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coreyrobin

Donald Trump: The Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party

by Corey Robin on September 27, 2016

Two takes on last night’s debate, one from last night, one from this morning.

1.


The single biggest impression I took away from tonight’s debate—beyond the fact that Clinton clearly dominated (with the exception of the opening discussion on jobs and trade)—is how thoroughly conventional a Republican Donald Trump is.

On economics, Trump’s main platform is tax cuts and deregulation. On race and social policy, his main platform is law and order. On foreign policy, his main policy is, well, actually I don’t know. Something about good deals and fee for services.

For all the talk of Trump as somehow a break, both in terms of substance and style, with Republican candidates past, virtually everything he said last night—again, with the exception of his talk on trade and, maybe, NATO—hearkened back to Republican candidates and nominees of the 1970s and 1980s.

With this difference: Trump is a spectacularly ineffective communicator. That Derridean drip of sentences without subjects, references without referents: it’s like a street that goes nowhere. Not even to a dead end.

As for Clinton, [click to continue…]

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I’ve got an essay in Raritan about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and the problem of value.

The essay is part of my long-term book project, on the political theory of capitalism, which I’ll be coming back to once I’m done with my book on Clarence Thomas (though I’ve been periodically teaching on the topic at the Graduate Center as a preparatory to writing the book). You could read the essay as a kind of prequel to this other essay I wrote on Nietzsche and Hayek and the problem of value.

The idea of the book is to look at how theorists and philosophers (and even some economists) conceived of capitalism less as an economic system and more as a political system, at several junctures in time. Part I will look at the idea of capitalism in the so-called Age of Democratic Revolution, from 1776 to 1848, mostly focused on Britain and France, with an extended detour through Haiti. Part II will turn to the US and the Americas, with a special focus on the idea of capitalism during the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, roughly 1830 to 1876. Part III will return to Europe, taking us from 1865 to 1945, with a focus on the idea of capitalism during the rise of fascism and the radical right as a counter to socialism and the left. Part IV will take us across the globe, in the post-1945 era, as we look as the idea of capitalism during the slow ascendancy of neoliberalism as a second counter, or answer, to socialism and the left.

This Raritan essay, on Burke and Smith, reflects some of the ideas I intend to explore in Part I. Among other things, it challenges the widespread notion of Burke the traditionalist as somehow a steadfast critic of the emerging order of the monied man. It is Smith rather than Burke, as we’ll see, who offers the more scathing critique of that emerging order.

Here are some excerpts: [click to continue…]

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent oped by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says: [click to continue…]

Phyllis Schlafly, 1924-2016

by Corey Robin on September 6, 2016

News reports are coming in that Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime conservative anti-feminist who helped defeat the ERA and propel the Republican Party to power, has died.

Despite the tremendous damage she did to women, and progressive causes more generally, I had a great deal of respect for Schlafly, not least because she was a woman who managed to navigate—and amass—power in a man’s world, all the while denying that that was what women wanted at all.

That denial, coupled with the rampant sexism of her world, cost her dearly. It was none other than Catharine MacKinnon, her most formidable antagonist, who caught the full measure of Schlafly’s greatness, and tragedy, in two 1982 debates with Schlafly over the ERA: [click to continue…]

On Corruption at CUNY

by Corey Robin on August 30, 2016

The New York Times reports this morning:


The City University of New York is investigating whether a recent $500,000 donation intended to bolster the humanities and arts at its flagship school may have been improperly diverted.


The inquiry was prompted by senior faculty members at the school, the City College of New York, who learned that an account that should have contained roughly $600,000, thanks to the donation, had just $76. Faculty members asked City College officials for an explanation, but were met with “silence, delay and deflection” before appealing directly the university’s chancellor, James B. Milliken. Mr. Milliken then asked Frederick P. Schaffer, the university’s general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, to look into the “the expenditure of monies donated,” according to documents obtained by The New York Times.



This is part of a followup to a piece the Times ran last spring, which I blogged about, and which claimed:


Documents obtained by The Times indicated that the college’s 21st Century Foundation paid for some of Ms. Coico’s personal expenses, such as fruit baskets, housekeeping services and rugs, when she took office in 2010. The foundation was then reimbursed for more than $150,000 from CUNY’s Research Foundation. That has raised eyebrows among governance experts, because such funds are typically earmarked for research.



It’s unclear what the $600,000 went to, and who made the decision. Hence, the investigation, which involves federal prosecutors. But at a minimum, it seems clear that the money was used for purposes it was not earmarked for.

I used to think that corruption was just one of those do-gooder good-government-type concerns, a trope neoliberal IMF officials wielded in order to force capitalism down the throat of developing countries. After years of hearing about stuff like this at CUNY, and in some cases seeing much worse, I’ve come to realize just how corrosive and politically debilitating corruption is. It’s like a fungus or a parasite. It attaches itself to a host, a body that is full of possibility and promise, a body that contains so much of what we hope for, and it feeds off that body till it dies.

One of the reasons why, politically, it’s worse when corruption happens at an institution like CUNY or in a labor union—as opposed to the legalized or even illegal corruption that goes on at the highest reaches of the political economy—is that these are, or are supposed to be, sites of opposition to all that is wrong and wretched in the world. These are institutions that are supposed to remove the muck of ages.

It’s hard enough to believe in that kind of transformative work, and those kinds of transformative institutions, under the best of conditions. But when corruption becomes a part of the picture, it’s impossible.

Corruption is pure poison. It destroys everything. Even—or especially—the promise of that transformation.

Great Minds Think Alike

by Corey Robin on August 25, 2016

In a pathbreaking ruling, the National Labor Relations Board announced yesterday that graduate student workers at private universities are employees with the right to organize unions.

For three decades, private universities have bitterly resisted this claim. Unions, these universities have argued, would impose a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach on the ineffably individual and heterogenous nature of graduate education. Unions might be appropriate for a factory, where all the work’s the same, but they would destroy the diversity of the academy, ironing out those delicate and delightful idiosyncrasies that make each university what it is. As virtually every elite university now facing an organizing drive of its graduate students is making clear (h/t David Marcus for discovering these particular links).

Here, for example, is Columbia:


What if an individual student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?





Yes. Collective bargaining is, by definition, collective in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for explicitly in the contract.





Here’s Yale:
10. What if an individual graduate student disagreed with a provision in the contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?
Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collective in nature. That means that the union speaks for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the agreement.

Here’s the University of Chicago:

What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining is, as it sounds, collectivist in nature. This means that the union speaks and acts for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract it negotiates apply to all unit members, unless exceptions and differences are provided for in the contract.

And here’s Princeton:
What if an individual graduate student objected to a provision in the labor contract? Would he or she still be bound by it?

Yes. Collective bargaining focuses on graduate students as a group, not as individuals. This means that a union would speak and act for all graduate students in the bargaining unit, and the provisions in the labor contract would apply to all unit members, unless exceptions are provided for in the contract.


Casual readers might conclude that the only thing standardized and cookie-cutter about unions in elite universities is the argument against them.

Or perhaps it’s just that great minds sometimes really do think alike.

Donald Trump is the least of the GOP’s problems

by Corey Robin on August 18, 2016

The Associated Press ran a story earlier this week on the continuing crack-up of the Republican Party:

As he [Trump] skips from one gaffe to the next, GOP leaders in Washington and in the most competitive states have begun openly contemplating turning their backs on their party’s presidential nominee to prevent what they fear will be wide-scale Republican losses on Election Day.

Republicans who have devoted their professional lives to electing GOP candidates say they believe the White House already may be lost. They’re exasperated by Trump’s divisive politics and his insistence on running a general election campaign that mirrors his approach to the primaries.


The central weakness of the article—like so much of the reporting on the election this year—is that it posits Trump as the source of the party’s crack-up.

In actual fact, the seeds of the decline of the GOP and conservatism were sown long ago. That decline has little to do with the weaknesses of any candidate or elected official, mistakes this one or that one might have made. To the contrary, the decline reflects the strengths and achievements of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Both the party and the movement, in other words, are victims of their success.

The candidacy of Donald Trump, for all its idiosyncrasies, is symptomatic of two cycles of political time: one peculiar to the Republican Party, the other to the conservative movement. [click to continue…]

Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner.

A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy.

Anyway, I recommend Tanenhaus’s article for a variety of reasons: great narrative pace, with that perfect balance of distance and engagement; it blows hot and cold exactly where and when you need it to; and it moves with an almost symphonic sense of time, back and forth across the decades and centuries.

But here are three things I wanted to comment on. [click to continue…]

Trump’s Indecent Proposal

by Corey Robin on August 2, 2016

One of the most storied, Aaron Sorkin-esque moments in American history—making the rounds this weekend after Donald Trump’s indecent comment on Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC—is Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation with Joe McCarthy. The date was June 9, 1954; the setting, the Army-McCarthy hearings.

It was then and there that Welch exploded:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

People love this moment. It’s when the party of the good and the great finally stared down the forces of the bad and the worse, affirming that this country was in fact good, if not great, rather than bad, if not worse. Within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate. Within three years, he’d be dead.

Citing the Welch precedent for the Trump case, Politico perfectly captures the conventional wisdom about the confrontation:

For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone with no skeletons in his proverbial closet, whose integrity was unquestionable, and whose motives were purely patriotic. The audience in the senate chamber burst into applause.

 

But there are two little known elements about this famous confrontation that call that fairy tale into question. [click to continue…]

So Donald Trump Jr. went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi this week, where he said, vis-a-vis the Mississippi state flag, which is the only state flag that still invokes the Confederacy, “I believe in tradition.” Those Neshoba County fairgrounds are just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi. The place indelibly associated with the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. So that tells you a lot about Donald Trump. Junior and Senior.

But it also tells you a lot about the Republican Party. Thirty-six years ago, almost to the day, Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the presidency, also went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. There, he said, “I believe in states’ rights.” That, of course, had been the slogan for decades of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Like father, like son; like Reagan, like Trump.

But it also tells you something about the Democratic Party. [click to continue…]

Gag Me With Calhoun

by Corey Robin on July 27, 2016

After weeks of embarrassing publicity and political mobilization, Yale University has been forced to rehire Corey Menafee, an African American employee who was fired for smashing a stained glass window at Yale’s Calhoun College that depicted slaves shouldering bales of cotton. For over a year, Calhoun College has been the subject of intense national controversy because it is named after one of America’s foremost defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Menafee’s actions, firing, and now rehiring gave expression, and amplification, to the controversy.

But now there’s a new source of controversy: one of the conditions of Menafee’s rehiring is that he keep his mouth shut about the case.

But in a move more familiar in corporate labor proceedings than in an academic setting dedicated to free discourse, the university included in the agreement to rehire Menafee a provision that he will no longer be able to speak publicly about his case, the university confirmed….Provision #8 in the agreement reads: “The parties agree that neither Mr. Menafee, the Union, nor the University, nor counsel for any of these, will make any further statements to the public.”

The provision sparked outrage from demonstrators who stood in support of Menafee over the past two weeks.


While gag orders like this are indeed routine in corporate litigation and settlements, the restriction on employee speech is even more routine in workplaces across America. Indeed, for workers in the United States, it is the rule rather than the exception.

But that’s not what makes this particular gag order so interesting. [click to continue…]

Last night, Donald Trump shocked the world, or at least the pundit class, when the New York Times published a wide-ranging interview Trump had given the paper on the subject of foreign policy.

Trump said some scary things: that he didn’t think, for example, that the US should necessarily come to the aid of a NATO country if it were attacked by Russia.

But he also said some things that were true. Like this:

When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.

And while the article makes a muchness of Trump’s refusal to pressure Turkey over its response to the failed coup, the fact is that Obama hasn’t done anything concrete on that score either (as the article acknowledges). Nor did Obama do much about the coup in Egypt or Honduras. To the contrary, in fact.

But that wasn’t the focus of last night’s chatter on Twitter. Instead, the pundits and experts were keen to establish the absolutely unprecedented nature of Trump’s irresponsibility: his recklessness when it came to NATO,  his adventurism, his sheer reveling in being the Bad Boy of US Foreign Policy: this, it was agreed, was new.

In a tweet that got passed around by a lot of journalists, Peter Singer, senior fellow at the New America Foundation (who’s written a lot of books on US foreign policy), had this to say:


Hmm, let’s see. [click to continue…]

1.



A king who enjoins inhuman deeds

Will find enough retainers, who for grace and payment

Avidly accept half the anathema.


—Goethe, Iphigenia in Taurus


2.




In 1942, Albert Speer drafted a decree that made it a crime, punishable by death, to provide false information about raw materials, labor, machinery or products. Himmler thought it was too harsh.



3.



So contemptuous of bureaucracy and paperwork was Speer that he welcomed the Allied bombing raids on Berlin in November 1943, which partially destroyed his ministry’s offices. In a memo, he wrote:

[click to continue…]

The Clinton campaign made a major announcement today:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will pursue a debt-free college for all policy, including a proposal to eliminate the cost of college tuition for a significant portion of the public.

Clinton’s new proposals move her beyond previous statements that she would try to make college “as debt-free as possible“ and toward making “debt-free college available to all.”

Clinton is adding three features to her plan for higher education policy, called the “New College Compact.“ They include eliminating tuition at in-state public universities for families making under $125,000 by 2021 and restoring year-round Pell Grant funding so students can take summer classes to finish school quicker.


The plan isn’t great. I think means-testing higher ed makes about as much sense as means-testing Social Security or elementary school (though, alas, we still do that in this country through local funding and property taxes). I would have preferred free higher ed for everyone.

That said, and assuming Clinton can get this plan through (a big assumption), this is still a big step forward. For three reasons.

First, lots of men and women—students and their families—will get this benefit, not in a far-off time, but soon. And make no mistake: whether you’re going to CUNY, where annual tuition is a little over $6000, or Berkeley or Michigan, where in-state tuition is about $13,000, this will come as welcome relief to a lot of people.

Second, and more important for the long term, I’ve been saying forever that the biggest challenge facing contemporary liberalism is that, from the point of view of the average taxpayer, it has so little to offer. Imagine you’re someone who lives in a house with the median household income of about $54,000 per year. You pay your taxes, but what do you concretely get for the taxes? Sure, I can point to the roads (which are often falling apart) or the schools (which are often not so good), or, down the line, to Social Security or Medicare (which, we’re often told, aren’t in great shape either, and in the case of Social Security, certainly can’t fund a retirement). But it’s hard to make the case to your average man or woman that taxes fund things that help you concretely and directly. Particularly when, at least going back to Mondale, the only message we’ve heard from Democrats on taxes is either: a) we’ll cut them; or b) we’ll increase them in order to cut the deficit and pay off the debt.

Way beyond anything between Clinton v. Sanders, this plan by Clinton is something that can, potentially, change the way people think about their taxes and what the state can do for them. It’s a step toward a political and ideological realignment.

That said, there’s this, too:

The new plan, announced by [Clinton’s] campaign Wednesday, incorporates a major plank of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) platform and is a direct result of the private meeting Clinton had with the Vermont senator in June, the campaign said.

Clinton’s embrace of one of the most popular parts of Sanders’ platform comes as she is trying to get his core supporters — including many young people worried about college debt — to enthusiastically support her candidacy in November.

Sanders gained huge support among young voters by pushing for tuition-free public colleges nationwide, and Clinton now says she would do that for families making less than $125,000.


Which brings me to my third reason.

At moments like this, you really need to get beyond the personal politics a lot of DC and media people want to make all politics into. Despite the fact that they accuse Bernie supporters of being a cult, of worshipping an ancient socialist patriarch, they’re the ones who often think of these electoral campaigns completely in terms of personality, of who’s winning and who’s losing. To my mind, this announcement today goes way beyond the Clinton/Sanders horserace or the Clinton/Trump race. If there is anyone to be celebrated here, it’s the millions of people—particularly young people—who pushed so hard during this campaign, and who have been slowly changing American politics outside the electoral realm.

One of the biggest challenges facing democracy—as opposed to liberalism—and democratic ways of thinking and doing things, is the sense, among a lot of citizens, that political action, whether in the electoral realm or the streets, doesn’t matter. That sense is not delusion; there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that on some fundamentals, it doesn’t matter, at least not yet. But you don’t change that common sense by repeating it over and over to people. Sometimes, we on the left do that. We forget that when we do, we’re not telling the average citizen anything she doesn’t already know. We’re merely repeating what she does know. And reinforcing her sense that there’s really no point in even trying to do anything, whether at the voting booth or in the streets.

It’s way too soon to say what I’m about to say, but I’ll say it anyway: If this plan of Clinton’s does come to pass—again, a big if—it could help, ever so slightly (I stress that ever so slightly), change our sense, if we claim this victory as our own (not as a beneficent handout of an elite neoliberal politician but as a response to real pressure from citizens, particularly younger citizens who have been active in so many social movements these last few years), it could help change our sense of where power lies. It could help more people see what the good activist and the smart organizer already sees: that if we could just possibly get our shit together, we might, sometimes, find power elsewhere. Not power in the abstract, but power to change the concrete terms and conditions of our daily lives.

So here’s my new (really, hardly new at all, and actually not mine) political slogan, as we enter a season of (I hope) increasing, if ultimately finite, concessions from the neoliberal state: Take this, demand more, seize all.

Update (6:45 pm)

A hepful Vox piece reports on three other elements of the Clinton college plan that we should not be thrilled about.

What you need to remember—and I had forgotten—is that today’s plan builds off the previous plans Clinton has announced. Those plans featured three elements, which, according to this article, will remain in play and will apply to the tuition-free plan:

First, the funding for the tuition-free plan will follow the Obamacare Medicaid expansion model, which—thanks to the Supreme Court—states can refuse to participate in. That’s exactly what happened with Republican states. So even within the less than $125k range, this isn’t guaranteed to be a universal benefit.

Second, students have to work ten hours a week to get the benefit. That seems like a huge boondoggle of free labor either to the university (which might wind up firing workers) or to local employers (which could do the same). Not to mention that the whole point of taxpayer-financed benefits like this is that you deserve them as a right of citizenship—and pay for them as a taxpayer—and not because you’re earning them as a worker.

John Protevi pointed out to me that in her famous Daily News interview, Clinton gave us a sense of what she had in mind:

Okay, so you’ve got the states, you’ve got the institutions and you’ve got the families, and then students who want to take advantage of debt-free tuition have to agree to work 10 hours a week. It’s work-study at the college or university, because a couple of public institutions — Arizona State University being a prime example — have lowered their costs by using students for a lot of the work. Yes, it’s free. It’s in effect in exchange for lower tuition. So I want that to be part of the deal.

And here is a nice primer on what that Arizona State program looks like in practice:
Education at Work (EAW) begins expansion outside Cincinnati, where it was founded, at Arizona State University in an innovative three-way partnership with worldwide online payments system company PayPal. Students working at the non-profit contact center will have the opportunity to earn up to $6,000 a year in GPA-based tax-free tuition assistance in addition to an hourly wage. The students will work as part-time employees in a fast-paced, collaborative contact center environment responding to social media and email inquiries.

Go PayPal!

Third, colleges and universities have to “work to lower the cost of actually providing the education — by, for instance, experimenting with technology to lower the cost of administration.” A link in the piece takes us to an article that elaborates thus:

It’s not yet clear what colleges would be required to do about costs in order to participate in the grants, but the adviser mentioned keeping spending on administration in check and using technology to lower the cost of education — for example, making it easier for some students to fulfill some requirements online. (Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, a provider of free online courses, was one of the advisers on Clinton’s plan, according to the campaign.)

The neoliberal state giveth. And the neoliberal taketh—and taketh.

 

My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

by Corey Robin on July 3, 2016

Trigger Warning: This post may upset you. [click to continue…]