Why Does The US Lack A Major Center-Right Party?

by John Holbo on December 31, 2017

I’m reading Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public [amazon] by Kinder and Kalmoe. I’ll report back later when I have learned something interesting. For now, I’ll point to a NY Times Erik Levitz editorial from November that discusses the book. [click to continue…]

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Fire and flood

by Henry on December 27, 2017

Relevant to the scandal in Britain about material being ‘lost’ from the National Archives, this bit from Margaret Levi’s book, Consent, Dissent and Patriotism (p.13)

More arcane is the account of a small fire that destroyed relevant materials from World War I and World War II in the Australian War Memorial. The representatives of the British government operate under strict rules of secrecy concerning a very large amount of military-related material and they uphold these rules rigorously. The Australian government operates with a greater openness. The problem arose because in the Australian war memorial were records that the British deemed secret and the Australians did not. The problem was resolved by the British, or so my reliable source tells me, by planting a mole archivist in the War Memorial. This mole lit a small fire in the relevant stacks and disappeared.

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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.

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Merry Christmas!

by John Holbo on December 25, 2017

It’s still dark out but I hear my 8 year old nephew stirring in the next room. Christmas is about to get real. Merry X-Mas to you and yours!

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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.

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On the marginal position of research on X in discipline A

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 20, 2017

In the tread following the announcement of my book, I had a brief discussion with our reader ccc about the fact that my book doesn’t engage with non-human animals. In their second comment, ccc wrote the following:

Political philosophy in general has a big problem though. It seems most authors can find some perfectly non-malicious, workload-related reason for giving non-human animals the excluded-via-footnote treatment. But the aggregate effect of all such cases is ongoing marginalization of the topic of non-humans from political philosophy. (The near complete absence of that topic on Crooked Timber over the years is a good illustration.)

Gladly there are some signs of (slow) change now, thanks in part to the “political turn” in animal ethics pioneered by among others Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson.

This type of critique is not specific to political philosophy, and should be taken seriously, so let’s discuss it outside the context of that particular book. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: door

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2017

I was going through my archives looking for black and white photos (for a competition) and this one stood out, despite its dull subject-matter.

Door, Welsh Back

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Quizzical

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2017

With the huge upsurge in the price of Bitcoin recently, I’ve been getting a lot of demand for articles putting forward my point of view: Shorter JQ: It’s an environmentally destructive Ponzi scheme that isn’t usable as a currency even for believers.

My observations on the electricity demand associated with Bitcoin made it into the ABC (Australian equivalent of BBC) News Quiz last week, which is a kind of fame, I guess.

Meanwhile, I had another piece in the Guardian, this time looking at the fact that, despite being called a “cryptocurrency”, Bitcoin is used even less as a currency now than it was several years ago. The core problem is that the system is so overloaded by miners creating new coins that processing transactions is slow, costly or both I mentioned the fact that game company Steam had stopped accepting coins and that the list of merchants accepting Bitcoin is small enough to fit on one page. Checking further I concluded that this list is out of date, but not in a good way. Lots of those included, such as Expedia, no longer accept Bitcoin, if indeed they ever did. Here’s one person’s experience. Bitcoin is now a “crypto asset” which is even more obviously a Ponzi fantasy than the original currency story.

One response I got was that transaction speed would soon be greatly improved by something called Lightning. Checking on this it appears that this is software in an alpha (very early) stage of development, which would allow any two parties to set up a transactions account separate from the main Bitcoin blockchain, and only occasionally update the main account. An analogy, for readers of a certain age, is the era before Bankcard, when, if you wanted to do something other than paying cash, you maintained a separate credit and debit account with every store you dealt with. This does not seem like the dawn of a new era to me.

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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!

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

‘Tis the season! For that uncanny one on your list who is always hard to shop for I would recommend My Favorite Thing Is Monsters [amazon]. The only bad thing about it is we have to wait a year for vol. 2. The good thing is everything else. The story. The art. The combination of those two. It’s the best graphic novel I’ve read all year. I haven’t really been excited about new comics for a while, sad to say. (I liked Seth’s latest. I always love Seth’s latest.)

As I was saying: Monsters. This one stopped me dead in my tracks, spun me around. I read it late into the night, feeling kind of weird. My cat was looking at me curiously. Then I reread parts of it. Then just stared at some of the pictures. It’s about a 10-year old girl, Karen, living in Chicago in the late 60’s, who wants to be a werewolf (but isn’t.) She’s trying to solve the mystery of the murder of the woman – Anka, a Holocaust survivor – who lived upstairs. Karen has a lot of problems in her life.

The author, Emil Ferris, has an amazing story story as well. From this NPR story:

She was a 40-year-old single mom who supported herself doing illustrations when she was bitten by a mosquito, she contracted West Nile Virus, became paralyzed from the waist down, and lost the use of her drawing hand. Fighting chronic pain, she taught herself to draw again, then reinvented herself as a graphic novelist, spending six long years creating what’s clearly an emotional autobiography.
The detailed crosshatching throughout the book is a wonder to behold. You see that cover? It’s all like that.

‘Tis also the season for me to remind you I myself have a fine, uncanny Christmas work available on Amazon. It makes a fine stocking-stuffer. Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness, A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep: A Truly Awful Christmas Volume.

The book will also test your eyesight – in a good way, I say. All those finicky ligatures I added, just to make your eyes water. [click to continue…]

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The Cat, The Goof and Musical Mose – Some Notes

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

I’ve been meaning to write something about Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books [amazon]. It’s caused some fuss. But I was already a Nel reader because, as a sometime Seussian myself, I read and enjoyed and learned a lot from his earlier book Dr. Seuss: American Icon.

There is an inherent risk that any degree of analytic subtly and investigative archaeology breeds ethical over-sensitivity, in a case like this. It isn’t scholarship if it doesn’t bring to light something a reasonably intelligent, moderately informed reader might miss. It isn’t dangerous to tender young minds if it sails over their heads. No 5-year old is going to notice the Cat owes a visual debt to minstrelsy, much less that Dr. Seuss apparently took some visual inspiration from a white-gloved African-American elevator operator named Annie Williams. Who knew? If that’s the concern, maybe it’s not much of one. (Not in the same league as giving a slightly older kid an original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the original, racist Oompa-Loompa illustrations. Here is Nel on the subject, some years ago.)

Since conservatives are super-hyper-sensitive to the risk that someone besides their snowflake-y selves might be even slightly over-sensitive, it’s pretty much impossible for Nel to broach his whole topic without ‘triggering’ the fainting couch set, be he ever so mild about minatory whispers in your shell-like.

But fair is fair: let me give an example of analysis and plausible harm wires maybe getting crossed. [click to continue…]

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The Capability Approach: an Open Access TextbookPlus

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 11, 2017

So, folks, here it is, my book on the capability approach that has been in the works for a very long time. I’m very happy that it is finally published, I am happy that you can download the PDF for free at the publisher’s website, and that the paperback version is also about half the price of what a book with a university press would cost (and a fraction of the price it would cost if published by one of the supercommercial academic presses whose names shall not be mentioned here).

I am not going to sell you my book – in a literal sense there is no need to sell you anything since you can download the book (as a PDF) for free from Open Books Publishers’ website (and I have no material interest in selling you hardcopies since I will not receive any royalties). And in a non-literal sense I should not sell this book either, since it is not up to me to judge the quality of the book. So I’ll only make three meta-comments. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Newport transporter bridge

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2017

Newport Transporter Bridge

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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.

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The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.) [click to continue…]

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