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Two Cheers for Partisanship
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Two Cheers for Partisanship

We would be better off with healthier and more effective political parties.

(Photo of Donald Trump by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images. Photo of Bernie by Alex Wong/Getty Images. )

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (who hates the attention) has announced that she is leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent who will caucus with the Democrats. We already have two of those: Bernie Sanders, famously, who came within spittin’ distance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination in spite of not being a member of that party (nothing like that has ever happened to Republicans, ho ho!), and Sen. Angus King of Maine.

Her statement on the decision was … exactly the sort of mushy, stale baloney you’d expect. And it is, to some degree, simply wrong on the substance: “There’s a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering,” Sinema writes in the Arizona Republic. But that isn’t quite true: If the parties had the power to impose their agendas—and their will—on American politics, American politics would look radically different. 

My colleague Jonah Goldberg has been talking about this a lot in recent months—I disagree with him on one point, which I’ll get to below—but it is worth really chewing over the fact that the two most important developments in American politics (which are, from one point of view, the same development) have happened over the sometimes frenzied objections of the two major political parties. I mean here the election of Donald Trump following his emergence as Republican standard-bearer and the analogous rise of professing socialists such as Sanders among Democrats. Because Sanders is not the kind of celebrity Trump is, the personality cult that developed around him was relatively minor, whereas Trump’s is a political megachurch. But the two phenomena are similar: On one side, there are angry, generally ignorant populists who insist that those who are not quite as rage-addled as they are must be in the pocket of donors or some corporate interest, who believe that the key to victory is more extremism and more bumptiousness, who are ensorcelled by conspiracy fairytales, etc. On the other side, there are figures such as Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham, men of flexible principle who will go along with the mob to whatever extent they calculate doing so to be in their interest. There isn’t really an “establishment” that is opposed to the populist interests, though there are a smattering of sensible and/or decent figures who will tell the truth when doing so is not popular. But the idea that Mitt Romney or former President George W. Bush, or sundry factota operating in the shadows on their behalf, are calling the shots in the Republican Party is nonsensical. The problem with the two big political parties isn’t that there is somebody secretly pulling the strings from behind the scenes—the problem is that there isn’t. 

As Jonah Goldberg and Jonathan Rauch discuss in their recent Remnant conversation, the political parties have been neutered by a number of factors, including a primary process that rewards imbecilic posturing and punishes compromise and moderation, the emergence of small-dollar fund-raising that has made candidates independent of party financial power, and social media. In 1940, the political parties had the power to simply strangle the political career of a dangerous crank such as Charles Lindbergh before it took off, and in 1992 billionaire Ross Perot was obliged to run his amateur-hour campaign on his own steam. In 2016, Donald Trump essentially ran the Perot campaign—with its paranoia, its clabbered xenophobia, its “run the government like a business” idiocy—inside a Republican Party that was too weak to resist the infection. 

Where I disagree with Jonah is in his assertion that the process that produced the Trump nomination and made a national figure of Sanders is unrepresentative. I think the process is almost perfectly representative—and that is the problem. Political preferences have more than one aspect—the direction of a preference is important, but so is the intensity of the preference, among other factors. The maniacs care intensely about their program and their candidates, and the moderates, being moderate, care moderately. And here comes ol’ Billy B. Yeats: 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Our primary system, and the general rage-monkey tenor of our social-media–driven politics, reflects the direction and intensity of political preferences—in particular, it captures the passivity and apathy of the great largely disengaged part of the population, the real “silent majority”—that has the numbers to radically reshape U.S. politics but no real desire to do so. I am generally pro-apathy when it comes to politics—most of the year, people should have better things to do—but the problem is that there is a feature of our politics that empowers the lunatics and monomaniacs over the comfortably sensible and the sensibly comfortable, and that feature is: democracy. The process by which political parties select candidates wasn’t really democratic in the past, and now it is, and this is what you get. 

Writing in some magazine I’ve never heard of, Shadi Hamid raises a question he has considered at some length—that of the relationship between democracy and liberalism, meaning individual rights, the rule of law, due process, free enterprise, and all that stuff—which, in turn, raises the even more fundamental question: Is democracy good in and of itself, or is it good because it gives us results we like? As Hamid puts it: “An outcomes-dependent approach to democracy is dangerous because it leads to instrumentalism, i.e. democracy is good only insofar as it produces good outcomes. Which makes it all the more easy to discard if it doesn’t produce those other, ‘good’ outcomes.” Hamid is right to offer the word of caution about discarding democracy, though I will note that his argument against instrumentalism here is instrumentalist

Of course we should think of democracy in instrumental terms: It is, after all, an instrument, and a pretty good one—in the right context, used the right way. As I have argued at some length, there is no obvious moral good to be derived from taking a crude, self-selecting measure of the views and preferences of an electorate, giving absolutely equal weight to the views of the fools and the wise, to the good and the wicked, treating the preferences of Archbishop Chaput and the ringleaders of neo-Nazi gangs as though they were morally or intellectually on the same footing, aggregating all this pseudo-data together every few years in a series of contests in which practically every issue is lumped together in a messy wad with every other issue, and decocting from that mess a series of decisions about who occupies which representative office and whether this or that ballot initiative is to be enacted. We don’t do things that way because it is good or smart—we do things that way because it is the only workable alternative to violence we’ve come up with. We don’t want to go around bonking each other over the head. Democracy is precious for that reason, to achieve a public life of “rien de bonk.” Democracy in the sense of majoritarian voting (or even super-majoritarian voting) is only a procedure—it is useful, but it is not sacred. 

Getting comfortable with that proposition shouldn’t be too hard for us Americans. We have a Bill of Rights that puts certain questions beyond the reach of mere democracy, and we have many other undemocratic and anti-democratic institutions in our public life—and thank God for them! I care a great deal about free speech, due process, property rights, the prohibition of slavery, and other goods that cannot be taken away by a mere majority. And once we are comfortable with saying, “Democracy, yes, but in its place,” then we shouldn’t have to go through too many intellectual or moral contortions to say: “The problem with our primary process is that it is obviously too democratic. We have parties because they are themselves counter-democratic institutions. Our country—including our democratic processes—would be better off with healthier and more effective political parties, so, let’s let them run their own affairs rather than imposing binding primary elections on them.” 

Our country is better off without giving political power to cranks and crackpots—even if 50 percent +1 of some electorate wants the crackpot. Cranks are dangerous and counterproductive, and all the “democracy” talk in the world isn’t going to change that. Democracy doesn’t wash away the stupid or the evil. Democracy doesn’t sanctify recklessness and stupidity, even if we call those “the will of the People.” 

You can put your boots in the oven, but that don’t make ’em biscuits. 

Economics for English Majors

They almost get it! A headline from the New York Times: “Adams Plan Would Relax Rules for Developers Amid N.Y.C. Housing Crisis: The mayor proposed reducing requirements that he said slow the construction of new homes as the city contends with a housing crisis.”

Question: Where did the housing crisis come from? 

We all know the answer to that, or at least part of the answer, because we have seen the same problem play out in big, Democrat-run cities and metros across the country: New York, the Bay Area, Boston, Austin, etc. New York City has some special challenges in that four of its five boroughs sit on islands, meaning that it cannot grow like Houston, but the story has been much the same in less geographically constricted places. You make it expensive to build and builders don’t stop building—but what they build is expensive. You take the profit out of building housing or operating rentals for low- or moderate-income people, and businesses stop doing that. You make it difficult and expensive to make changes to existing real estate, you lose the flexibility you need in a big market. 

Might it make sense to take a more intelligent approach to regulation and let housing markets work before there is a crisis? Not only when it comes to housing but when it comes to, say, imported baby formula? Or electricity? 

First off: Mayor Eric Adams is more or less on the right track—eliminating some environmental reviews and streamlining the permitting process will make it easier and less expensive to build new housing in New York City. More joy in heaven and all that. And while the relationship between supply and demand is a very big deal—more is more!—there is a lot more dysfunction in the New York City housing market than low inventory. 

In fact, it is not even obvious that inventory is all that low. A significant portion of the city’s rent-stabilized apartments sit vacant, apartments earmarked for supported housing for the homeless remain vacant, vacant and abandoned housing units are common across the city, etc. New York’s housing crisis is the kind of housing crisis that matters to politicians and the press: a crisis for middle- to upper-income people—not the billionaires and Wall Street sharks and such but the lawyers and college professors, the New Yorkers struggling to get by on a few hundred thousand dollars a year

New York has a number of different programs aimed at addressing housing challenges, which range from the acute—people sleeping in subway tunnels—to the more mundane challenges of having to pay highly skilled workers 50 percent more to work from a New York office than you’d have to pay them to work from Charleston or Dallas. And New York pretty consistently mismanages every one of those programs. 

To take the most galling example: New York City has its own inventory of city-funded apartments in which to house homeless people—and here I mean the rough-sleeping homeless, i.e., the people who sleep on the street or in train stations rather than the more liberal definition of “homeless” that includes people who have beds to go to at night but in non-ideal circumstances. (This isn’t to shout, “Bah! Humbug!” at that other kind of homelessness, but there is a big difference between having to crash with friends for a few months and holing up in the Tremont Avenue Station.) In fact, the city has access to enough apartments to house every one of the people sleeping on the street in New York, who, contrary to much of the reporting you hear on the subject, number fewer than 2,500. The supply is there, the demand is there, the city funding is there—why are the homeless people still on the streets and the apartments set aside to house them vacant? The answer is mostly that homeless of that kind is much more a mental-health and substance-abuse problem than it is an economic problem. 

The New York program (I recommend Nolan Hicks’ New York Post writeup from March) isn’t even targeted at those sleeping on the streets—it is targeted at those in shelters, but freeing up those shelter beds would, in theory, make more room available for those sleeping on the streets. (Again, it is complicated; there are lots of people sleeping outdoors in New York even when there are shelter beds available.) But many of the people living in shelters also have serious mental-health and substance-abuse problems, and the providers who run the city-funded apartments reject applications from the more challenging cases to try to get themselves matched with clients who are less intensely needy, a process known as “creaming.” The city agency charged with administering the program complains that it is—all together now!—underfunded and understaffed, while critics note that the agency relies on an essentially 19th-century working model rather than employing modern information technology. The result: Lots of money spent, lots of homeless people, lots of vacant apartments meant for homeless people. 

New York has neighborhoods with large numbers of vacant and abandoned housing units—parts of the South Bronx, where I used to live, have boarded-up housing on practically every block. 

The city’s rent-stabilization program doesn’t work very well, either. 

By one estimate, some 88,830 of the city’s rent-stabilized housing units were vacant last year—a tenth of the rent-stabilized inventory. Dysfunction in the rent-stabilized market is critical, because nearly half of the rental units in the city (and about 28 percent of the overall housing stock) is rent-stabilized. Landlords end up “warehousing” some of these units because regulations make it unprofitable to rent out those apartments at the stabilized rate. Warehoused units may be off the market entirely, but, in some cases, they are rented off-the-books to tenants without leases or other paperwork, sometimes to profit from criminal activity

When you have market-rate rents for only half the available rental properties, then you have only half a market. There are no ironclad laws of economics, though there are some pretty good rules of thumb, one of which is: Price controls result in shortages. So do artificial constraints on supply. New York City has had more than half a century to figure that out, ever since people started noticing that Carly Simon and Mia Farrow were enjoying Central Park views subsidized by laws meant to help out poor people.

If you want an idea of how silly this stuff gets: When I lived in Manhattan, I lived in a very nice building where the rents topped out—and this was a few years ago—at $60,000 a month. But the apartments were rent-stabilized as a condition for the developer’s access to subsidized financing and certain tax breaks.  The gentleman who occupied the penthouse drove a lovely Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé and was in New York something on the order of 12 weeks a year, spending the rest of his time at what I imagine was a selection of really nice homes elsewhere. But his apartment was rent-stabilized, like every other apartment in the building. 

And Furthermore … 

I’m not a New York hater—I like three big cities in the United States, and they are: New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. (Your city is fine, sure. So is mine.) I don’t see why people who want to live in a big city and have free choice about it choose a different one: San Francisco has everything you hate about New York and very little of what you love about it, Seattle seems to me like a second-rate version of San Francisco, etc. I know, I know—you have a great job in one of those places, or some particular personal or community connection, I get it. You do what makes you happy. Some people like Washington a great deal. 

New York has a lot going for it, but what it doesn’t have going for it is being New York. People have been writing “New York Isn’t What It Used To Be” essays since the 19th century, but what I mean is this: What made New York New York was the fact that it was the center of a dozen culturally and economically important businesses and enterprises that were complementary. At its height, New York was the center of finance and most non-finance business, news media, book publishing, art, fashion, theater, advertising, and it had a pretty good claim to being the co-capital, with Hollywood, of television. These businesses worked together economically and culturally: The media people helped the art people and the theater people build careers, they helped the book people sell their books and wrote books in turn, the finance people were investors and consumers of art and theater, the advertising agencies employed aspiring artists and their commercials put money into the pockets of actors, Broadway people married Wall Street people, their children had rich social networks through which to connect with creative and financial resources, etc. That kind of thing is what makes cities work and makes the great cities special places—and New York was an extreme version of that. But it isn’t any more: New York has venture capital, sure, but California is where that business really lives; you don’t have to have a Manhattan address to be taken seriously in fashion or art or advertising; a lot of that salad-days, “If I can make it there” ambition has been redirected to Silicon Valley, Austin and any number of second-tier cities, even—angels and ministers of grace defend us!—Washington. There’s a whole body of literature about how the internet’s decoupling of commerce from geography has been counteracted by the desire of young, moneyed, educated people to enjoy a mode of life associated with cities, and there’s something to that: I don’t expect to see very much of Apple’s workforce relocating to Marfa. But New York’s former position as a kind of monopoly at the top of American urban life—there’s New York, and there’s everywhere else—has been gone for some time. 

And that means New York has to compete more than it once did, which means it has to do something about the dumb housing regulations, the subways, the rats …

Words About Words

Sometimes a little typo can really throw you off. From the New York Times, offering up some words about words of its own:

According to the teachings of the paduan theater artist Giovanni Fusetti, one of the great clowning masters in the world, the Italian word folle, as in il Folle, “the Fool,” comes from the Latin word follis, which means the bellows, that implement that gathers and directs air toward flame to feed it. The Fool, he says, is like the bellows: full of air, full of breath, full of spirits and full of feeling. Fools talk of everything and nothing, the silly and the profound, and their ability to talk freely without much culpability makes them fonts of truth. Their words propel plots and topple kingdoms. Conduits of air, of inspiration, are implements of ignition.

I will admit that I lingered over paduan for a while. It is, of course, just a typo—the editors neglected to capitalize Paduan, as in one who hails from Padua. Because I am a child of the 1970s, I briefly thought the author may have meant padawan, from the Star Wars lexicon, meaning an apprentice Jedi or, by extension, a young student in the early stages of his education. Believe it or not, padawan appears in some dictionaries, but, like Paduan, it generally appears capitalized—Padawan

Why would it be capitalized? 

There are a couple of schools of thought about capitalizing ranks and titles. Sometimes, you’ll see someone write, “Joe Biden is the President,” with a capital P, the capitalization being intended as a sign of respect. My usual practice, and the most common journalistic practice, is to lowercase titles and ranks and such except when they are performing the titular function before a name—President Biden, Sen. Sinema, Colonel Mustard, Pope John Paul II—but not when they are being used in some other way: “Joe Biden became a senator back in the era of disco and has aged about as well,” “The colonel was in the library with the candlestick,” “Is the pope Catholic?” 

(Well, is he? Some of my more enthusiastic Catholic friends have their doubts.) 

An exception is made for those titles that function as names themselves: “The Prince of Wales has a dopey little brother,” “The discussion panel included the Dalai Lama,” “A prayer was offered by the Bishop of Rome,” etc. Sometimes, you’ll see a given name followed by a title, “Richard, Duke of Gloucester,” or even a title/name/title double-whammy: Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who gets a Wikipedia disambiguation from the Duke of Gloucester who became King Richard III. The name/title or title/name/title thing survives, usually minus the comma, among some Catholic cardinals who use the formula: John Cardinal O’Connor. I once knew someone who assumed that “Cardinal” was John O’Connor’s middle name—What are the chances! You want to ask that kind of person: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” 

(Who knew Lou Gehrig would get Lou Gehrig’s Disease?) 

If I were writing the style guide for a galaxy far, far away, I’d lowercase padawan unless used as a title before a name. But that does not seem to be the convention. 

Incidentally, the derivation for fool given by the New York Times is correct, though the emphasis is a little weird. Think windbag.  

Also … 

One thing: Readers who follow “Words About Words” will notice that the Times misspelled Whac-A-Mole in that story about landlords and prostitution. 

Another thing: In the Brittney Griner story, the term “arms dealer” has been thrown around as though it were a self-damning term. “Arms dealer” is like that—there are a lot of arms dealers among the villains of spy novels and action movies. But, presumably, somebody sells arms to the good guys, too—goodness knows they need them. Are there no good “arms dealers”? No admirable ones? None whose careers should make the term “terms dealer” something other than a dirty-sounding epithet? 

Do Read

“Right-wing extremists,” Hillary Clinton announced in a video for a progressive group released in October, “already have a plan to literally steal the next presidential election. And they’re not making a secret of it. The right-wing-controlled Supreme Court may be poised to rule on giving state legislatures … the power to overturn presidential elections.”

The former presidential candidate was echoing news coverage of Moore v. Harper, the elections case the court heard on Wednesday. But if the justices were advancing a “plan” to “literally steal” the next election, it was not evident in three hours of civil colloquies with lawyers. Moore v. Harper has the unhappy distinction of being the subject of more political and media distortion than any Supreme Court case in recent memory.

The case will not, no matter which side wins, grant state legislatures “the power to overturn presidential elections.” In fact, after oral argument, it appears that Moore v. Harper — pitched as a potential blockbuster example of judicial partisanship — could produce a fairly technical and limited legal outcome. The more significant feature of the case is that the two sides’ approaches to federalism cut across ideological lines.

Elsewhere

Joe Biden doesn’t seem to know very much about firearms—which is a problem, given how much he talks about the issue. More in the New York Post

There is no such thing as green energy—every energy source, and every fuel, has environmental costs. But if you want to make low-pollution, reliable energy that doesn’t produce a lot of greenhouse gases, you want nuclear power. So, why is everybody still so dumb about nuclear power? More in USA Today

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In Closing

Because Christmas is approaching, many of us are thinking about gift-giving. I am an admirer of grand gestures (generally, but not categorically) and there’s one that has been on my mind for some reason. One of the stereotypes about India is that the streets are full of beggars, and this was true during my time there in the 1990s, though India is a very different country today. Another fact of life in India at that time was that it was very difficult for foreigners who had traded their local currencies for Indian rupees to change those rupees back into U.S. dollars or sterling or Swiss francs or whatever. A man I knew had an envelope with 100,000 rupees in it, which I guess would have been worth about $3,000 at the time, with India’s median income in those days being something on the order of $415 a year. The fellow was not a billionaire or anything like that, but he was reasonably well-off, and he didn’t want to bother with the process of converting his rupees back into dollars, so, on the way to the airport, he simply handed the whole envelope to a girl who was begging. It might have been 20 years income for her family—honestly, I’m not sure she even knew what she’d been given, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the gift had worked out badly for her in some way. All those caveats in place, that’s the way to give a gift: easily, anonymously, splendidly, casually, with neither contempt nor reverence for the money in question. That’s the way to do it, I think.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.