From the category archives:

US Politics

Conservatives on campus

by Henry Farrell on March 6, 2023

There’s been a lot of grumpy commentary about this recent NYT op-ed by Adam S. Hoffman, a Princeton senior claiming that conservatives are being driven off campus. Its basic claims:

In the not-so-distant past, the Typical College Republican idolized Ronald Reagan, fretted about the national debt and read Edmund Burke. Political sophistication, to that person, implied belief in the status quo. … Today’s campus conservatives embrace a less moderate, complacent and institutional approach to politics. … many tend toward scorched-earth politics. But these changes aren’t solely the consequence of a fractured national politics.They’re also the result of puritanically progressive campuses that alienate conservative students from their liberal peers and college as a whole.

The story of this transformation, according to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, starts around 2014, when Gen Z arrived on campus. The new progressive students were less tolerant of heterodox ideas and individuals. …For those on the right, the experience is alienating. … And those who challenge liberal pieties can face real repercussions.

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Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson recently published a book, Can College Level The Playing Field?: Higher Education in an Unequal Society, which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand the structural position of higher education in the US. Spoiler alert here: Their answer is “No”. Most of the book is taken up with explaining why, by showing the multiple ways in which background inequalities and inequalities in the pre-college education system constrain any efforts higher education might make to level the playing field, and showing how unequal the higher education system is anyway, including – and this seems not to be well understood by politicians or a lot of commentators – how unequal the public sector itself is.

Full disclosure: I’m close friends with both of the authors, and read at least 3 versions of the manuscript before it was published and, I just realized by looking at its Princeton University Press page, wrote a blurb for it. The producer of the CEE podcast series is putting the finishing touches on an interview that we’ve done with them, and as soon as it is published, I’ll post about it encouraging you to listen and, again, encouraging you to read the book.

This (extremely long) post, though, is only secondarily about the book. My main interest is in a genuinely awful review of it, and of another book by Gary Orfield (which, I will emphasize several times, I have not read yet), in Boston Review by Christopher Newfield. I’m writing about it partly because it so irritated me that I want to get my irritation out of my system, but also partly because it illustrates some of the failings that are common to many of the books and commentaries I read about higher education.

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Book note – The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 28, 2022

I recently listened to the new book by Anand Giridharadas, who is well-known for his previous book Winner Takes All. That book was about how (some of) the superrich are happy trying to contribute to some of the world’s problems, but never ask any questions related to why the world is so unequal as it is, what power and the workings of capitalism have to do with all of this, and whether their capitalist strategies are at all suited to address these problems. I thought that was a great book.

So I was looking forward to his new book. It is called The Persuaders. Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age. It is a book about why we shouldn’t just give up on people who have political or social views that we find wrong, perhaps even horrible. The book presents a series of cases, the activists involved, and the techniques or strategies they use – interspersed with some insights from social psychology and other sciences on what works (and what doesn’t) to make people change their mind in a non-manipulative way.

My take-away from the book is that there is no point in believing you are right (or have the right policy, or the right analysis on what needs to happen on matter X), and believing the only thing that is needed for change is airing those views and that analysis. It’s just not enough. We need to actually spend time and effort to persuade others that this is the right analysis/policy/direction, and this persuasion cannot be merely cognitive; it requires understanding “where people are”, what makes them believe what they believe, and showing respect for them as a person at the outset. All of that requires listening, and being willing to engage in a genuine conversation, and finding out why people believe what they believe. Just believing I am right (and having all the arguments sorted out in my head) and airing my views, is not enough to also make a difference in the world, especially not in deeply divided societies. And, very importantly, trying to persuade others, and being willing to be persuaded, should be an essential part of any democracy. Thus, this book is also, at a deeper level, about what contemporary democracies need. [click to continue…]

Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

by John Q on December 6, 2022

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

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A Good Week for Liberty

by Eric Schliesser on November 10, 2022

It’s probably not an entire coincidence that the Russians plan to withdraw from Kherson after realizing that the mid-term Trumpist wave petered out. It’s safe to say that whatever the final results will be, there will be sufficient, even bipartisan, support to continue the weapons flow to Ukraine for the time being.

In fact, the Ukraine war has exposed two fatal weaknesses of Putin’s regime that reflect the structural weaknesses of all such kleptocratic political orders. First, he encourages corruption down the chain of command in order not just to reward loyalty, but also to maintain leverage over his cronies. But, as any Chinese sage could have taught him, there is no level at which this stops; each level of authority mimics the strong-man at the top. This process gets accentuated in the chain of command of the armed forces, who are shielded from the evidence that things are deeply amiss until it’s too late to do much about it.

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You have probably heard some Dems boosted crazy MAGA Trumpists via ad buys in various Rep primaries, obviously angling for victory in November over more extremist, presumptively easier-to-beat opponents. Some of the crazies won!

Here’s a recent WaPo article about it. Quite a bit has been written elsewhere; you can google if curious. Details are colorful. (After the article appeared, Bolduc won!) These R’s who got the boost are all certifiable, whether they are electable or no. And it wasn’t just Dem candidates freelancing this on their own. The DCCC got involved among other leaders. So it wasn’t just some coordination problem where individual candidates acted in selfish, short-sighted ways against the party’s interest, never mind the country’s.

This has outraged people, D’s included. R’s (usually of an anti-anti-Trump bent) have cited it as evidence D’s don’t really believe that MAGA is a threat to democracy. Surely they would not be so cavalier as to play with fire if they thought it would burn the house down!

Maybe I’m getting flaming radical in my old age but, honestly, I just don’t see what the fuss is about. Actually, I thought I did at first. I said that I disapproved. Then I thought again and I just couldn’t see it. You tell me. [click to continue…]

Who thinks who is a threat to a democracy, Part 2

by John Holbo on September 8, 2022

I did a part 1 so I owe a part 2. (I’d like to do a series but I don’t think it will all go with this particular title.)

Right. In part 1, I considered whether D’s really believe that the R party is, as Biden suggested in his speech, a standing threat to democracy, due to Trump and MAGA. Douthat (and others) have suggested that D behavior suggests this is a bit of a put-on. D’s don’t seem to be taking the threat seriously. My counter-argument is that if you think there is, like, a 20% threat to democracy from the R’s, that’s hard to deal with coherently. Partly you want to set your hair on fire and run around screaming ‘danger!’, partly you want to just keep calm and carry on. But those responses are cognitively dissonant, which makes you look insincere – probably about the hair-on-fire part. But that’s actually not right. The dissonance fits the uncertain facts.

So let’s turn to the R’s. Do the R’s really believe that Trump and Trumpism is NOT a threat to democracy AND/OR that D’s are actually the real threat to democracy due to ‘Russia Russia Russia hoax’ perpetrating, election-stealing Dark Brandon and his illegal, student-debt-cancelling ways, plus his nefarious son Hunter? [click to continue…]

“Republican” as an identity

by John Q on September 5, 2022

Like John H, I was struck by Ross Douthat’s latest piece in the New York Times, but, unlike John, I wasn’t much interested in engaging with the argument, such as it was. Rather, I took at as providing insight into the extent to which being a Republican is central to Douthat’s identity, over-riding any concerns about democracy, justice and so on.

In this respect, Douthat is similar to the great majority of the “good Republicans” implicitly distinguished from the MAGA fascists in Biden’s recent speech (and also in Hillary Clinton’s reference to the “basket of deplorables”). Just as Douthat is the archetypal intellectual in this respect, Susan Collins is the archetypal politician. They want to be seen as decent and caring, but in the end, they are Republicans first and foremost. And it is the Douthats and Collinses who will, in all likelihood, destroy American democracy.

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Who thinks who is a threat to democracy? (Part 1)

by John Holbo on September 4, 2022

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us he wasn’t Twitter. No, I’m kidding, I love Twitter. But I have abandoned blogging and that’s so so sad. So, once again, I’m going to try to do better

I would like to ask: who thinks who is a threat to democracy?

New Quinnipiac poll finds 69% of D’s and 69% of R’s say they think American democracy is in danger of collapse – presumably not for the same reasons.

Biden’s speech called out Trump and Trumpism – MAGA – as threats to democracy and the rule of law. But obviously Trump and his MAGA base don’t see themselves that way. If they’re semi-fascists, they are suffering from severe false-consciousness. They think they are patriots fighting Dem fascists. Or at least they say they think that. Douthat argues today that D’s don’t really believe the hype themselves.

You may believe that American democracy is threatened as at no point since the Civil War, dear reader, but they do not. They are running a political operation in which the threat to democracy is leverage, used to keep swing voters onside without having to make difficult concessions to the center or the right.”

The evidence: failure to engage in outreach to build the anti-Trump coalition! Some Dems, including the DCCC, gave to MAGA candidates in primaries on the theory they will be weak in the general. Is this the behavior of people who think democracy is on the line?

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Mother Country Radicals

by Harry on August 30, 2022

I just finished listening to Mother Country Radicals, the podcast series about the Weather Underground made by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, son of Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. It brilliantly made, and well worth listening to: the (living) protagonists are given considerable space to give their account of events, and even if you know quite a lot about the period and the events you’ll probably learn some things you didn’t know.

It must be weird making a documentary in which one’s own parents are the main characters. It’s clear that Ayers and Dohrn have been loving and good parents to their children, and that Ayers Dohrn loves them unconditionally: but that must make it even stranger given the distasteful nature of some of what they did, and the pretty awful character of some of what they say. It was very hard for me to figure out whether Ayres Dohrn was giving them enough rope, or whether he just wasn’t, himself, appalled by some of what they were saying. In the unlikely event that my parents had said some of those things I would have been tempted to leave them out. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make a documentary; I for sure don’t have what it would take to make a documentary about my parents if I loved them and they had been terrorists.

Were Ayres and Dorn terrorists? Ayers Dorhn does put the question to his father. And his father dismisses the label with a redefinition of terrorism on which most terrorist activity is carried out by states. I haven’t bothered to get the exact quote, but it was almost exactly what he says in his own memoir “Terrorists terrorize…they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”

It is true that between the Greenwich Townhouse explosion and the Brinks robbery (by which time Ayers and Dohrn were no longer underground, and in which they had no part) Weather took considerable precautions to ensure that they did not injure or kill actual people, only to damage property. This isn’t said in the documentary but we know for sure that they took considerable precautions because if you set that many bombs, avoiding casualties isn’t random.

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Book Note: Erin Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2022

I’ve just finished Erin Pineda’s Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021), and it is a very welcome addition to the literature on both civil disobedience and the history of the US civil rights movement that anyone interested in either topic should read. Pineda is keen to push back against a particular liberal constitutionalist theory of civil disobedience, associated with Bedau and Rawls that purports to draw on the US civil rights movement but which, according to her, ends up both falsifying the history and provides succour to a narrative about civil rights that is used to discipline subsequent movements (such as Black Lives Matter) as failing to live up to the standards set by the activists of the 1960s. That narrative and theory also supports what we might call a form of soft white supremacy, according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity, so that white citizens, apprised of this injustice and stricken by conscience, would act to rectify things.

This standard liberal narrative around civil disobedience has fidelity to law and an acknowledgement of the basic justice and legitimacy of the established order at its heart. The task of civil disobedients on this view is to act non-coercively and non-violently but to break the law (a bit) only to raise the awareness of citizens considered as fellows who are thought of not as themselves implicated in the injustice but as basically good people who would act if only they knew. The civil disobedient on this view submits willingly, even eagerly, to punishment in order to testify to injustice whilst also accepting the shared framework of law. The tacit framework here is also a nationalist one (or at least a statist one) of shared co-operation among fellows who want to establish a just order on national territory together.
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I was reading a book on migration ethics recently – I may write a review later 1 — and it reminded me how a certain picture of the normal liberal state and its place in the world figures in a lot of political philosophy. Although the normative arguments are supposedly independent of historical facts, history is to be found everywhere, but only in a highly selective version that reflects the dominance of the United States within the discipline and the prominence of prosperous white liberals as both the writers of the important texts and as the readers and gatekeepers. 2 Their assumptions about the world and the US place in it shine through and form a "common ground" that is presupposed in much of this writing.3

In this vision, all the world is America 4 — though not one that corresponds to the actual history of the US — and the rest of the world mostly consists of little proto-Americas that will or should get there in the end (thereby echoing Marx’s dictum that the more developed country shows the less developed one a picture of its own future). This imaginary, but also not-imaginary, state is a sort-of cleaned-up and aspirational version of the actual one, cleansed of embarrassing details that are mere contingencies that detract or distract from what US liberals suppose to be its real essence or telos. Crucially, it is also considered as a basically self-contained entity, where all the important relationships are ones among people on the territory.5 It is an association of free and equal persons that has simply arisen on virgin soil. Both the actual United States and other countries fall short of this model, of course, but with time and good will wrinkles and carbuncles will be removed. 6

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The end of hope

by John Q on February 9, 2022

If you want to mark the end of hope for US democracy, last weekend was as good a date as any. Both Trump and the Republican National Committee made unequivocal commitments to supporting the insurrection.

The response, on the Republican side, was much the same as in every previous step along the road to dictatorship. The usual handful of serving politicians, like Romney and Hogan (MD governor) objected, as did sometimes-Trumper Mitch McConnell, but none (not even Cheney and Kinzinger, the targets of the censure) even hinted at changing parties. A rather larger group of retired Repubs signed a statement, again failing to urge rejection of their party. Most current Repubs dodged the issue, claiming not to have read the news for a while. And, a couple of days later, it’s just about forgotten.

The result is that the overthrow of democracy has become, as far as the political culture is concerned, a routine issue of disagreement between the parties. In these circumstances, the par outcome is that the opposition party will do well in the midterm elections, and all the evidence suggests that 2022 won’t be an exception. So, unless effective legislation to prevent election subversion is passed this year, it never will be. It seems highly unlikely that reforms to the Electoral Count Act, if they pass, will be enough.

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The end of American democracy is unimaginable

by John Q on January 30, 2022

I should know, I tried to imagine it.

Every few days, there’s another article pointing out the likelihood that a Democratic win[1] in the 2024 US election will be overturned, and suggesting various ways it might be prevented, none of which seem very likely to work. The best hope would seem to be a crushing Democratic victory in the 2022 midterms, which doesn’t look likely right now[2]

What I haven’t seen is anyone discussing what the US would be like after a successful Trumpist (or other Republican) coup. The closest approaches I’ve seen are “looking backwards” pieces, written from an imagined distant future when democracy or something like it have been restored.

I decided to attempt the task myself and found it very hard going. The resulting piece is over the fold. I tried a few outlets for it, and no one was interested in publishing it. So, I’m putting it out here, with all its faults.

Suggested improvements are welcome, as is serious criticism. Snarks and trolls will be deleted and permanently banned [3].

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Strangelove redux

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2021

We watched Don’t Look Up last night. Obviously satire, obviously really about our inability to act against climate change, but also about the comical inabilty of the United States to play the role it has arrogated to itself. Faced with a threat to the planet, the scientific Cassandras are blown off by a President focused on the short-term political narrative and, when they try to tell the media, relegated behind pop-trivia, goaded by lightweight news anchors, and ridiculed on twitter. When the adminstration does finally wake up to the threat from the meteor, it sabotages its own efforts in order to appease a tech-solutionist multimillionaire donor, who spies a chance to profit, with disastrous results.

As a film, it owes a lot to Dr Strangelove, with Mark Rylance, playing a kind of composite Jobs/Bezos/Musk/Thiel reprising Peter Sellers’s Werner von Braunish character and Ron Perlman taking on the Slim Pickens role. But it is the politics that interest me here, because the film accurately and savagely destroys the claim made by and for the United States of America to be a kind of universal state, able and entitled to act on behalf of humanity as a whole. A claim that has made at least since the Second World War and which continues to be implicit in the discourse of every centrist columnist at the New York Times, whose “we” is ambiguous between the US national interest and the world in general. It is, for example, in the name of this ambiguous “we” that pro-war shills are currently claiming that the US has the right, and possibly the duty, to attack Iran, whereas the US reserves the right to deny legitimacy to Russian or Chinese attacks on other countries. Team America World Police, as it were.
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