. One of the women is Heidi Bond. In a statement, Bond gives a fuller description of Judge Kozinski’s rule, sexual and non-sexual, in the workplace.

One day, my judge found out I had been reading romance novels over my dinner break. He called me (he was in San Francisco for hearings; I had stayed in the office in Pasadena) when one of my co-clerks idly mentioned it to him as an amusing aside. Romance novels, he said, were a terrible addiction, like drugs, and something like porn for women, and he didn’t want me to read them any more. He told me he wanted me to promise to never read them again.

“But it’s on my dinner break,” I protested.

He laid down the law—I was not to read them anymore. “I control what you read,” he said, “what you write, when you eat. You don’t sleep if I say so. You don’t shit unless I say so. Do you understand?”


The demands may seem peculiar, but the tyranny is typical. Employers control what workers read, when workers shit, all the time.

But Judge Kozinski has the added distinction of being one of the leading theoreticians of the First Amendment. And not just any old theorist but a libertarian theorist—he has a cameo in the film Atlas Shrugged: Part II—who claims that the First Amendment affords great protection to “commercial speech.”

Where other jurists and theorists claim that commercial speech—that is, speech that does “no more than propose a commercial transaction”—deserves much less protection than political or artistic speech, Kozinski has been at the forefront of the movement claiming that the First Amendment should afford the same levels of protection to commercial speech as it does to other kinds of speech. Because, as he put it in a pioneering article he co-authored in 1990:

In a free market economy, the ability to give and receive information about commercial matters may be as important, sometimes more important, than expression of a political, artistic, or religious nature.

And there you have it: Watching a commercial about asphalt? Vital to your well-being and sense of self. Deciding what books you read during your dinner break? Not so much.

Government regulations of advertising? Terrible violation of free speech. Telling a worker what she can read? Market freedom.

The Political Theory of Trumpism

by Corey Robin on October 12, 2017

The magazine n+1 is running an excerpt from the second edition of The Reactionary Mind, which comes out next week but is available for purchase now. The n+1 piece is titled “The Triumph of the Shill: The political theory of Trumpism.” It’s my most considered reflection on what Trumpism represents, based on a close reading of The Art of the Deal (yes, I know he didn’t write it, but it’s far more revelatory of the man and what he thinks than even its ghostwriter realized) and some of his other writings and speeches, as well as the record of Trump’s first six months in office.

Here are some excerpts from the excerpt, but I hope you’ll buy the book, too. It’s got a lot of new material, particularly about the economic ideas of the right. And a long, long chapter on Trump and Trumpism.

IN THE ART OF THE DEAL, Donald Trump tells us — twice — that he doesn’t do lunch. By the end of the first hundred pages, he’s gone out to lunch three times. Trump claims that he doesn’t take architecture critics seriously. On the next page, he admits, “I’m not going to kid you: it’s also nice to get good reviews.” Trump says the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is “the place to go” to become a great entrepreneur. In the next paragraph, he states that a Wharton degree “doesn’t prove very much.”

Inconsistency has long been Trump’s style. But while his critics seize on that inconsistency as a unique liability, yet another difference between him and his respectable predecessors on the right, a happy avowal of contradiction has been a feature of the conservative tradition since the beginning. Originally, that avowal assumed a tonier form,…

The consonance between Trump’s inconsistency and the right’s embrace of contradiction raises a deeper question: Is Trump really a conservative? For many of his critics, on the left and the right, the answer is no. Trump’s racism, irregularity, and populism, and the ambient violence that trails his entourage, are seen as symptoms of a novel disease on the right, a sign that Trump has broken with the traditions and beliefs that once nourished the movement. Yet while the racism of the Trumpist right is nastier than that of its most recent predecessors, it is certainly not nastier or more violent than the movement’s battle against civil rights in the 1960s and ’70s, in the courts, legislatures, and streets. The weaponization of racism and nativism under Trump intensifies a well-established tradition on the right, as studies of American conservatism from the 1920s through the Tea Party have shown. Likewise, the erratic nature of Trump’s White House, the freewheeling disregard of norms and rules, reflects a long-standing conservative animus to the customary and the conventional, as do Trump’s jabs against the establishment. There are important innovations in Trump’s populist appeals, but populism has been a critical element of the right from its inception.

In other words, conservatives have breached norms, flouted decorum, assailed elites, and shattered orthodoxy throughout the ages. Still, Trump does represent something new.

Yet there is an unexpected sigh of emptiness, even boredom, at the end of Trump’s celebration of economic combat: “If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer.” In fact, he has no answer at all. He says hopefully, “I’ve had a very good time making them,” and wonders wistfully, “If it can’t be fun, what’s the point?” But the quest for fun is all he has to offer — a dispiriting narrowness that Max Weber anticipated more than a century ago when he wrote that “in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.” Ronald Reagan could marvel, “You know, there really is something magic about the marketplace when it’s free to operate. As the song says, ‘This could be the start of something big.’” But there is no magic in Trump’s market. Everything — save those buttery leather pants — is a bore.

That admission affords Trump considerable freedom to say things about the moral emptiness of the market that no credible aspirant to the Oval Office from the right could.

This is what makes Trump’s economic philosophy, such as it is, so peculiar and of its moment. An older generation of economic Darwinists, from William Graham Sumner to Ayn Rand, believed without reservation in the secular miracle of the market. It wasn’t just the contest that was glorious; the outcome was, too. That conviction burned in them like a holy fire. Trump, by contrast, subscribes and unsubscribes to that vision. The market is a moment of truth — and an eternity of lies. It reveals; it hides. It is everything; it is nothing. Rand grounded her vision of capitalism in A is A; Trump grounds his in A is not A.

TRUMP IS BY NO MEANS the first man of the right to reach that conclusion about capitalism, though he may be the first President to do so, at least since Teddy Roosevelt. A great many neoconservatives found themselves stranded on the same beach after the end of the cold war, as had many conservatives before that. But they always found a redeeming vision in the state. Not the welfare state or the “nanny state,” but the State of high politics, national greatness, imperial leadership, and war; the state of Churchill and Bismarck. Given the menace of Trump’s rhetoric, his fetish for pomp and love of grandeur, this state, too, would seem the natural terminus of his predilections. As his adviser Steve Bannon has said, “A country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” Yet on closer inspection, Trump’s vision of the state looks less like the State than the deals he’s not sure add up to much.


Again, read the whole excerpt here, and then buy the book!

I’ll be doing a bunch of interviews about the book, including one with our very own Henry, so keep an eye out at my blog for more information on that.