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We Do Have a Democracy Problem
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We Do Have a Democracy Problem

John Adams was right when he warned about having too much of it.

Andrew Yang. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I am less than excited about the GOP’s prospects going into the midterm elections—not because I fear the Republicans will underperform the polls and forecasts but because I think they very well may outperform them, if only modestly. 

I do not much expect that the quickly fading memory of the events of January 6 and thereabouts will be a large factor in this election, nor that abortion or many of the other issues that are big on Twitter but relatively small in the real world will matter much. With real wages still falling and gasoline prices ticking back up, this is going to be a single-issue election. I don’t think that’s how things should be, but I think that’s how things are.

I remain comfortable as a party of one, and I do not think that the GOP can really move forward in a meaningful way as a political organization until it has had a reckoning with the attempted coup d’état staged by Donald Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, the conservative movement, and right-wing media. This isn’t only a question of moral considerations but also one of practical political considerations: In its current thralldom, the Republican Party has shown essentially itself unable to act in any way other than a performative and symbolic one. Power isn’t power if you can’t use it, and Republicans have shown themselves scarcely able to do so. The biggest political development of the past decade—the intellectual reform of the Supreme Court typified by the Dobbs decision—was mostly the work of non-party actors from Reagan-era institutions, most prominently the Federalist Society. And there was a critical assist from Mr. Establishment himself, Mitch McConnell, who still knows how to use power. Marjorie Taylor Greene is very good at drawing attention to herself, and her media allies are very good at selling terrified oldsters lucrative fear-based products, but she wouldn’t know what to do with power if she had any. And, blessed be, she doesn’t. 

But the Republicans we can expect to be setting the agenda in Washington will be more Marjorie Taylor Greene’s type, aspiring Fox News pundits and social-media celebrities, rather than wily parliamentarians and legislators. And so the GOP will remain tangled up in the web of rapacity and perverse incentives that produced the coup attempt and the many idiotic justifications of it that remain a staple of right-wing media today. 

So, it’s to be the Democrats, then? Of course not. 

I disagree in some of the particulars of the diagnosis, but I do not think that such thoroughly estranged conservatives as William Kristol and his Bulwark crew are very wrong about the state of the Republican Party, its essential rottenness, or its prospects for recovery. What I think they are wrong in is their evidence-free optimism that the Democratic Party can be relied upon to do something good and useful for the country, that it can be pressed into the service of policies that are something other than destructive, and especially that this can be accomplished by a handful of disaffected Republicans who are small in number and exceedingly modest in influence. 

So, it’s the Forward guys, maybe? 

The Forward Party is having a little bit of a moment. That moment will pass. The Forward Party’s unconsidered appeals to pragmatism and its technocratic posture are very much the sort of thing that appeals to certain old-line media types, people who are committed (often without being conscious of the fact) to some flavor of business ideology, and those who are moderates for the sake of moderation. I should say here that it is also the sort of thing that I would find very appealing if I were able to believe in any of it, but I can’t and don’t. 

The problem with American politics isn’t that there is some kind of obstructive mediating institution keeping We the People away from the “common sense solutions” that the very smart people have prepared for them. The problem is that We the People don’t want those common-sense solutions, to the extent that there are such things, in part because all of them would impose costs and tradeoffs on a polity that is far too morally uncultivated to accept these as necessary and positive goods, and in part because the most active and reliable partisans very strongly prefer to seek catharsis in symbolic kulturkampf confrontations to reducing the deficit or stabilizing federal finances. 

Andrew Yang, the most prominent figure in the new Forward Party, is a very likable and agreeable fellow who has some naive ideas about reforming our politics. As a Democratic presidential candidate, he complained: “Our government has been overrun by money and corporate interests,” and proposed giving every American $100 a year in “Democracy Dollars” that they could pass on to the candidate or cause of their choice. It is a regular feature of Forward Party rhetoric that corporate money is a critical problem, one that is driving that other bugaboo, “polarization.” 

Of course, it is small-dollar fundraising that relies most directly on polarization and that does the most to encourage it. Everybody who follows politics seriously knows this. A hysterical cable-news hit or a YouTube video of a particularly histrionic C-SPAN speech can unleash a gusher of money, not from the lords of capitalism but from those famous “regular folks” on whose behalf “common-sense solutions” are always being drawn up by multimillionaires who went to Princeton and Stanford. We may see the occasional stampede into wokeness by some of the trendier tech firms and a few big brands making bets on social-justice consumerism, but, for the most part, corporate money is stodgy and predictable. Soybean farmers want to sell more soybeans, and they lobby for measures that they think will help them achieve that, and those ethanol bastards know what they want. You think we can’t balance the budget or fix our entitlement system because Chevron is in the way? Chevron isn’t going to end your career for trying to means-test Social Security or making a real compromise on an infrastructure bill—30 million angry grandmothers on Facebook will. 

“Corporate money” is a favorite villain, because corporations don’t get to vote and Americans have been primed by decades of science-fiction to view corporations as world-straddling powers rather than as temporary capital partnerships with increasingly brief lifespans. Admitting that small-dollar donations are a much bigger problem when it comes to polarization and hysteria—and irresponsible policymaking—is something most people in public life are not inclined to do, because it brings one dangerously close to confessing an uncomfortable truth: We’d probably be better off with the Chamber of Commerce and the Conference Board choosing our senators and presidents than leaving the job to your crazy Aunt Edna and her daft Facebook coven. It is the very things that were supposed to make our democracy more accountable and accessible to the common people—social media, CSPAN, $10 donations—that have proved most corrupting and destabilizing. 

We can’t just farm out the job of governing, or of choosing our governors, to Cato or AEI or the American Petroleum Institute. But democracy works best where it is constrained and counteracted by responsible liberal and republican institutions: functional political parties that can sideline demagogues such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump; a critical news media with a business model that is not based on political pornography of the sort that Jonah Goldberg describes as “fan service”; a business community and universities that have enough collective self-respect to resist being reduced to political functionaries; etc. The kind of populist sales pitch for phony pragmatism that you get from the Forward guys is the opposite of what is needed. We don’t need another passionate speech about returning “power to the people.” We need a coldhearted acknowledgment than when it comes to a number of very important issues—fiscal stability, public spending, trade, energy, national security—we probably need to take some power away from We the People and entrust it to those hated “elite” institutions that can be made to use that power more responsibly. And when it comes to democracy, we need to build some higher fences and deeper moats against the “passions” that John Adams and other prescient men of his time feared so intensely. 

But, of course, you can’t say that and win an election. On the other hand, you probably aren’t going to win a lot of elections by trying to use sentimental populist horsepucky to sell technocracy and the remorseless elitism that is built into it.

If the choice is between losing with a lie and losing with the truth, why not go with the truth? 

I mean, if only for the sake of novelty?

And Furthermore … 

Writing in Texas Monthly, Michael Hardy observes that Yang, talking about building a new party:

appeared to be referring to the modern Republican party, formed in the 1850s and committed to a very clear (one might even call it ideological) platform calling for the abolition of slavery—a platform that, had the Forward party existed at the time, it would presumably have deemed divisive and extreme. Indeed, far from unifying the country, it was the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that ignited the Civil War. Such details were evidently of little interest to Yang, who quickly moved on to selectively quoting the Founding Fathers on the dangers of partisanship.

Those are interesting observations that would be more interesting if any of the posited facts were true. The most important characteristic of the Republican Party in its early years is that it was not abolitionist but instead was focused on the less “divisive and extreme” possibility of containing slavery and preventing its spread. It was a conservative party rather than a radical one. Abraham Lincoln ran for president arguing that the federal government had no power to abolish slavery and repeated this insistence in his first inaugural address, meeting bitter criticism from abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who was dismayed by Lincoln’s insistence that not only did the president lack the authority to end slavery but that he would not be tempted to use such power if he had it: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” Lincoln said. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

That, to me, is the most interesting parallel between the 19th-century GOP’s dilemma regarding slavery and the contemporary GOP’s political problem with abortion: It is possible to be on the right side of an issue of fundamental moral importance and yet not be quite all-in. It may even be necessary. When there are moral imperatives that are incompatible with political imperatives, how do you proceed? Taking the radical position may end up setting your cause back, but, as Lincoln discovered, there is no guarantee that the more moderate position will be sufficient to prevent confrontation and catastrophe. 

I like the radical abolitionists better than I like the compromisers, even though I don’t think the idea of compromise really deserves the bad reputation it currently suffers under. That’s where my heart goes. But it wasn’t the radicals who saved the republic—or who dealt with the practical political necessities involved in actually abolishing slavery. 

Surely there is a lesson for us in that. 

At the end of the film Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens describes the 13th Amendment: “The greatest measure of the century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” Stevens apparently didn’t really say that—“pure” was not at all how he thought of Lincoln—but if he had said it, it would have been true. 

I Don’t Hate To Say, ‘I Told You So’

Kanye West is going to embarrass the Christians who have recklessly embraced him as a mascot. That much seems inevitable.

And the end:

Combining the convert’s zeal with Godzilla-scale celebrity presents spiritual dangers of its own, not only to Kanye West but also to those who look to him for inspiration and, unwise as it is, for an example. Jesus stumbled three times on the way to glory — we should expect a few missteps from Kanye West, too. Yes, he is rich and famous and insufferable and a little bit bananas. But his cross is as heavy as anybody else’s, and Christians are called to bear one another’s burdens. The temptation will be to set him up as an idol on Tuesday in order to enjoy the sport of knocking him down on Wednesday. He is going to need excellent spiritual direction. The scope and weight of his fame will ensure that his slips and errors will be covered like the Hindenburg disaster. Going it alone would be dangerous for him. 

“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Saint Paul wrote, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Kanye West is not ashamed of the gospel, either, and he has the tracks to prove it. You can fault him for a goofy Chick-fil-A line every now and then, but you can’t fault him for lacking boldness. 

His boldness is a blessing.

For now.

Economics for English Majors: Free-Trade Fight Club Edition

I’m going to change speed just a little bit this week and pick a small fight with Jonah Goldberg. 

Jonah has a great line—a line so great that I may have borrowed it myself a few times—about free-trade agreements. A real free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada, his argument goes, would be one page with one sentence on it: “There shall be free trade between the United States and Canada.” 

That isn’t how free-trade agreements actually look: USMCA is 424 pages, and it sits atop the 1,700 or so pages of NAFTA’s treaty text and appendices. 

How come? 

The complexity of free-trade agreements is driven mostly by the complexity of the domestic regulatory and tax regimes of the signatories. For example: One way of defining free trade is the situation in which a product can be sold on the same terms in two different countries—that you can sell the product in the free-trade export market the same way you’d sell it on your domestic market. That almost never happens. The United States and the European Union both have very effective health-and-safety regulators—if you are an American traveling in Germany, you can be confident that the car you drive, the food you eat, and any medicine you buy locally will be as safe. Given that the Europeans are in many ways more aggressive regulators than Americans are, the products you consume in Europe might even be safer than at home, at least in some instances. The United States has good health-and-safety rules, and the European Union has good health-and-safety rules, but—they are not the same rules. How do we determine whether a Mercedes manufactured in Stuttgart is compliant with the rules governing sales in Houston? How do we determine whether French baby formula meets U.S. food-safety standards? Even if we were to take the simplest imaginable approach—which would be agreeing that products that satisfy U.S. standards meet EU requirements and vice versa—you have to write that down. 

And you have to be pretty specific. Does free trade mean that we waive national-security rules that favor domestic providers when it comes to contracts to supply military and intelligence agencies? However you answer the question, you have to answer it, and the answer probably is not going to be a simple “yes” or “no.” And, at the risk of courting a treason charge, does free trade mean that we waive the Jones Act for vessels manufactured in countries with which we have a free-trade pact? Again, whatever the answer is, it has to be specified in some detail. 

I myself take a pretty hardcore free-trade position. In fact, I advocate the very unpopular position of unilateral free trade—i.e., opening U.S. markets to imports and services from abroad irrespective of whether other countries reciprocate. But even a radical free-trader probably is going to make room for some exceptions: There is, for example, good reason not to trust Chinese manufacturers to provide electronic equipment to U.S. military or intelligence agencies, and, for that matter, to be very wary about the cozy relationship between Chinese tech companies and the Beijing junta. But that doesn’t mean that free trade is a bad economic argument—it means that non-economic arguments sometimes trump economic arguments. I favor free markets—but not in weaponized viruses or nuclear-weapons fuel or in slaves. 

(“Consistency” is a dumb criterion in that it implicitly insists that that only good policy is a policy that can be implemented in its most extreme form, which nobody with any real experience in the real world believes.)

What the world needs right now is a free-trade bloc that includes North America, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan—one that excludes China, Russia, Turkey, and the other autocracies and semi-autocracies, a category that, unfortunately, now includes India.

But whatever that treaty would look like, even the best imaginable version of it isn’t going to be one page. 

Words about Words

Speaking of Ye: “Chick-fil-A” is one of those business names that gets written the wrong way a lot, because it is a weird one: There no reason for those hyphens or that lowercase “f,” the whole thing being a goofy phonic approximation of “chick fillet,” meaning “chicken fillet.” That lowercase “f” is especially distracting because it suggests not only the French spelling (filet) but also, at least to my eye, the convention of using the French fils to distinguish a notable son from a notable father: If you were writing about famous conservatives, you’d need to distinguish between Kristol père and Kristol fils, Podhoretz père and Podhoretz fils, etc. 

Another company name that shows up in journalistic writing sometimes, because it offers a metaphor with an irresistible image, is “Whac-A-Mole,” no “k,” uppercase “A,” hyphens. 

Texas copy editors know that there is no period in “Dr Pepper,” though the world seems determined to continue fighting about “Harry S Truman” or “Harry S. Truman.” 

Do Check Out …

The West has been wrong about China. It was long assumed that capitalism, the emergence of a middle class and the internet would cause China to eventually adopt Western political ideas. But these ideas cannot even begin to take root because the Communist Party has never allowed the intellectual soil needed for them to germinate. And it never will.

Divers & Sundry

From The Dispatch:

2. I understand why some of the parents of the children murdered at Parkland want the killer dead, but I dissent

3. You can hear all the rank punditry you want out of me on The Dispatch Podcast’s midterm prognostication-and-analysis festival here. Bonus: a brief ode to pettiness. 

4. Jonah and I pose as men of the people on The Remnant

Elsewhere

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghettohere

You can buy my other books here

You can see my New York Post columns here. The most recent is about the weird racial politics of Los Angeles

Please subscribe to The Dispatch if you haven’t. It is money well spent, if only to help prove to the rest of the media world that you can sell subscriptions if you write interesting stuff and that this is a better model in the long run than generating semi-pornographic crap for clicks. 

Calendar

Today is Diwali, one of the most important holidays on the Hindu calendar. I am far from being an expert on Hindu thinking, but I would recommend to you R.K. Narayan’s famous translation of the Ramayana, a work that has a peculiar power and a great deal of beauty. It is one of the few books that I ever felt compelled to stay up all night to finish. The Ramayana tells the story of the exile and triumphant return of Rama, the story celebrated on Diwali. (One of the stories; it’s complicated.) There are lots of translations of the Ramayana, some of which may be more precise, but I really love Narayan’s. 

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.