Gonzo constitutionalism on the right, norm erosion on the left

by Corey Robin on October 21, 2020

I’m in the New York Review of Books this morning, offering my thoughts on the election as part of the magazine’s series on November 2020. I make three points:  

  1. The right used to be thought of as a “three-legged stool” made up of economic libertarians, statist Cold Warriors, and cultural traditionalists. Whether that characterization was accurate, it expressed an understanding of the right as a political entity capable of creating hegemony throughout society. That is no longer the case. Today, the right’s three-legged stool is an artifact, a relic, of counter-majoritarian state institutions: the Electoral College, the Senate, and the courts.
  2. However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional. The most potent source of the right’s power is neither fascism nor authoritarianism; it is gonzo constitutionalism.
  3. Should the Democrats win the White House and the Senate come November, they will have to engage in a major project of norm erosion just to enact the most basic parts of their platform. Should they do so—eliminating the filibuster, say, for the sake of achieving voting rights for all citizens—we will see that norm erosion is not how democracies die but how they are born.

Check the rest of it out here. And if all goes well, I should have a piece on the new translation of Max Weber’s Vocation Lectures coming out soon.

{ 47 comments }

1

Michael Sullivan 10.21.20 at 2:09 pm

FYI, your links are going to an article from April 13 about people power.

2

Corey Robin 10.21.20 at 2:20 pm

Thank you, fixed!

3

BruceJ 10.21.20 at 3:26 pm

Eliminating the filibuster really isn’t “norm-erosion”. It was first and foremost a tool used by the white patriarchal supremacists to counter granting equal rights to those they considered ‘lesser’.

Likewise “packing the courts”. The Supreme Courtas well as the rest of the federal judiciary has already been packed by a GOP that “eroded the norms”.

The GOP has declared the rules null and void. It’s senseless for the Democrats to continue to play by them.

Playing ‘gonzo Constitutionalism’ can work both ways. The Constitution says nothing about the makeup of the courts, save that there is a system of them.

4

afeman 10.21.20 at 3:27 pm

The question I am left with is whether there is any indication that Dems will do anything different this time. Biden’s squirreliness about the prospects of court packing angered all the right people, but then I’m supposed to believe that the talk about a bipartisan cabinet is just for show.

5

steven t johnson 10.21.20 at 3:42 pm

Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution says the House shall judge of elections. It is entirely unclear to me how a plan relying on the Supreme Cesspool (er, Court, childish of me, isn’t it?) is constitutionalism, gonzo or even sedate.

Nor is it clear to me that a majority of people do not still think that democracy means countermajoritiarianism, that majority rule as in Venezuela isn’t tyranny.

Even worse, it seems to me quite likely that the Democratic Party would split before it reformed the Senate or the judiciary or even began the abolition of the Electoral College. Victory is apt to undo them Democrats completely, leading to a final rupture with the people in favor of the donor class.

6

Corey Robin 10.21.20 at 4:18 pm

BruceJ:

The premise of your first claim is that white supremacy is somehow not a norm of American politics. But it is. Eroding that norm, which was the project of the abolitionists, the black freedom struggle, Black Lives Matter, and a great many other groups, seems like a very good thing to do. Just because something is a norm doesn’t mean that it is good.

On your second and last claim, there is a distinction between a norm and a rule, even a constitutional rule. The Constitution doesn’t require presidents to release their taxes, yet Trump’s refusal to do so is generally considered to be a violation of a norm. Interestingly, that norm only began with Jimmy Carter, i.e., less than 50 years ago. The norm of nine justices on the Supreme Court dates back considerably longer than that. Yes, there’s no constitutional rule requiring nine justices, but, again, norms are not the same as rules. The last time a president tried to challenge that norm about the size of the Court (nearly 100 years ago), he lost the fight, and most presidents haven’t dared to consider it since.

In the same way that norms may be bad or good, so may violating norms may be bad or good (I happen to think that in the case of the size of the Court, it would be a good thing).

That Democrats are being provoked to violate this norm is neither here nor there in terms of deciding whether it is a norm. Political actors all have their reasons for violating norms; whether they’re good reasons or not doesn’t change the fact that it is a norm violation.

7

Hidari 10.21.20 at 4:19 pm

In a world seemingly gone mad, Corey Robin’s analysis of Trump has been, by a very very large margin, the sanest and the most obviously correct, and those that sneered at him owe him a very big apology.

8

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.21.20 at 6:36 pm

When FDR threatened to pack the court, that was done for a purpose, clear legislative purpose.

These days, these clowns, what would be their purpose? To be able to place their relatives on bigger company boards for a longer period of time?

9

GG 10.21.20 at 9:12 pm

Corey:

Based on my reading of the above (and also your “Tyranny of the Minority” article to which it links) it seems like you’re pretty “down” on counter-majoritarian institutions as a whole. But surely such institutions aren’t always bad; sometimes the majority is a bunch of asshats and thwarting their will is a good thing by any measure.

So how do you avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

10

J-D 10.21.20 at 11:20 pm

,,, norm erosion is not how democracies die but how they are born.

Hear, hear!

(Well, to be fair, it can be how they die as well; but the fact that it is how they are born is the one which is in crying need of recognition.)

The question I am left with is whether there is any indication that Dems will do anything different this time

Well, you may not have long to wait to find out. In the meantime, if you’re not confident now, nothing anybody says to you now will give you that confidence.

Just because something is a norm doesn’t mean that it is good. … In the same way that norms may be bad or good, so may violating norms may be bad or good

Hear, hear!

Also, rules, laws, and constitutional provisions may be bad or good, and violating them may be bad or good.

When FDR threatened to pack the court, that was done for a purpose, clear legislative purpose.

These days, these clowns, what would be their purpose?

The 2020 Democratic Party platform can be found here:
https://democrats.org/where-we-stand/party-platform/

Based on my reading of the above (and also your “Tyranny of the Minority” article to which it links) it seems like you’re pretty “down” on counter-majoritarian institutions as a whole. But surely such institutions aren’t always bad; sometimes the majority is a bunch of asshats and thwarting their will is a good thing by any measure.

So how do you avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Institutions, norms, rules, laws, and constitutional provisions should be evaluated the same way you evaluate anything. Think of something about which you have a definite evaluative judgement; go through in your own mind the way you evaluate it; that’s how you evaluate something. You can evaluate in the same manner any proposal to eliminate, or to change without eliminating, or to retain without any change, any institution, norm, rule, law, or constitutional provision.

In the mid nineteenth century, a membership of nine for the Supreme Court of the United States was not an established norm; in the mid twentieth century, it was an established norm, but that fact by itself did not change the way it should be evaluated. The way to evaluate the idea of a fixed membership of nine in the mid twentieth century was the same as the way to evaluate it in the mid nineteenth century, and it’s the same way now. (Evaluations depend on the facts, and the facts now are different from the facts in the mid twentieth century, which were different from the facts in the mid nineteenth century, so the outcomes of the evaluation might be different, but the way to conduct it is the same.)

11

J-D 10.21.20 at 11:42 pm

… even when it controlled all the elected branches of government, from 2016 to 2018, the GOP wasn’t able to push many parts of its agenda through Congress (the tax cuts were the notable exception).

Is it then reasonable to consider the possibility (at least) that the tax cuts are/were the agenda, and the other things weren’t genuinely part of their agenda?

12

GG 10.22.20 at 2:39 am

J-D:

For sure, that’s a sensible response. But it seems to me that Corey’s position is more radical than that. Consider:

“There’s a considerable irony in the fact that this is now the three-legged stool of American conservatism. However dubious their democratic credentials, the Electoral College, the Senate, and the judiciary are impeccably constitutional institutions. In the American mind, the Constitution is associated with all things good and democratic, but a central purpose of the document is to check majoritarian government, giving a small group of elites the power to thwart the will of the democratic majority. That is precisely what the Republicans now are doing.”

That really reads like an indictment of couter-majoritarianism in principle rather than all-things-considered.

13

J-D 10.22.20 at 5:23 am

For sure, that’s a sensible response. But it seems to me that Corey’s position is more radical than that. Consider:

“There’s a considerable irony in the fact that this is now the three-legged stool of American conservatism. However dubious their democratic credentials, the Electoral College, the Senate, and the judiciary are impeccably constitutional institutions. In the American mind, the Constitution is associated with all things good and democratic, but a central purpose of the document is to check majoritarian government, giving a small group of elites the power to thwart the will of the democratic majority. That is precisely what the Republicans now are doing.”

That really reads like an indictment of couter-majoritarianism in principle rather than all-things-considered.

If you asked me how I would evaluate institutions which are designed to protect minorities against majority decisions, I would respond that it depends (largely) on what kind of minorities they are designed to protect, what kinds of majority they are designed to protect them against, what kind of protection they are designed to provide, and what kinds of threat they are designed to protect against.

It seems to me that what Corey Robin has written is consistent with the opinion that major counter-majoritarian institutionalised features of the US constitution are designed to provide some protection to those people who are already rich, powerful, and privileged against the possibility of the (less rich, powerful, and privileged) majority making use of the democratic features of the US constitution to reduce that differential in wealth, power, and privilege, and further that this justifies a negative evaluation. Whether or not this specific position is Corey Robin’s, it is mine.

14

reason 10.22.20 at 8:12 am

I think the right way to do counter-majoritarianism is:
1. Bill of rights – perscribing which rights inalienable rights individuals have and placing limits on their temporary infringement (as necessary in emergency situations).
2. Slow things down. By having some elected or appointed officials having longer, but not unlimited terms.
3. (Perhaps most effective) – encourage multiple parties (no first past the post system) and have independent agencies with controlling boards having representatives from every substantial party so no individual party or group of parties can control these organisations.
4. For some posts use acceptability elections (my preferred approach for instance to elect a figurehead President if it must be done – e.g. Australia) which will encourage consensus candidates and select against polarising candidates. My preferred form is to have three options for each candidate yes, no or indifferent. No votes count as -1. Indifferent as 0. If people don’t and just say yes to one of course the result would be the same as a first past the post, but my guess is that you would have more independent candidates and people would make an effort. Of course there has to be a reasonably high hurdle to jump to get on the ballot.

15

Tm 10.22.20 at 8:39 am

CR: “Just because something is a norm doesn’t mean that it is good.”

Yes, this is obviously true. Who are the strawmen you are taking down with these banalities?

“However undemocratic these three institutions may be, they are are eminently constitutional.”

If a constitution is undemocratic, and the US constitution is clearly undemocratic, then, yes, undemocratic rule can be constitutional.

“The most potent source of the right’s power is neither fascism nor authoritarianism; it is gonzo constitutionalism.”

This is an interesting statement and it could be similarly made about the Weimar Republic Extreme Right. As I don’t need to remind you, Hitler came to power by entirely constitutional means. It is really a very old hat and well known to any student of fascism that authoritarianism/fascism can make and often have made use of constitutionalism. That doesn’t make them any less authoritarian or fascist. The Nazis had the declared intention to destroy the Republic and yet they cleverly used the institutions of that very republic to facilitate its destruction. It is unsurprising that an authoritarian/fascist movement in the US would use similar means. That doesn’t make that movement any less authoritarian/fascist.

You, Corey, have consistently failed to address this important consideration and I find that deeply disappointing. [Coorected version, sorry]

16

Tm 10.22.20 at 9:31 am

One more point re your exchange with BruceJ. You state that historically, racism has been “a norm of American politics”. That is true if “norm” is what happens, but less so if by “norm” one means what most people consider good and right, consider to be a norm. I suspect that most Americans not only reject the idea that racism is a norm, but would even agree that not being racist is the norm. Few would argue that racism is good and right and a norm to be followed – even most racists claim to not be racist, because they understand that racism is seen as against the norm.

So the question of what is norm is a bit more complex, and also more malleable, than you make it to be. And for antiracists, it makes a difference whether to argue that antiracism is the norm that should be enforced, or whether to argue that racism is the norm that needs to be abolished. Arguably, the first position is by far the stronger.

17

Saurs 10.22.20 at 9:32 am

My thanks to Hidari for not only asking where Corey can get his apology but then promptly giving it to him, saving us all the bother. I suspect, however, the concern for Corey’s character assassination (by the sneering cowards X) doesn’t end here.

@ Gorgonzola Petrovna
See Corey’s #3

18

Matt 10.22.20 at 10:06 am

I’m also not sure that eliminating the filibuster is obviously “norm erosion”, unless norms can be fairly short lived, in that the fully routine use of the filibuster is itself pretty recently – it becomes super common in 2007-8, growing from there. It only become fairly common in the 90s. It tended to grow in times of modest Democratic control of the Senate, when Republicans could use it to block legislation, but not only then. Eliminating it would move use closer to the historical norm, and even closer to what things were like in the 90s than what they are like now. If we move back to a process that is more like what existed for the majority of the history of the practice, and more like what existed in recent memory, is that “norm erosion”? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me.
(This is independent of whether it’s a good idea. As noted, norms themselves can be good or bad. but, it can sometimes be useful to know if a purported norm is actually one or not, and if so, how long it’s been around, and why.)

19

Tm 10.22.20 at 10:27 am

CR: “In the American mind, the Constitution is associated with all things good and democratic”

I think I agree with Corey in this respect, that many US liberals have internalized a constitution worship, an inability or unwillingness to clearly see and address the many flaws in the US constitution. It is obvious to any outsider that this constitution is horribly outdated and in need of reform. Only Americans brought up on a diet of flag-waving patriotism can seriously believe that this is an admirable document that better should not be tampered with, let alone the envy of the rest of the world. It’s undemocratic, inspired by monarchism, often vague and in many ways simply not fit for the challenges of a modern society, and since it’s near impossible to amend, these defects cannot be solved short of a revolution.

That puts liberals into an impossible bind. Steven above predicts that “the Democratic Party would split before it reformed the Senate or the judiciary or even began the abolition of the Electoral College”. But these reforms are not within the power of the Democratic Party to enact! What should a liberal worth his or her salt do about it?

The dominant response to constitutional petrification seems to be: if we can’t change it, we learn to live with it, tweaking it where necessary with the help of a reasonable Supreme Court, making good use of the considerable latitude it after all leaves, and since this seems to have worked reasonably well in the past, let’s just pretend that all is well. I don’t think this attitude can be sustained much longer. And I also don’t see any ideas around what to do about it. Do you?

20

Tm 10.22.20 at 10:41 am

Re counter-majoritarianism. I don’t know how you GG use the term but I think there is an important distinction to make. It is one thing to check the majority by counter-majoritarian institutions. For example many constitutions can only be amended by a super-majority (just usually less “super” than in the US case, for example two thirds of Parliament in the German case), on the reasoning that the constitution should reflect a broad political consensus and not just the narrow political majority of the day. In other words, there are veto points that limit the power of the majority.

It is another thing to tweak political institutions so that government can effectively be controlled by a minority and push through an agenda that the majority explicitly rejects, as in the case of the Trump presidency, that represents a minority of 46% of voters while a plurality of 48% voted for Clinton. That is not counter-majoritarian, that is minoritarian government, it is simply undemocratic.

Btw: Congratulations to the Bolivian people for showing the world how a democratic election can also be run, properly and peacefully and legitimately despite an ongoing political crisis.

21

Corey Robin 10.22.20 at 3:07 pm

Tm: This claim re the right and the Weimar Constitution is one of the things that has become the lazy common sense about the rise of fascism in Germany, but it’s actually quite misleading, if not outright wrong. The most important piece of legislation, the architecture for the Third Reich, was the Enabling Act, which was passed in March 1933, and rather than uphold the Weimar Constitution, essentially moved to suspend it. (This is why, throughout Trump’s regime, there has been so much speculation on what would be his Enabling Act.) Between January and March, in the buildup to the Enabling Act, the Nazis and paramilitaries engaged in a systematic campaign of illegal violence and murder, and arrests; the scale was completely unprecedented. The purpose was to build up to the vote to, essentially, suspend the provisions of the Weimar Constitution. In order to hold the vote, there had to be a 2/3 quorum and 2/3 majority voting for it. Goerring illegally reduced the numbers required for the quorum; many Communist deputies who were legally elected had been illegally murdered or arrested so they couldn’t be there for the vote. Then to guarantee the vote in favor of the Act, the Nazis lined the entire chamber (the vote was held at the Kroll Opera House) with storm troopers. The Social Democrats who were there were so terrified, many of them carried cyanide capsules in case the brownshirts moved in against them. Had the institutions been so amenable to the fascists’ use, there would have been no need for such illegal violence or coercion on such a grand scale. That there were elements in the constitution that the Nazis made use of is absolutely true. My claim about the right today is that the Constitution is their main source of power. That simply was not true of the Nazis. Their electoral rise was abetted by a considerable amount of violence, and then, when they essentially voted to suspend the Constitution (again, the American right has no interest in suspending the Constitution, as it is their main source of power), they relied upon all sorts of illegal means and violence to do so. The American right, by contrast, relies for its power upon these constitutional institutions, which it has no interest in suspending.

22

Tm 10.22.20 at 3:54 pm

Corey 21, this has been studied for a very long time. The fact is that the Nazis came to power by entirely constitutional means, and consolidated power with a mixture of legalistic/constitutional and extralegal/(some would say)revolutionary means. And authoritarian governments more closer to us (e. g. currently Turkey, Russia, Hungary) similarly make use of both legalistic and extra-legal/norm-breaking means. It is worth pointing out that all these authoritarian rulers are going to great lengths to uphold the appearance of constitutional legitimacy, as did the Nazis. The Nazis were amazingly adept at this game, managing to effectively suspend the constitution with the Enabling Act as you correctly point out while pretending to follow comstitutional procedures. Not only the majority of Germans but most international observers as well considered the Enabling Act legitimate. Of course in hindsight we can deny that legitimacy. But by what objective criteria?

The GOP is going to extraordinary lengths in order to try to prevent people from voting or prevent their votes from being counted, and they often manage to get court approval for these shenanigans, due to the fact that they are in effective control of the courts. If a GOP-controlled Supreme Court (state or federal) rules an obvious breach of democracy or human rights constitutional, I think that is the same mechanism at work as in many authoritarian regimes. Most Americans believe that every citizen should be able to vote and all votes should be counted, and that elections should be fair and that the majority should win (e. g. https://www.vox.com/21526600/poll-trump-biden-youth-turnout-vote-by-mail-democracy). The GOP may try to hide behind the constitution but they are openly attacking democracy in a way that I think is unprecedented, and does constitute norm-breaking.

Regarding violence, while there is no comparison to the 1930s, Trump did encourage violence and several people have been murdered by racists and fascists. Most observers do consider that a breaking of established norms, perhaps you disagree.

23

Murc 10.22.20 at 3:55 pm

The last time a president tried to challenge that norm about the size of the Court (nearly 100 years ago), he lost the fight,

No, he didn’t. He won it hands down.

FDR didn’t give one shit about the size of the court. What he cared about was that the court was refusing to allow him and multiple, clearly expressed supermajorities of the country to govern, and they were doing so for reasons that were deeply specious. The marker FDR laid down was “let us fucking govern, or we’ll simply go the full Thomas Jefferson on your asses.”

And they decided “okay, sure.” And that was that. FDR got what he actually wanted, and where I come from getting what you want out of a fight means you won it.

Now, I suppose one could make the argument that FDR was bluffing; that even if the court had gone “no, fuck YOU” and kept striking down all his stuff, he would not have been able to muster the legislative majorities needed to pack it. But this seems dubious to me. Political coalitions will tolerate PARTS of their agenda being stymied; but what they won’t tolerate is achieving durable, popular majorities and being told that the central premises of their coalition will not be allowed to be implemented. That they won’t be allowed to govern.

24

Hidari 10.22.20 at 5:32 pm

I’m not going to flog this particular horse to death, because, at this stage, if you are still seriously arguing that Trump is The New Hitler™ then there is no reasoning with you, but one of the innumerable differences between Trump’s Republican Party and Hitler’s Nazi Party (and Mussolini’s Fascist Party etc.) was that the Nazis and Fascists were the ‘New Kids on the Block’. In other words they are outsiders trying to ‘break in’ to the existing structure, usually with the help of massive (non-state) violence. And they were led by young, angry men, who bitterly resented the Establishment and simply demanded that they be allowed to lead (cf the fact that European fascists and Nazis invariably came to power after WW1: the view, common at the time, that this was a war when old men had led young men to their deaths, is highly significant here).

The American Republican Party on the other hand, is going on 200 years old, and is led by complacent, tired, wealthy old men. They are the Establishment.

The only way round this problem for those insisting that the United States, one of the oldest and most stable of all the Western Republics/democracies, now stands quivering on the verge of tyranny/civil war, is to claim that Trump is a radical, fundamentally different force in Western politics, that Trumpism has practically no antecedents (apart from Hitler etc.) and that Trump has radically and fundamentally transformed the Republican Party into something radically new.

Which is….obviously not true. There is little that Trump has done that Romney would not have done, most of Romney’s supporters are also Trump’s, and the amount of violence that Trump has unleashed (and the vast majority of this is state violence not non-state…a huge difference between Trump and the Nazis) pales into insignificance when compared to what Bush Sr. did in similar circumstances, let alone LBJ/Nixon.

Far from terrifying the Establishment, Trump is openly ridiculed by it on late night TV (and, increasingly, daytime TV), and his inchoate and half-assed ‘revolt’ against Republican shibboleths has long since petered out: Trump now governs as a standard Republican, no ifs, ands or buts. You just need to ask yourself: what policy pronouncements has Trump made recently that Romney would not have made? The answer is that there are none. Romney might have managed Covid a bit better. That’s it.

In any case, as has been tirelessly pointed out, there is simply no equivalent in the US Constitution for a ‘total’ Enabling Act of the kind that Hitler used. As Corey also points out, to describe the Nazi coup as ‘constitutional’ is a very big stretch: Hitler had murdered no small number of his political opponents by the time of a ‘vote’ which met no one’s idea of ‘free and fair’.

tl;dr The Republicans do not and will never rebel against the Establishment. They arethe Establishment. Those who deny this are essentially arguing that the Republicans will overthrow themselves.

25

J-D 10.22.20 at 11:11 pm

Now, I suppose one could make the argument that FDR was bluffing; that even if the court had gone “no, fuck YOU” and kept striking down all his stuff, he would not have been able to muster the legislative majorities needed to pack it. But this seems dubious to me.

It’s not clear what difference it makes to the point at issue if he was bluffing. If I fold, I lose, and I don’t get to see what your hole cards were; or, even if I do find out what your hole cards and I do find out that you were bluffing, it doesn’t change the fact that I lost!

For whatever it’s worth (and I’m not sure it’s worth much), it seems to me that there’s no way FD could have known for sure whether he could have mustered that legislative majority. It seems to me that’s something nobody could have known for sure at the time, as well as being something nobody can know for sure now.

26

PatinIowa 10.23.20 at 12:27 am

Murc at 23:

I hope you’re right; I’m saddened that I’m not convinced the Democratic Party will prove this to be true:

“Political coalitions will tolerate PARTS of their agenda being stymied; but what they won’t tolerate is achieving durable, popular majorities and being told that the central premises of their coalition will not be allowed to be implemented. That they won’t be allowed to govern.”

27

chrisare 10.23.20 at 6:20 am

There is a lot of bandying about on this thread of the phrase white supremacy without provision of a definition. This loose and creative use of language to advanced preferred causes independent of facts and reason is symptomatic of the current post modernist social justice movement. It represents a significant erosion of the norms of discourse.

28

J.Bogart 10.23.20 at 6:53 am

Matt @ 18: Filibuster goes back a good deal further, which I suspect you already know, but some of your readers may not. It was an important tool of the Southern Democrats fighting civil rights legislation, and part of the reasons LBJ’s various successful efforts (as Senator and as President) to enact such legislation are (or were) remarkable. But I suppose the salient examples change with age. I am not sure how the regularity of use of a norm works in assessing it, although plainly it must matter.

29

ph 10.23.20 at 7:49 am

Welcome back, Corey and congrats on the piece.

@24 You’re right. The idea that literally a fascist would permit his government, his supporters, family, and himself to be mocked on halloween pumpkins (some of these are great), on SNL, by late-night comedians, on the front page of the press and by a very substantial percentage of the population doesn’t say much for his authoritarian credentials.

Re: the OP and New Yorker piece. Plenty of Dems are just as conservative as Republicans depending on the issue. Nor, do the older distinctions of conservative/liberal apply – if they ever did.

Reform act politicians and those after were much of a kind – branding various forms of sexist and elitist capitalism to appeal to a wealthy minority of like-minded bigots. The issues were opportunities to exploit sinecures and alliances, utterly un-related to any sense of the public good.

So, what do we get in 2020? At the end of the final debate we saw exactly the kind of choice we’d expect to see from any Republican and any Democrat of the modern era. Biden offered big government, higher taxes, and better equality of outcome. Trump warned that electing the Democrat would make the country less safe and send the economy over the cliff.

Based on the Frank Luntz independents post-debate response, Corey’s sound analysis of the GOP electoral college strengths, and Biden’s weakness among African-American males, in particular, my current call is a Trump electoral college victory similar to that in 2016, and a similar loss in the popular vote. Biden didn’t do himself any favors tonight by taking a hard stance on getting rid of fossil fuels. Winning Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania just took a big hit.

The Luntz independents also wanted to know why the media has suddenly stopped talking about Biden’s Burisma email problem – now that actual evidence has surfaced. RUSSIA DID IT AGAIN!!!! didn’t get much traction with this particular group.

Biden succeeded in looking like the same polished, lifeless, pol from the past who voters know so well, and who does so little to win their support, especially when he’s on the media loves to call Biden’s ‘A’ game. He presented himself as the only professional politician on stage: slippery, defensive, and evasive. In doing so, Biden convinced the independent voters Luntz polled to choose Trump over Biden by a large majority.

From the Luntz group: “Words to describe Trump tonight: • “Controlled” • “Reserved” • “Poised” • “Con artist” • “Surprisingly presidential”

Words to describe Biden tonight: • “Vague” • “Unspecific” • “Elusive” • “Defensive” • “Grandfatherly”

https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/10/22/luntz_focus_group_confused_why_media_wont_investigate_hunter_biden_allegations.html

30

BlueHugh 10.23.20 at 6:20 pm

Today’s GOP stool consists of the the Plutocrats, the Theocrats, and the Yahoos. Bush the Lesser won by being a Chimera of the three; Trump is a Plutocrat who bought off the Theocrats and made himself King of the Yahoos.

31

Matt 10.23.20 at 8:51 pm

J. Bogart – you are missing the point. For much of this history of the Senate, the Filibuster was an unusual tool. As you note, it was often used for bad purposes, but it was used rarely. Because of this, most legislation passed in a normal way – 51 votes were needed (or fewer, of course, when there were fewer Senators.) But, starting very slowly in the 80s, picking up steam in the 90s, and then exploding in 2008 (mostly as a way to try to block measures dealing with the emerging financial crisis, the “routine” filibuster started. Now, essentially all legislation requires 60 votes to pass. A simple majority no longer suffices. This allows for minority control of legislation, and also makes it hard for “moderates” of any party to shape legislation. This is a very major change, close to a new form of government. It’s nothing at all like the use of the filibuster in the 6os and before. This is why I think Corey is just wrong to see an attempt to return to using a normal democratic procedure to pass legislation as “norm erosion” as opposed to a return to the old norm.

32

J-D 10.23.20 at 10:21 pm

There is a lot of bandying about on this thread of the phrase white supremacy without provision of a definition.

A simple search reveals that the word ‘white’ appeared in this discussion a total of three times before this comment. The first of these instances was in the phrase ‘the White House’, the second in the phrase ‘the white patriarchal supremacists’, and the third in the phrase ‘white supremacy’.

Total number of uses of the phrase ‘white supremacy’, or related phrases: two.
Total number of times the phrase was bandied: nil.

This loose and creative use of language to advanced preferred causes independent of facts and reason is symptomatic of the current post modernist social justice movement.

Using a term without first explicitly providing a definition is not usually loose, not usually creative, not usually independent of facts, and not usually independent of reason. In most uses of language, loose and strict, creative and uncreative, independent of facts and founded on fact, independent of reason and founded on reason, terms are used without first being explicitly defined. There are sometimes good reasons to provide explicit definitions of terms before using them, but such cases are exceptional, not the rule.

Sometimes there are problems with the loose use of language, but sometimes the loose use of language is exactly what’s called for. Sometimes there are problems with the creative use of language, but sometimes the creative use of language is exactly what’s called for. The fact that language has been used loosely is not enough by itself to show that somebody has done something wrong; the fact that language has been used creatively is not enough by itself to show that somebody has done something wrong.

There is nothing wrong with advancing the causes of justice. Everybody should advance the causes of justice, both by their use of language and in other ways.

It represents a significant erosion of the norms of discourse.

It is not a norm of discourse that terms should be explicitly defined before being used; it is not a norm of discourse that language should not be used loosely; it is not a norm of discourse that language should not be used creatively; and if these were norms then they would be bad norms and it would be a good thing if they were eroded.

33

John Quiggin 10.24.20 at 5:43 am

A general observation prompted by Chrisare. Complaints about terms used pejoratively usually take the form “this term isn’t clearly defined, and is used differently by different people, so no one should use it”. By contrast, in the case of terms used favorably, the complaint is “this term has a unique correct definition (mine). No one should use it differently”

Also, a tu quoque. Having complained about the loose use of “white nationalism”, Chrisare throws in a reference to the “post modernist social justice movement”

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Hidari 10.24.20 at 6:55 am

@33 ‘Having complained about the loose use of “white nationalism”….

Actually s/he complained about the ‘misuse’ of the phrase ‘white supremacy’, a phrase which can be very easily defined by the apparently bizarre and abnormal activity of ‘looking up the phrase in a dictionary’. It literally has no ‘hidden’ or ‘non-standard’ definition.

As J-D points out this phrase was used literally once in this entire thread, by Corey, here: ‘The premise of your first claim is that white supremacy is somehow not a norm of American politics.’

And this is of course non-arguably true. I don’t want to get into the 1619 debate here, but one of the key points that that thing showed was that, to at least some of the colonists, the key point of their ‘revolution’ was to safeguard slavery, and the Northern states were prepared to go along with this (or at least turn a blind eye do it). And then after the failure of reconstruction you had a century of apartheid (as its never called) in the South, with the North ‘going along with this’, when it was actively encouraging it.

It was only in the late ’60s that Jim Crow was (slowly) dismantled.

So for the vast majority of its history, the United States’ existence was predicated on the continuance of white rule, white supremacy, apartheid. And essentially all politicians of all political ‘stripes’ went along with this, when they weren’t actively defending it.

So the ‘norm’ of American domestic politics is South African style apartheid, and progress was only made when people stopped conforming to this ‘norm’.

It’s deeply depressing when people express the hope that after Biden’s (presumed) win, that ‘things will go back to normal’.

American normality isn’t normal.

‘Chrisare throws in a reference to the “post modernist social justice movement”’

Apart from the fact that this is arguably a contradiction in terms, no term in contemporary discourse has been misused more than ‘postmodernist’ (not even ‘fascist’ or ‘Nazi’ or ‘tyrant’). ‘Postmodernist’ really does just mean ‘something I don’t like’ with no additional meaning, when used by conservatives.

35

Gorgonzola Petrovna 10.24.20 at 3:13 pm

Postmodernist, in this context, usually means something like ‘based on self-confident assertions that have no connection with reality’. Or ‘based on truthness‘.

36

steven t johnson 10.24.20 at 4:00 pm

Despite the likelihood of being censored again, I have to say: Hidari is very wrong. The problem with citing 1619 is that no one can avoid the problem there is no evidence anyone engaged in the revolution to save slavery. If there was any truth to this claim, the revolution would have broken out in the South but it didn’t. Loyalism was strongest in the South, the opposite of what this claim entails. Further, the support for British imperialism is deeply reactionary which betrays the bad faith argumentation here, a fake left critique for fundamentally reactionary politics today.

It is of course highly defensible to argue the framing of the federal constitution to replace the articles of confederation is to the American revolution as the Directory (or better yet Sieyes’ constitution?) is to the French revolution. But that would involve acknowledging both that there was a revolution and that illusions about what bourgeois democracy is and what it can do simply ideology, not honest history.

Bourgeois democracy has always favored the “people” when the rich needed them as soldiers. The slave owners of the South, like Jefferson, very much wanted the help of the average white man to defend the system. This was true in ancient republics too. A bourgeois democracy is about us versus them, which means conquering land and redistributing it to US citizens is bourgeois democracy functioning as bourgeois democracy. Peddling myths about how there was a democratic revolution then is peddling myths about how democratic now just needs a little tinkering.

Also, since the documentary Thirteen has explained that Reconstruction was itself the reimposition of slavery under cover of law* there is no sense to caveats about the “defeat” of Reconstruction.

*I believe this is rather right wing, that the prison labor system was the first attempt at death camps, emerged to kill off blacks as a mode of terror in the long counterrevolutionary guerrilla warfare against Reconstruction. Identifying it with slavery to claim genetic white supremacy (as explained, it’s in the DNA,) was always the goal and the Civil War was basically more abuse of black people by racist whites like Lincoln. Even John Brown is to be hated, as a vile white savior. (Not just The Good Lord Bird but Harriet and Emperor have very little use for Brown.)

37

steven t johnson 10.24.20 at 4:03 pm

It is of course supposed to have been “peddling myths about there was not [repeat, not] a democratic revolution then is peddling myths about how democracy now just needs a littler tinkering.”

38

Kiwanda 10.24.20 at 5:16 pm

Actually s/he complained about the ‘misuse’ of the phrase ‘white supremacy’, a phrase which can be very easily defined by the apparently bizarre and abnormal activity of ‘looking up the phrase in a dictionary’. It literally has no ‘hidden’ or ‘non-standard’ definition.

The motte definition of “white supremacy” is Mirriam-Webster: “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races”.

The observation that white supremacy, under this definition, has been influential in American history, is not controversial. (Controversial: claiming that the American revolution was fought to protect slavery, as claimed by the 1619 Project, before the, ah, clarification was issued.)

A bailey, if not “hidden”, definition of “white supremacy” from the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) workshop organizers, comments that White Supremacy Culture includes “Perfectionism….Sense of Urgency….Quantity Over Quality….Worship of the Written Word…”

This outlook is influential; it, or something much like it, is part of the training of all New York school employees, as George Packer notes:

De Blasio’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, has answered critics of the diversity initiative by calling them out for racism and refusing to let them “silence” him. As part of the initiative, Carranza has mandated anti-bias training for every employee of the school system, at a cost of $23 million. One training slide was titled “White Supremacy Culture.” It included “Perfectionism,” “Individualism,” “Objectivity,” and “Worship of the Written Word” among the white-supremacist values that need to be disrupted. In the name of exposing racial bias, the training created its own kind.

Or as SF School Board member A. M. Collins
says,

“merit” is an inherently racist construct designed and centered on white supremacist framing

Or from the NYT:

The meaning of the words has expanded, too. Ten years ago, white supremacy frequently described the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, the neo-Nazi politician from Louisiana. Now it cuts a swath through the culture, describing an array of subjects: the mortgage lending policies of banks; a university’s reliance on SAT scores as a factor for admissions decisions; programs that teach poor people better nutrition; and a police department’s enforcement policies.

So Mirriam-Webster is behind the times on the evolving and ever-expanding meaning of “white supremacy”; an update is anticipated.

39

otpup 10.25.20 at 2:14 am

@Hidari, though substantially correct, “went along with” is doing a lot of work here and reflects upon the counter-majoritarian dimensions. Iiuc, a majority of Americans were in favor of anti-lynching laws by the 30’s but Congressional never made the attempt to introduce such due, presumably, to the lock of Southern members on the committee system and the futility of such an effort. One of the problems with the norm discussion over the long term is that counter-majoritarianism make the un-teasing of political class norms, larger cultural norms and an objective assessment of political possibilities somewhat challenging.

40

bad Jim 10.25.20 at 7:00 am

To echo Murc:

I think, I hope, that if Biden is elected with a majority in the Senate, he will hold his fire until the Court commits an atrocity, which is unfortunately not an unlikely event. Should that occur, appropriate steps could be taken with general approval.

41

Frank Wilhoit 10.25.20 at 4:02 pm

The distinction between Cold Warriors and business libertarians is a specious one. The Cold Warriors were the physical manifestation of capitalist pseudophilosophy (see how most of them have now pivoted to Putin). For both, it was always 1919 and any/all laws or regulations constraining business were Bolshevik (NB. not “Communist”) economic sabotage.

The cultural traditionalists were statist, but the power of the state was only to be used against their enemies. I think I have explained this elsewhere ;-)

42

J-D 10.26.20 at 5:20 am

Actually s/he complained about the ‘misuse’ of the phrase ‘white supremacy’, a phrase which can be very easily defined by the apparently bizarre and abnormal activity of ‘looking up the phrase in a dictionary’. It literally has no ‘hidden’ or ‘non-standard’ definition.

The motte definition of “white supremacy” is Mirriam-Webster: “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races”.

The observation that white supremacy, under this definition, has been influential in American history, is not controversial.

Isn’t that definition adequate to the way the term was used in this discussion by BruceJ and Corey Robin? and doesn’t it follow that the objection by chrisare to the way the term was used in this discussion was meritless?

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J.Bogart 10.26.20 at 11:04 am

Matt 31:
I was thinking of the relevant norms as the rules re cloture and filibuster, the social practices. They are different, obviously, and the social practices are important. I see that you had the latter in mind and I the former. On reflection the latter are probably more salient here.

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Tm 10.26.20 at 12:36 pm

Corey Robin has in the OP set the frame of this debate in the wording “neither fascism nor authoritarianism” .

Vox’ Dylan Matthews asked 8 “fascism experts” to give their view on Trump (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/21521958/what-is-fascism-signs-donald-trump). While they all agreed that Trump does not fit the definition of a fascist, several expressed great concern over Trump’s obvious authoritarian tendency:

Robert Paxton, Columbia University, a respected historian of fascism

I stand by what I have already written about Trump and fascism, but there is one change: I am struck now with Trump’s growing willingness to employ physical violence.
Before, Trump was already willing to tolerate some roughing-up of hecklers at rallies, and his encouragement of the “lock her up!” refrain was clearly transgressive (in America we are supposed to wait for the decision of a jury of citizens before locking someone up). But now, after Charlottesville, we have the Proud Boys and the aggression against the governor of Michigan. So Trump gets closer to having his own SA [the Nazi paramilitary group], a sobering thought as the election approaches.

Matthew Feldman, director, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right

Although my position has not changed on Trump — less fascist than kleptocrat, more egoist than radical-right ideologue — that does little to mitigate the danger.
Four months ago, I warned that Trump was descending into naked authoritarianism. Low-information commentators seek to reassure rather than dig deeply, telling readers to look on the bright side. That the US is an exceptional country. It is not.
Democratic regression and political polarization are not unique to the US. Having more guns than people is. So are militias, usually formed of lower- and middle-class white Americans harboring anti-government sentiments. The threat posed by these anti-government extremists — though not necessarily terrorists — was thrown into relief when at least 13 members of Michigan’s Wolverine Militia were arrested for planning to kidnap, “judge,” and potentially execute for treason the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
The term “fascist” regarding Trump continues to mislead rather than inform. But that cannot inure us to what Alexander Reid Ross has called the “fascist creep.”

Roger Griffin, emeritus professor in modern history, Oxford Brookes University

By not calling him fascist, and concentrating on the way he perverts democracy, we see Trump in a different context. We don’t see him as Hitler or Mussolini. We see him in a different rogues’ gallery. And the rogues’ gallery is made up of a whole load of dictators throughout history, including Putin and Erdogan and Orbán and Assad today, who have abused constitutionalism and democracy to rationalize their abuse of power and their crimes against humanity.

Sheri Berman, professor of political science, Barnard College, Columbia University

Trump bears similarities to other strongmen, a category in which fascists like Hitler and Mussolini belong, as do Orbán, Erdogan, Putin, and their ilk. That Trump maintains his support by engaging in explicitly divisive appeals designed to pit groups against each other — particularly but not exclusively ethnic groups — also, of course, bears some similarity to what fascists did.
And, of course, Trump is undermining various norms and institutions of democracy. But this doesn’t make him a fascist, which means much more than these things.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian and history, New York University

Trump certainly uses fascist tactics, from holding rallies to refresh the leader-follower bond to creating a “tribe” (MAGA hats, rituals like chanting “lock them up,” etc.) to unleashing a volume of propaganda without precedent by an American president. Yet the political cultures that form him and his close supporters are not fascist, but reflect a broader authoritarian history. (…)
Trump’s role models include leaders like Erdogan and Putin who are not exactly fascists, but something more: authoritarians, or strongman rulers who also use virility as a tool of domination.
I also favor authoritarian over fascist as a description for Trump because the former captures how autocratic power works today. In the 21st century, fascist takeovers have been replaced by rulers who come to power through elections and then, over time, extinguish freedom. [This account is consistent with my argument at 15 and 22]

Jason Stanley, Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy, Yale University

When I think about fascism, I think about it as applied to different things. There’s a fascist regime. We do not have a fascist regime. Then there’s the question of, “Is Trumpism a fascist social and political movement?” I think you could legitimately call Trumpism a fascist social and political movement — which is not to say that Trump is a fascist. Trumpism involves a cult of the leader, and Trump embodies that. I certainly think he’s using fascist political tactics. I think there’s no question about that. He is calling for national restoration in the face of humiliations brought on by immigrants, liberals, liberal minorities, and leftists. He’s certainly playing the fascist playbook.
My definition is of fascist politics, not of a fascist regime. I think most of the other [fascism scholars] are just talking about something else. They’re talking about regimes. Toni Morrison in 1995 said the United States has long favored fascist solutions to national problems. Toni Morrison is talking about “fascist solutions.” She’s not talking about fascist regimes. She’s saying the United States has long favored fascist solutions in a democratic state, which I completely agree with: targeting minorities, mass incarceration, colonialism, seizing indigenous land. All these things are things that impacted Hitler. My work is based in the United States — it’s based in the movements that affected European fascism: the KKK, Jim Crow, the anti-miscegenation law, slavery, Indigenous genocide, the 1924 Immigration Act and similar US immigration laws that Hitler lauds in Mein Kampf.
If you’re only worried about fascist regimes, you’re never going to catch fascist social and political movements. The goal is to catch fascist social and political movements, and fascist ideology, before it becomes a regime.

One can question whether or not fascism is a useful frame of reference for present day political tendencies; I think it is, but certainly not in the sense that history just repeats itself. Whoever argues that Trump isn’t a fascist because he doesn’t wear the same moustache as Hitler can’t be taken seriously. One has to take the political and ideological similarities as well as the differences seriously. In an earlier thread (https://crookedtimber.org/2020/07/04/the-economic-consequences-of-the-pandemic/#comment-802462), I pointed out the following “ideological characteristics common to most fascist movements both in the 20th and 21st century, including Trumpism”:

– “Make the nation great again”
– The enemy within threatens the nation and we will fight them.
The enemy within are racial, religious and sexual minorities, socialists, unions, the social justice movement, liberal cosmopolitans.
– Critical journalists/intellectuals are the enemy of the people.
– The nation is victim of an internationalist/globalist conspiracy, led by a liberal elite.
– A propaganda strategy consisting of large scale gaslighting, subverting public discourse by constant lying, creating an alternative reality in the minds of supporters and immunizing them against empirical reality and critical interrogation.

Stanley’s distinction between ideology, movement, and regime is important. One should also, I would argue, distinguish between what Trump would like to do (e. g. putting opposition politicians in prison) and what he has the effective power to do. Trump is unpopular and he lacks a parliamentary majority. His agency is limited, in large part because US civil society has responded to his rise with protests, activism, mobilization. This is reassuring but no reason to minimize the threat he clearly, I think, poses to democracy, let alone to downplay the damage he has already done (https://crookedtimber.org/2020/06/29/trumpism-after-trump/#comment-802161).

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Tm 10.26.20 at 1:29 pm

Timothy Snyder: “If we take Trump at his word and begin with the premise that he cannot win the election, then his actions make sense. The plan is not to win the popular (or even the electoral) vote, but rather to stay in power in some other way. We don’t even really have to guess about this, since Trump has spelled it out himself: he will declare victory regardless of what happens, expect state governments to act contrary to vote counts, claim fraud from postal ballots, court chaos from white nationalists (and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security), and expect the Supreme Court to install him. In general, the idea behind these scenarios is to create as much chaos as possible, and then fall back upon personal ruthlessness and an artificial state of emergency to stay in power. If Trump creates a constitutional crisis while his supporters commit acts of violence, the Supreme Court might be intimidated.”
https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/not-normal-election

“Believe the autocrat. He means what he says” (Masha Gessen) and err on the side of caution. That caution, you won’t have to regret afterwards.

46

nastywoman 10.26.20 at 3:30 pm

and I really didn’t want to comment on this… this… ”issue” – as I know that you guys don’t like me and that you probably will not post this comment BUT when Hidary wrote:
It’s deeply depressing when people express the hope that after Biden’s (presumed) win, that ‘things will go back to normal’.

I was told by my mom that I have to remind you guys that I never had a better time in my life than in the eight years Obama was President –
BE-cause in these eight years –
somehow? –
if I showed up with my ”mixed-race” boyfriend – my fellow Americans said:
”Ah – somebody like Obama – what a nice guy”!

AND then – when my fellow American elected this very Nasty and Racist Science Denier – my fellow Americans –
sometimes –
were very nasty to ME and my ”mixed-race” boyfriend. (and sometimes even in CA)

AND that’s why I really, REALLY want that ‘things will go back to normal’ -(aka ”the Times of Obama) – meaning that ”American normality is normal” –
AGAIN!

And do – some of you guys – understand that?
Or even –
Hidari?

47

Orange Watch 10.27.20 at 2:12 pm

John Quiggan@33:

Beyond your accurate appraisal of chrisare’s lazy accusations, I think another general observation is merited: people such as them who complain about sloppy, politically-motivated semantics being a new evil foisted off upon us by ill-defined PMSJWs would do well to consider precisely how amorphous right-wing invocations of communism were – and socialism are.

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