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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Changing Culture and its Consequences

 In a number of posts over the years, I have tried to analyze the new views of history, culture and morality that have been emerging during the last few days--most recently in my post on the renaming of San Francisco schools.  Others, I am discovering, have been doing the same thing more systematically and at greater length, although major media outlets have paid them very little attention.  I recently read Cynical Theories by Helen Plumrose and James Lindsay, a very detailed, solid piece of intellectual history detailing the rise of postmodernism and five of its major offshoots: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies.  Neither Plumrose nor Lindsay is a professional academic. They in turn led my to another book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, two professional sociologists. That book includes an extremely concise history of western civilization, in effect, which dovetails with some writing that I did more than three decades ago, but also explains why the foundations of the society I and other Boomers grew up in appear to be crumbling.

Campbell and Manning define societies based upon a certain kind of culture relating to how people--especially strangers--treat one another, and how they resolve disputes. They begin with honor culture, which dominated western society during the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and which is still strong in certain parts of the world (such as the Middle East) and in certain corners of American society (such as urban gangs or in Appalachia.)  Within honor culture, people--especially, but not exclusively men--customarily respond violently to insults, and demonstrate their worth through a willingness to engage in mortal combat.  Such insults can be verbal, but they can also consist merely in failing to receive some payment, preferment or show of respect which one feels to be his due.  They might also include an unwanted advance towards a wife, daughter, or sister.  I explored in Politics and War how European politics from 1559 through 1659 were dominated by the aristocracy and its values, which monarchs in various states successively tried and failed to bring under control.  The great aristocrats routinely resorted to violence to press claims of all kinds, and walked around with armed retainers to emphasize this point.  They recognized no legal higher authority, and foreign monarchs often dealt with them as allies and equals.

Aristocracy and the honor culture began to lose ground in the late seventeenth century, I would argue, and were no longer supreme in most of Western Europe and the United States by the end of the 18th.  What Campbell and Manning call Dignity Culture--which was definitely associated with the rising middle class--replaced them.  Self-control emerged as a critical part of Dignity Culture, and middle-class people in particular (including members of racial and ethnic minorities) now made it a point of pride to ignore verbal slights.  More importantly, the legal process replaced violence as the approved means of settling disputes, and in a related development, elections replaced heredity (and periodic civil wars) as the means of distributing political power.  The American Civil War was among other things a battle between honor culture, represented by the white south, and dignity culture, represented by the North--and the North's victory gave dignity culture a boost all over the country for a long time.  Dignity culture makes particular demands upon people living within it.  They must try to show respect for strangers, and they must downplay various aspects of their identity, including their ethnic or racial origin and their religion, in favor of citizenship, which unites us all and provides us with relatively safe and legal means to resolve disputes.  On the other hand, dignity culture promises equality to anyone willing to obey its rules. The civil rights movement as it developed from 1909 until about 1967 essentially claimed the benefits of dignity culture for black Americans who were trying to play by its rules, and the passage of the civil rights acts of 1964-5 suggested that they had won that battle.  As it turned out, however, that moment coincided with the beginning of a long-term move against dignity culture throughout western society.

Dignity culture and the modern state both also claimed to value the supremacy of reason, which had explicitly been the foundation of the new American state in 1789.  The 1960s rebellion struck at the supremacy of reason, and it began among young people at the University of California at Berkeley, as I have often noted, and in other universities around the country.  The Berkeley students had gotten where they were--an amazingly favored position, as I have pointed out here many times--by obeying the rules, but many of them were evidently sick of doing so.  They resorted almost at once to illegal building occupations and later to various forms of violent protests.  Meanwhile, powerful economic interests also resented the tyranny of reason, which had forced them to give much of their income to the government to buy public goods.  It did not help matters that faulty reasoning had led the US government into the Vietnam War.  A long, steady decline of respect for both political and intellectual authority had begun.

Victimhood culture, the authors argue, emerged quite suddenly on college campuses in 2013--a point that a number of other observers have made as well.  (I saw evidence of its emergence in 2012-13, at Williams College, my last year in a formal academic position.  I had not seen it on the same campus i 2007-8.)  They associate it with the concept of "microaggression," verbal slights based on gender, race, or sexual orientation, which many now argue are equivalent to actual violence.  Once again, as in the 1960s, students have resorted to violent demonstrations on some campuses to stop speakers they regard as hurtful from making appearances.  Violence is not, however, the approved response of victimhood culture, which prefers either to "cancel" or shun offenders, or to subject them to some re-education in the form of diversity training.  Microaggression is not the only crime under the new victimhood culture.  Others include "cultural appropriation," "slut shaming," and any unwanted touching.  

Campbell and Manning acknowledge some similarities between victimhood culture and honor culture. I think they could have gone much further down this path.  Victimhood culture resembles honor culture insofar as it is based upon membership in a group.   In honor culture aristocrats (or Crips and Bloods, or Hatfields and McCoys) respond violently to any slight that does not show them the respect to which they are due.  In the same way, activists among minorities, women, LGBTs and a few other groups respond with emotional violence to anything they perceive as disrespectful of their group.  A claim of sexual assault on campus has become a protest against a whole "rape culture" claimed to prevail there, and some activists do not want to submit such claims to the established legal process--an artifact of dignity culture--because they cannot trust it to vindicate their honor.  Meanwhile, academics from these groups (as Plumrose and Lindsay show) have come to treat the whole enterprise of western civilization as an insult to their group, because they see it as a claim to the superiority of straight white males.  Questions of social policy, they claim, cannot be solved through the exercise of impartial reason, which they regard as a sham.  They must be solved so as to vindicate the honor of the affected group.  

Another attack on dignity culture is coming from the right.  It is inherent in the whole gun rights movement, a demand to reserve the right to settle even lethal disputes on one's own, without the help of higher authority.  Narcissism can be interpreted as an obsessive sense of honor, and Donald Trump's insistence that everything he ever said or did receive endless praise was another assault on dignity culture.  Such a sense of honor might even lie beyond the widespread refusal to accept the results of the election.  Dignity culture is, one might argue, the culture of centrism, and like centrism, it is under attack. 

I intend to explore these questions further in other posts, though certainly not necessarily next week. Meanwhile I will close on a very broad historical point.  Just as the supremacy of dignity culture played a key role in the construction of the society into which I was born, the undermining of dignity culture will have profound consequences as well, which could even include the collapse of our political order. All three of the cultures Campbell and Manning identified represent powerful aspects of human nature.  Their balance is critical to humanity's future.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Primary Comes Home to Roost

The New York Times reports this morning that leading elements of t he Virginia Republican party are fighting to replace their gubernatorial primary with a convention this year, because a rabid Trump supporter named Amanda Chase might win that party with as little as 30% of the vote. The institution of primaries has had its ups and downs over the last 120 years or so, particularly at the presidential level.  Not until the 1970s did they become the norm, and at that time, many political professionals worried that they might favor extreme candidates backed by activists.  The parties found ways to keep that tendency in check, especially at the presidential level, until 2016, but in the era of Donald Trump, who enjoys a broader and more dedicated personal following than any president since Ronald Reagan, it is overwhelming the Republican party.  The Virginia controversy suggests that the institution itself might possibly be in some danger.

The Progressive era invented primaries--originally in Wisconsin, the home of Robert LaFollette, to take party nominations away from corrupt party bosses and put them in the hands of the people.  California, another progressive state, went even further, and eventually instituted open primaries, in which Democrats could if they chose vote for a Republican candidate, and vice versa.  The primary also became popular in the South, where the Democrats were the only party that could win elections, and where white supremacists could legally ban black citizens from voting in party primaries--until the Supreme Court outlawed white primaries in 1944.  Many Americans do not realize how common presidential primaries had become by 1932.  In that year, Franklin Roosevelt and his two leading opponents, Al Smith and John Nance Garner, contested primaries in New Hampshire, North Dakota, West Virginia, Florida, California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.   Some states appear to have given presidential primaries up in the next 20 years, however. In 1952, the relatively young Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose televised hearings on organized crime had made him a national figure, became the first candidate to try to win the nomination against a sitting President, Harry Truman.  His primary victory in New Hampshire helped induce Truman to quit the race, but he lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who had not run in any primaries, after several ballots.

John F. Kennedy succeeded where Kefauver had failed in 1960, when primary victories in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and above all West Virginia made him the front runner and carried him to victory at the convention against Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson, who had both skipped primaries altogether.  On the Republican side, another insurgent candidate, Barry Goldwater, won the nomination in 1964 largely because of his strength in state party organizations in the heartland, but his victory over Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary also played an important role. The Democratic nomination battle of 1968 was a turning point.  Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire repeated the feat of Kefauver in 1952, when he nearly beat the stand-in candidate for President Johnson and induced him to withdraw.  Robert Kennedy also sought the nomination by the primary route, but he was expected to lose the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's successor as the establishment candidate, before his death, simply because primaries still chose so few delegates--almost none in the South, or in large states like Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois. Humphrey won the nomination handily over McCarthy, but the 1968 convention also created a convention led by Senator George McGovern to rewrite party rules to make them more Democratic. Many more states adopted primaries, and McGovern, the most left wing candidate in the race, won against Edmund Muskie and Humphrey, pushed over the top by a victory in the California primary--only to lose disastrously to Nixon in the fall.

Jimmy Carter, an outsider from Georgia, also used primaries to become the front runner over a large field of establishment Democratic candidates in 1976--while Ronald Reagan nearly took the nomination away from incumbent Gerald Ford with the help of primary victories in 1976.  Reagan easily won the nomination in 1980.  The Democratic Party establishment learned to live with the primary system.  Establishment candidates prevailed over insurgents or relative unknowns in 1984 (Mondale over Hart), 2000 (Gore over Bradley), 2004 (Kerry over Dean), 2016 (Hillary Clinton over Sanders), and 2020 (Biden over Sanders and Warren.) Bill Clinton used primaries to win in 1992 against some weak establishment figures, and Barack Obama did the same in 2008 against the overwhelming favorite, Hillary Clinton.  The Republican Party, meanwhile, nominated the party establishment's choice consistently--George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.  Then came the catastrophe of 2016.

Primary victories by extreme Republicans in Senate and House elections foreshadowed Trump's win.  The rise of the Tea Party spawned a number of successful Republican primary challenges in the House, culminating in 2014 in the defeat of Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip. In Tea Party year of 2010, extreme Republican candidates won Senatorial primaries in Nevada and Delaware, only to lose the general election.  Something similar happened in Alabama in 2019, when Roy Moore won the Republican nomination to replace Jeff Sessions, only to lose to Democrat Doug Jones--who in turn lost badly to a more acceptable Republican last year.  In 2012, Richaard Mourdock defeated long-time centrist Republican Senator Richard Lugar in an Indiana primary, only to lose the general election.  The same year however witnessed the victory of the equally conservative Jodi Ernst in purple Iowa, and she won re-election lats year.  Something similar struck the Democratic Party in urban areas in 2018, when Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in New York defeated long-time Democratic incumbents in primaries.  No comparable Democrat, however, has yet won nomination and election to the Senate.

 The rise of anti-establishment candidates in both parties--but especially among Republicans--sowed that party establishments had lost the support of substantial segments of the electorate, and Pressley's and Ocasio-Cortez's wins sent the same message.  Joe Biden's nomination and comfortable election showed that the Democratic establishment remains in charge at the national level, and gave that establishment another chance to reconnect with a broad mass of voters.  In Virginia, Republican politicians--who in so many states have been using various strategies to reduce the influence of Democratic voters--are now trying to reduce the influence of their own.  Given Donald Trump's continuing popularity among Republican voters--which inhibited Republican Senators from convicting him and disqualifying him from a future run--that tactic is likely to backfire.  It's up to the Democratic Party to show that rational, effective political leadership in a moment of crisis is still possible.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Where have we gone wrong?

Yesterday, only seven Republicans voted to convict Donald Trump, and the 57-43 vote fell well short of the necessary two-thirds majority to end his national political career. That represented significant progress over the last thirteen months, since only one Republican, Mitt Romney, voted to convict him the first time, when the evidence of his guilt was just as overwhelming, and the offense was essentially the same one, illegally attempting to change the result of an election.  The nation and the Republican Party may pay a heavy price for the failure to convict in the next four years.

That failure, of course, owed a lot to the erosion of truth as a principle of our public life.  Feelings now trump truth on both sides of the political fence, but the problem is worse among the Republicans, who  have had to sacrifice any respect for truth to maintain support for Trump and the affection of his hard-core followers.  That emerged from a remarkable exchange between George Stephanopoulos and Rand Paul about whether the election had been stolen, which is the subject today of an article in the New York Times Magazine.  Stephanopoulos repeatedly pressed Paul to acknowledge that Biden had won the election fairly, and this Paul refused to do.  Paul also accused Stephanopolous of making himself part of the story by flatly stating his own opinion that Biden clearly had won, instead of simply balancing Paul's own opinion with that of another guest who would have said the same thing.  (As a matter of fact, based on the youtube clip of the exchange, which you can easily find, that had been Stephanopolous's plan, but something went wrong and he was unable to get his Democratic guest on the air.)  Paul claimed falsely that the more than 60 judges who had dismissed Trump's lawsuits against election results had done so on grounds of lack of standing, rather than on grounds of lack of evidence.  He also claimed, tellingly, that we could not ignore the claim that the election was stolen simply because tens of millions of Republicans thought that it was.  The author of the article, Jason Zengerle, seems perplexed by the situation himself. If the Sunday morning shows refuse to talk to Republicans who will tell lies, he says, they will become indistinguishable from shows on MSNBC.

I don't think there is any simple institutional or procedural solution to this problem.  The political leaders of the early Republic--children of the Enlightenment that they were--frequently remarked that democracy could only work if the citizenry were enlightened and valued reason over partisan passion.  As early as 1801, in his first inaugural address, Jefferson worried about the violent partisanship that had emerged during his election, and tried to dampen it--successfully as it turned out--by declaring, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."  Passion--including racial and ethnic prejudice, greed, and envy--has of course always played some role in American politics, but for a long time, I have come to believe, rhetorical traditions kept it in check.   Our sound bite culture came along relatively recently, and American voters spent much more time reading or listening to their political leaders' long speeches even half a century ago than they do now.  Reading as an avocation has lost enormous ground just in the last two decades or so, and newspapers have gotten less and less popular. They too have responded by emphasizing emotion over reason and facts, expanding their opinion pages and highlighting them much more as a part of their marketing, and selecting news stories that will tweak their readers' deepest feelings.  That is as true of the Washington Post and the New York Times as it is of Fox News--even though I would agree that the Post and Times readers have somewhat better judgment.   Last. but hardly least, powerful economic interests have waged endless campaigns against truths that are dangerous to their interests.  They have persuaded most of our elites that our new, finance-based economy actually serves all our interests (it doesn't), and so far they have managed to stop serious government action against climate change.  Henry Adams warned in his presidential address to the American Historical Association that any truth that historical science uncovered would make large and important constituencies very angry.  He was right.  Meanwhile, as I have mentioned many times, truth, data, and objectivity have also fallen out of fashion in our universities, where the Enlightenment is now far more likely to be "problematized" than celebrated or emulated.

It is very easy for liberals to turn out hundreds of words lamenting the state of the Republican Party and listing its various errors and untruths.  I do that relatively little largely because I know it won't change any Republican minds, and because it diverts Democrats from focusing on the serious problems within their own party.  Patriotism, to me, means, among other things, holding your own nation to a higher standard, and I see party loyalty the same way.  I am disgusted beyond measure by Mitch McConnell, who yesterday followed up on his vote for acquittal with a speech explaining why Trump was guilty as charged.  But I am also appalled by this Washington Post op-ed by Vice President Kamala Harris, which discusses the economic impact of the pandemic entirely from the perspective of the 5.1 million women who have lost their jobs, without the slightest acknowledgement that exactly the same fate has befallen 4.1 million men.  FDR in his first inaugural address declared, "Our greatest task is to put people to work." Not men. Not women. People.  Perhaps he understood that male and female votes counted equally--and that any effective solution would help both.

Most of our leading institutions now run on a mixture of self-interest and ideology, and visible independent voices are very rare.  I write these posts for the benefit of readers who want something different, and who are trying, like myself, to keep their heads while many around us are losing theirs.  I hope that the younger ones among us, at least, will see the pendulum swing back towards calm and reason  Meanwhile, we can all try to keep those qualities alive.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Enemies, enemies everywhere

 Every Fourth Turning or great crisis identifies enemies--foreign, domestic, or both--and persecutes them. That spirit usually persists into the subsequent High for a few years before giving way to renewed consensus.   In the Revolutionary War the enemies were Tories, many of whom lost their property after the war and had to flee to Canada, and at the end of the 1774-1794 crisis, the emerging Federalist and Republican parties began to treat one another as deadly enemies linked to foreign powers--the Federalists to Britain, the Republicans to revolutionary France. In the Civil War the internal enemies were unionists in the South and southern sympathizers or Copperheads in the North, and animosities persisted through Reconstruction.  In the 1929-45 crisis the chosen enemies included "economic royalists," the Nazi and the Japanese governments (and by extension, Germans and Japanese-Americans within the US), and then, from 1946 or so until 1954, Communists and other left-wingers. We are watching the same pattern in this Crisis, but we have failed to agree on enemies, and still lackl the consensus that could bring this pattern to an end. 

If one believes, as I do, that the crisis began in 2001, then the first enemy, obviously, became foreign terrorists. The Bush II administration created whole new bureaucracies and legions of private contractors to fight them at home, while going to war against them abroad. The FBI tried to infiltrate them at home and sent a number of people to jail who had done nothing but discuss possible terrorist acts with FBI informers.   The FBI meanwhile cut back its efforts on a number of other crime fronts, including domestic terrorism and white collar crime.  A few individual terrorists did perpetrate attacks in the Bush II and Obama years--the killing of federal employees in San Bernardino and of soldiers in  San Antonio; a failed bomb in Times Square; and the Marathon bombings in Boston in 2013.  Islamic terrorism within the US has faded as a threat, however, while our attempts to defeat it overseas, while changing regimes we claimed had supported it, have led to endless wars and foreign catastrophes.

Oddly, when Donald J. Trump came into office in 2017 with a new enemy in view--illegal immigrants--that population had already become the federal government's number 1 enemy under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Such deportations climbed steadily from about 180,000 in 2002 to a peak of 432,000 in 2012, before falling quite steeply to about 300,000 in 2017.  They increased again under Donald Trump, but have not reached the 2012 peak.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration also made it much harder for potential immigrants to come into the United States and seek asylum.  The Biden Administration now wants to pass a law granting a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants within the US--that is, to potential deportees--but we do not know whether such a law has any chance of passing, or how much the new administration will change the asylum rules again.  Trump also tried to turn ANTIFA into a prime domestic enemy in the eyes of the public, but apparently without success.

Now, because of the attack on the US Capitol, a new enemy, right-wing domestic terrorists, have taken center stage.  Hundreds of them will rightly be indicted and prosecuted for entering the building, and the FBI is reportedly focusing more on their networks.  The assault upon them has extended to a sympathizer in Congress, Marjorie Taylor Green, who has been stripped of her committee assignments by the Democrats in the House (with a few Republicans joining in.)  Interestingly enough, this never happened to any of the few pro-Communist legislators in the Congress during the late 1940s, such as Vito Marcantonio of New York.  The spirit of proscription lives today, just as it did in earlier crises and their aftermath.

Unfortunately, in one key respect, this crisis is different.  Most of the earlier enemies--Tories, Copperheads, and postwar Communists---represented genuine enemies of the United States whose defeat became apparent to all, or nearly all, of us. The internment of Japanese-Americans who had done nothing wrong was a terrible mistake, but when Japan was defeated it was logical to release them and they resumed their lives as citizens.  But so far, none of the enemies upon which we have turned the federal government in the last twenty years really represented a deadly threat that was overcome in a clear American triumph.  Such triumphs in earlier eras created some kind of new national consensus and reaffirmed national unity.  That is still lacking today.  We must hope that the COVID-19 virus might play the role of a truly serious enemy that a determined government and public managed to defeat.