Commentary Magazine


Topic: liberalism

Liberalism’s Setbacks Aren’t Fatal

Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

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Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

The continuing ObamaCare disaster, the IRS corruption revelations, and the manifold foreign-policy failures of the Obama-led Democrats over the last year led to a cratering of the public’s faith in the left and produced a trouncing at the polls for Democrats in the midterms. With Saturday’s runoff defeat of Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu coupled with the GOP gains in states Obama won, it is the Democrats who appear at risk of being considered a regional party–an epithet they tossed at Republicans in 2012. How are the Democrats handling being washed out of the South almost entirely? Not well, if Michael Tomasky’s public breakdown is any indication:

Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment. A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people! (I truly mean that.)

With Landrieu’s departure, the Democrats will have no more senators from the Deep South, and I say good. Forget about it. Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.

The funniest part is the headline: “Dems, It’s Time to Dump Dixie.” In fact, Dixie has clearly already dumped the Dems. If it were only the South, Tomasky’s neo-secessionism would at least be somewhat viable. But the Democrats have lost, at least for the time being, too much of the country to run away from.

The drubbing the Democrats have taken, sealed with Landrieu’s loss, has been so bad that you kind of want to put an arm around Tomasky, buy him a double bourbon (Kentucky isn’t technically part of the Deep South, right? He can still have bourbon?) and tell him it gets better. Because it always does.

Many obituaries were written for American conservatism by the concern-trolling left in the wake of President Obama’s two victories (the first supposedly heralding the death of conservatism, the second confirming it). They were all, without exception, deeply ahistoric and scandalously stupid items of triumphalist rubbish.

But for sheer symbolism, the crowning jewel of the group is without a doubt the essay, later expanded into a book, published in February 2009: “Conservatism Is Dead,” by Sam Tanenhaus. It ran in the New Republic.

Less than six years later, conservatism is alive and the New Republic is dead.

Not really dead, mind you. But to its writers and devotees, it is. I should say ex-writers and ex-devotees, because when last week news broke that Chris Hughes, the accidental Facebook billionaire (or almost-billionaire) and owner of TNR, shoved Frank Foer out the door and with him went Leon Wieseltier, a mass exodus ensued. That’s not only because Foer is beloved by his peers and Wieseltier is an institution. It’s also because Hughes has announced he doesn’t think magazines with lots of big words are worth keeping around anymore, bro, and the literary tradition should be replaced with whatever passing fad can be monetized at this very moment. Carpe diem, and all that jazz. (Well not jazz, I guess, which is a bit nuanced and old and has absolutely no cat gifs in it whatsoever; but you get the point.)

Critics of American liberalism have pointed out, however, that the Altneurepublic being mourned was not the Altneurepublic of popular imagination. There seems to be a general consensus, in fact, that the decline and fall of that TNR became undeniable with its infamous anti-intellectual anthem which began “I hate President George W. Bush,” published about a decade ago.

Not that there weren’t warning signs along the way. The best of these in recent years might be this 2013 Reason magazine piece by Matt Welch mourning “the death” not of liberalism, but “of contrarianism.” With the new New Republic, Welch lamented, the magazine’s modern incarnation as a constructive questioner of liberal received wisdom was gone:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

Liberalism is in crisis for many reasons, but surely one of them is this: it has ceased to look at itself in the mirror. If it did, would it be horrified by what it saw? One hopes.

Whatever the answer, conservatives must also understand the difference between crisis and death. Liberals are still here. The president is a liberal, and the next one might be a liberal too. Democrats have less than half the Senate but not much less than half the Senate. And it was not all that long ago that the country found itself in the bizarre situation of having to pay attention to Nancy Pelosi.

It’s true that a genuinely intellectual liberalism is nowhere to be found at the moment. But it’ll wander back. Crises are good times for political movements to take stock and cease pretending everything is just fine. It is not a matter of if, but when the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. And conservatives should be aware and humble enough to see it coming.

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The Midterms, the Jewish Vote, and Liberalism’s Price of Admission

In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

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In the wake of the Republican victory in the 2014 midterms, the left aimed some of its most spiteful rhetoric at the women and minorities elevated into office in the GOP wave. Perhaps the most cringe-inducing display of delegitimization belonged to the author Darron T. Smith, who wrote in the Huffington Post that Utah Republican Mia Love “might look black, but her politics are red.” Yet strangely enough, the best way to understand liberal anger at Republican African-Americans and women is through this Atlantic piece analyzing the Jewish vote in the midterm elections.

In “Are Democrats Losing the Jews?” Emma Green attempts to understand why Democrats’ share of the Jewish vote decreased and what that means both for American Jews and the Democratic Party going forward. The unfortunate aspect to Green’s story is that she has the facts in front of her, so her conclusion is the result of ignoring, not utilizing, the information at her disposal. Though at various points in the article she seems to begin to understand the issue, in the end she concludes with a statement that sets a new standard for being wrong about the Jewish vote.

Green notes that although Democrats usually enjoy an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote, at times truly terrible presidents cost their party a notable swath of those votes. Jimmy Carter, for example, only received 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. Seen in that light, it’s not terribly surprising that although President Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot in the midterms, his relentless attacks on Israel’s government and his downgrading of the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war were bound to cost Democrats some of the Jewish vote.

Green then digs into last year’s Pew report on Jewish identity and assimilation. She attempts to draw some conclusions:

But these statistics do provide some context for what’s happening among Jewish voters. In 2006, 87 percent of Jews voted for Democratic candidates for the House, as did 50 percent of white Catholics and 37 percent of white Protestants—a 37- and 50-percentage point difference, respectively. In 2014, those gaps narrowed: There was only a 12-point difference between Jews and white Catholics, and a 40-point difference between Jews and white Protestants. Those are still big differences, obviously, but the conclusion is there: Jews are voting more like white people.

Put aside the “Jews are voting more like white people” remark: it’s clumsy and obviously silly, but we know what Green was trying to say. She then says that Republicans aren’t necessarily going to start winning the Jewish vote. “But,” she concludes, “it may be that, as a people as much as a voting bloc, Jews are becoming less influenced by their Jewishness.”

And here we have the liberal mindset perfectly distilled. Just like Darron Smith thinks blacks who don’t vote for Democrats are in some way voting against their “blackness,” and Ann Friedman can write that Republican women aren’t “truly pro-woman,” the idea undergirding Green’s conclusion is that liberalism is political Judaism. Of course that’s insulting to those who take their Jewish faith seriously, and it’s certainly a creepy parallel to the “price of admission” ideology of leftism going back to the French Revolution. But it’s also, crucially, wrong.

There has been no major swing of the Jewish vote away from Democrats, and there likely won’t be. But incremental gains by the GOP are not evidence of Jews being less Jewish; they’re exactly the opposite. Although the Orthodox are far from being anywhere close to a majority of American Jews–and will remain far from it for quite some time, even if current trends hold–they are still increasing their share of American Jews. As the numbers have increased, so has their political activism. And they are much more likely to care not only about Israel but about issues like school choice and economic liberty, to say nothing of religious liberty. (Pew found that “57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party.”)

The Orthodox Union took some heat from other corners of the Jewish world for supporting the Catholic-driven attempts to allow religious exemptions from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The OU’s Nathan Diament explained that the organization did so not because it opposes birth control but because “we, particularly as a religious minority in the United States, must stand in solidarity with people of all faiths in demanding the broadest protections for rights of conscience in the face of government (and socio-cultural) coercion to the contrary.”

It’s no surprise that as the share of observant Jews increases, those Jews will be less likely to support a Democratic Party that is increasingly hostile to religious freedom and faith more generally, and instead support a Republican Party that seeks to protect religious practice from the authoritarian instincts of statist liberalism. Green could not be more wrong, in other words, about Jewish identity and voting trends. But her analysis was just one more example that modern liberalism requires its adherents to sacrifice all other aspects of their identity for The Cause. If minorities must choose between their community and leftist doctrine, it’s encouraging that many of them choose the former.

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For Dems, All Roads Lead to Hillary

The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

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The conventional wisdom on whether the shellacking experienced by the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections was good for Hillary Clinton’s prospects is shifting slightly. It began even before the elections, when the writing was on the wall. “If Democrats lose the Senate, the 2016 Democratic nominee can run against Congress and Senate Democrats would be poised to recapture it in two years,” a senior Capitol Hill Democrat told TIME magazine’s Zeke Miller for an October 15 story.

Miller continued: “In Democrats’ telling, likely-candidate Hillary Clinton could run on a narrative of Republican obstruction to passing legislation on issues like income inequality, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.” Indeed, President Obama’s attempts to run against a “do-nothing Congress” were always ridiculous, since the Democrats controlled the Senate, shut the GOP out of the process, and everything had to go through Harry Reid (and thus, Obama) to make it to the Senate floor. But once the Republicans actually won the Senate and controlled both houses of Congress, the thinking went, the fiction of a do-nothing Congress controlled by the other side becomes plausible.

After the election turned out even worse for Democrats than expected, this spin held steady. It was argued that when Democrats lost the race to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, it weakened an already shaky prospective challenger to Clinton. And as one Democratic operative told the Washington Post, Republicans would likely spend the next two years trying to undo some of the Obama administration’s handiwork, enabling Hillary to “both make the case against the Republicans while currying favor with the Obama base.”

As time went on, however, the Democrats’ attempts to spin the loss caused a clash of two self-soothing narratives. The idea that a Republican majority could help Hillary be the savior in 2016 ran up against the White House’s preferred narrative: that the low turnout of the midterms compared to presidential elections meant the Democrats really didn’t have a crisis on their hands. They didn’t need a savior because, they argued, demographics still favored them in presidential years. That meant that not only were they in good shape for 2016, but that a good turnout could give them back the Senate only two years after losing it.

Such consolation was temporary, however, when Democrats realized the implications of their spin: gridlock, not liberal triumph. After all, if they would struggle in midterm congressional elections, it meant they could kiss their emerging Democratic majority goodbye. All of a sudden it didn’t matter quite so much if 2014 was good for Hillary’s 2016 hopes: they already held a built-in advantage in presidential elections. And yet, here’s the situation in which they found themselves the morning after, as the Washington Post reported:

While the GOP is likely to control 54 percent of all Senate seats and 56 percent (or so) of the House come January, it also will now control more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers across the country — as in nearly seven in 10. And given Republicans also won at least 31 governorships, they are basically in control of the state government in 24 states. That could soon hit 25 if they win the still-undetermined governor’s race in Alaska.

That meant, according to the WaPo, “47.8 percent of Americans will now be led by GOP-controlled governments with little/no ability for Democrats to thwart them. …Democrats, meanwhile, will govern unilaterally in states with just 15.6 percent of Americans — less than one-sixth of the country. And that’s with the nation’s biggest state, California, firmly in their back pocket. Without that, they would govern over just 3.5 percent (less than one-25th) of the nation’s residents.”

The new spin was that Democrats had to find some way to animate their base so they could chip away at local Republican dominance. One way to do that would be to draft a challenger to Hillary Clinton from the left. There are not many to choose from after Elizabeth Warren, who almost certainly isn’t running. Jim Webb isn’t a threat to Hillary, and neither is the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders. What to do?

A better idea, as Noam Scheiber points out in a smart piece for the New Republic, is to expand the coalition. That’s what Republicans did to win these midterms so resoundingly. Democrats need to win back some–not all, nor even most, just some–white working-class voters, Scheiber writes. Democrats’ ability to do so has deteriorated because the populism that appeals to some of their voters repels other voters, and the same goes for social issues.

What can Democrats do to solve this puzzle? Scheiber has good news: once again, it’s a problem that is in the process of solving itself. Thus:

there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. … The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today.

Scheiber raises one glaring weakness in this strategy: Hillary’s not a great fit for the role. And that, in the end, tells us why Democrats will end up with Hillary anyway, and that even if she doesn’t give them their permanent majority she’s still their best choice. The Democrats don’t have anyone on their bench who is both a populist firebrand and can win. So we’re back to square one: Democrats can run a populist from Hillary’s left. Hillary will mimic whatever populism she needs to, even though she doesn’t mean it, to win the nomination. And the Occupy Democrats will recede back into irrelevance.

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Don’t Fear Civil Society

Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

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Any Republican midterm success is going to be treated by some corners of the media, inevitably, as a version of the “angry white male” meme that is both thoroughly discredited and utterly unkillable. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote yesterday at NRO, “Ever since the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings diagnosed Republican gains in the 1994 midterm elections with the deathless phrase ‘The voters had a temper tantrum,’ every midterm setback for a Democratic president has inspired mainstream media pros to let loose their inner Sigmund Freuds.”

Cavanaugh drew attention to one response at Yahoo News that painted the electorate as “self-loathing.” Cavanaugh’s post was headlined “Goodbye, Angry White Men; Hello, ‘Self-Loathing Electorate’.” If only. Just hours after Cavanaugh inaugurated this new era, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte predictably took readers back to bad old days of hackneyed hackery with her post, “Revenge of the White Male Voter.”

Now, the days in which such an “analysis” would be taken seriously are long gone. These days it would appear there is nothing to fear from a white male voter especially if he’s Republican, since Republican voters swept into Congress minorities, women, and minority women this year. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black senator elected in the South since Reconstruction. But whether it’s vengeful white males or a self-loathing electorate, you can be sure the media’s leftists will find any sweeping Republican victories utterly incomprehensible.

There’s one kind of analysis, however, that goes beyond the usual trite nonsense. Another narrative started taking hold on the left that the 2014 midterms prove the system itself is broken. There were a rash of such columns and blog posts before the election, when the writing was on the wall. It has not stopped, since the election turned out worse for Democrats than it seemed. And I think it’s worth drawing attention to one such critique of the American polity, which is far more advanced a thought process than sputtering rage about white men electing black women to Congress. It comes via the New York Times’s Nick Kristof. He writes:

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

So far so good, if a bit clichéd. I agree, and have written as much, about the nobility of politics. That has less to do with politics as a profession and more to do with the fact that democratic politics is a far healthier way for citizens to resolve political disputes than any other on offer. But still, the point stands. Kristof, unfortunately, goes further:

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

I have to say that I find this incredibly encouraging. I don’t want the country to abandon professional politics completely, and I don’t think that’ll happen. Instead, the best thing that could happen to American politics is the reinvigoration of the “little platoons.”

There’s a serious disconnect, most prominently on the left today, between supporting the idea of charity and supporting the true practice of it. The left tends to think in terms of collective action when that collective action is taken through the state. Liberals believe that as long as someone has a good provided for them, it doesn’t matter if it’s through private charity or the state–that in fact it might even be better if it’s done through the state because that implicates everyone else in the act and it suggests the existence of a program through which more people could obtain such goods.

It could not be further from the truth, because when the state takes on a role as the sole provider society unlearns the habits necessary for a self-governing people. Additionally, for the government to be able to afford what it should provide, we need talented young people to go into business and strengthen the private sector. I don’t know exactly what Kristof means when he says “social enterprise,” but the fact that the people he meets want to bring about societal improvement themselves rather than by electing someone else who promises to do it for them it a sign of a healthy polity.

Government shouldn’t be toxic. But neither should private enterprise be equated with cynicism. We need both undertaking their proper responsibilities. And it sounds like Kristof is meeting bright young Americans who agree.

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Warren Is Hillary’s Unwitting Collaborator

There is a fair amount of irony buried throughout Maggie Haberman’s entertaining story on how Elizabeth Warren is “vexing” Hillary Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign even without running herself. The story is a good reminder of one reason Warren isn’t likely to run: she doesn’t have to. Left unsaid is the corollary: Warren is a populist on the campaign trail but a heavyhanded wielder of power and a surprising policy lightweight in the Senate. Most of Warren’s appeal is what leftists pretend she could be, not what she really is.

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There is a fair amount of irony buried throughout Maggie Haberman’s entertaining story on how Elizabeth Warren is “vexing” Hillary Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign even without running herself. The story is a good reminder of one reason Warren isn’t likely to run: she doesn’t have to. Left unsaid is the corollary: Warren is a populist on the campaign trail but a heavyhanded wielder of power and a surprising policy lightweight in the Senate. Most of Warren’s appeal is what leftists pretend she could be, not what she really is.

So Warren not only doesn’t have to run to impact the party’s political future; she’s probably better off not running. Her actual policies range from nonsensical to intellectually bankrupt, but her shallow applause lines are perfectly calibrated to what the economic illiterates of the leftist fringe want to hear. Warren can be a hero without ruining the economy, because she won’t have the power to ruin the economy. Put her in the Oval Office and the calculus changes. She would also be exposed further as a suffocating regulator with an academic’s flimsy and theoretical understanding of complicated economics.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t have such an obstacle holding her back, because her fan base doesn’t care about serious policy. The cult of Hillary is powered by pure identity politics, and Clinton is a mainstream figure in Democratic Party governance. That is to say, she intends to be the figurehead of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, much like Obama has been. Obama’s one major policy “accomplishment,” after all, was a launching pad for newly created regulatory behemoths to make policy that fell outside the intent or oversight of Congress.

When it comes to Hillary, it’s about what (and who) she represents. As an executive, all indications are that she’s a terrible manager, as her time at Foggy Bottom proved. And she’s interested in symbolic politics, not nuts-and-bolts governance–again, her time as secretary of state showed her to be risk-averse and image hyperconscious.

Ideologically, the contrast is interesting. Hillary doesn’t actually believe in anything, so she’s running as a representative of her Wall Street funders who appear to be even writing her “populist” talking points for her. This is one reason Warren won’t go away and wants to at least keep Hillary on her toes. For Clinton, it’s all a game. Nothing has any real significance for how she’d govern. Clinton is coopting Warren’s populist rhetoric for the express purpose of empowering precisely those economic actors Warren is railing against.

So how to handle the contradiction? Warren’s supporters liked the idea of Clinton having to look over her shoulder and see Warren because they knew it meant pushing Clinton to the left. But it really meant pushing Clinton’s rhetoric to the left. In actuality, it allows Clinton to crowd out any space there might be for Warren by mimicking her and then forgetting she and her supporters even exist.

That’s why Clinton’s populist rhetoric is so strained and clumsy. The most recent example was when she made the ridiculous statement that businesses don’t create jobs. It’s not that Clinton actually believes instead that the Job Fairy leaves jobs under the pillows of good liberals. It’s that Clinton has no idea how to play the populist because she doesn’t think along those lines economically and she very clearly doesn’t like interacting with the populace at all.

Haberman is exceedingly generous, calling the gaffe “a misdelivered line about businesses not creating jobs.” That kind of life-raft spin from the media to cover for Hillary will crop up throughout the campaign. But it didn’t cause a bigger splash because the expectations for Hillary’s discussion of policy are so low. Haberman also includes Hillary’s own pushback:

Clinton allies are quick to point out that the woman who was synonymous with the government-led “Hillarycare” effort has a claim on economic populism. She gave a speech discussing the anger people feel in the current economy earlier this year. Her speeches for other candidates this fall have hit the core issues of the new Democratic populism, and she has woven in a message similar to her husband’s from 1992 about raising the middle class.

But she is not yet a candidate delivering her own pitch, and she has shown she is still figuring out the notes to strike.

And that last line gives it away. What jumps out about Hillary’s campaign is the soullessness of it all. She’s still “figuring out the notes to strike” because she doesn’t write her own songs. She’s a cover artist, down at the local pub mangling Mr. Jones and waiting for the next request.

Warren might actually be enjoying all this–though temperamentally, she does not appear to be a person who enjoys anything, ever, and doesn’t want you too either. That’s something she and Clinton have in common. But humorlessness is just another box to check to win the favor of the American left, and Hillary fulfills that requirement. Warren may think she’s influencing Hillary or the campaign, when in reality she’s merely an ornament. The corporatists in her party, who hold the real power, are happy to keep up the charade.

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George Will and the Liberal Inquisition on Campus

Few will be surprised to learn that the conservative commentator George Will has become the latest public figure to have fallen victim to the growing trend of colleges disinviting their guest speakers. There has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of these cancellations in recent years, with conservatives inevitably bearing the brunt of it. But the case of Will’s cancelation comes with an added poignancy, one that makes the affair sound like parody even by the standards of this already ridiculous phenomenon. For Will had been due to speak as part of Scripps College’s annual Elizabeth Hebert Malott Public Affairs Program. And the thing about this program is that it was specifically created to bring conservative speakers to the campus. Just not too conservative, apparently.

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Few will be surprised to learn that the conservative commentator George Will has become the latest public figure to have fallen victim to the growing trend of colleges disinviting their guest speakers. There has been a dramatic upsurge in the number of these cancellations in recent years, with conservatives inevitably bearing the brunt of it. But the case of Will’s cancelation comes with an added poignancy, one that makes the affair sound like parody even by the standards of this already ridiculous phenomenon. For Will had been due to speak as part of Scripps College’s annual Elizabeth Hebert Malott Public Affairs Program. And the thing about this program is that it was specifically created to bring conservative speakers to the campus. Just not too conservative, apparently.

The mission statement of the Elizabeth Herbert Malott Public Affairs Program asserts its belief that “a range of opinions about the world – especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree – leads to a better educational experience.” As such, the program undertakes to bring to campus speakers with views that differ from the majority of those at the college. No doubt a worthy and much needed undertaking at this progressive all-women’s liberal arts college where a recent survey failed to find a single registered Republican among the faculty.

Even so, it still seems somewhat odd that such initiatives should be required in the first place. Has academia really become so uniformly liberal that specific programs now need to be created so that for one day a year a conservative can be shipped in and paraded around like some rare and exotic creature? Held up before the students so that, should they ever meet one in later life, they will know what a conservative looks like?

Either way, George Will is one conservative that students at Scripps won’t now be exposed to. Will himself maintains that his invitation was revoked on account of a controversial column he penned back in June, although the college hasn’t actually specified that to be the reason. The column, which was on the subject of sexual assault on campus, certainly caused some uproar. When Will questioned both the stats and the disciplinary procedures that colleges have been adopting regarding sexual assault, he provoked an almighty backlash against himself. Will subsequently claimed that he was actually seeking to take sexual assault more seriously, not less. But four Democratic Senators thought the wrongheadedness of Will’s views to be of such national urgency that they authored a letter to him on the subject, while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch felt compelled to drop Will’s twice-weekly column.

Whether it was this column or something else that offended sensibilities at Scripps, it seems ludicrous to have a program dedicated to showcasing individuals with alternative views only to then disqualify those individuals who have dared to question certain sacred cows of liberal-think. One by one, all the issues get set beyond the realm of debate or discussion and the walls of the liberal echo chamber become ever more impenetrable. It is hardly surprising then that just so many conservative figures have found themselves deemed beyond the pale of acceptability, with students and faculty alike petitioning their institutions to disinvite conservative speakers. In recent years Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali have all had their invitations to speak on campus withdrawn.

A disturbing culture of perpetual indignation seems to be rendering students apparently unable to so much as countenance hearing alternative points of view, and it has only grown worse in recent years. Research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education suggests that since 1987 there have been 145 cases of speakers being disinvited by colleges. But alarmingly close to 100 of these have occurred over the past five years.

Theoretically, Will should have been sheltered from this storm of censorship now being demanded by liberal students and academics. Yet even a program dedicated to allowing some conservative views on campus wasn’t safe from the inquisition. Perhaps Will’s tone was indeed hurtful and offensive to many people. But as the cliché goes, the only society worth living in is one in which your deepest feelings can be offended. Liberals, however, have for some time now been engaged in a project to turn academia into a society of their very own, one in which they will never have to hear an opposing view ever again.

Some have suggested redressing the political imbalance by creating “conservative studies departments” at our universities. But as with the program on which Will was due to speak, by placing all the conservatives in some kind of menagerie rather than having them as tenured academics in standard departments, the message is only reinforced that conservatives are an oddity not for mainstream academic life.

Following the disinviting of Will, Christopher DeMuth, the former head of AEI, has resigned his position on the program’s selection committee. Perhaps this is just as well; conservatives should hardly be bestowing upon such Stalinist institutions the veneer of tolerance and openness.

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Bill and Hillary’s Awkward Iowa Adventure

Hillary Clinton is running for president. And running, as fast as she can, away from Iowa.

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Hillary Clinton is running for president. And running, as fast as she can, away from Iowa.

The former secretary of state was in Iowa over the weekend for outgoing Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry. It’s one of the many Iowa non-campaign campaign events that have made the state’s role in presidential politics both essential and insufferable. And though her husband was on his best behavior, the event still raised the persistent question of whether Bill is helping or hurting his wife’s presidential ambitions.

It’s not a new question, of course: Newsweek asked it in 2007, the last time Hillary was running for president with Bill at her side. But it usually centers on his tendency toward bad behavior and his caddish history with women, at a time when the Democratic Party is running most of its campaigns on its own fabricated war on women. (Monica Lewinsky’s recent return to the news was facilitated by liberals, not mischievous conservatives.)

Yet the Iowa steak fry showed a different side of this possible hindrance: when Bill is doing precisely what the campaign needs of him–generally being the Democrats’ ambassador to anyone who doesn’t live on a coast–he so completely outshines Hillary as to make abundantly clear Hillary’s great weaknesses as a candidate. For one, Bill Clinton likes people. As Michael Barone wrote recently, contrasting the former president with the current one: “If you were in a room with Bill Clinton, he would discover the one issue out of 100 on which you agreed; he would probe you with questions, comments, suggestions; and he would tell you that you enabled him to understand it far better than he ever had before.”

Contrast that with how the Economist describes Hillary’s photo-op at the fry:

Mrs Clinton was the guest star at the 37th and final “Harkin Steak Fry”, a combined outdoor picnic, political fundraiser and gathering of the clans for Iowa progressives, hosted by the state’s outgoing Democratic senator, Tom Harkin. While a crowd of several thousand Democrats waited on a sloping, grassy field below, Mrs Clinton, her husband and Senator Harkin staged a mini-grilling of steaks for the press at a single barbecue grill in a fenced-off enclosure, framed by a handsome tree and a picnic table filled with some patient Iowans. Mrs Clinton gamely posed, pretending to grill a steak that had been pre-cooked for her. After briefly ducking into a small building, she emerged to exchange some careful banter with reporters.

The Duchess of Chappaqua can only pretend to grill a steak, just as she can only pretend to know what a grill is. She was nice enough to go sans tiara to mingle with the press while pretending to mingle with the commoners, but she might have done better not to act as though visiting a remote Amazonian tribe whose language she couldn’t hope to understand.

And where was Bill during all this? Practically crowd surfing:

Ex-President Bill Clinton could hardly be dragged from the press, cheerfully ignoring aides who kept calling “OK, guys, thank you” to reporters, as if we were holding their boss captive, and “Got to go eat a veggie burger” (a reference to Mr Clinton’s heart-conscious vegan diet). He had thoughts to offer on the mid-term elections (Democrats are in better shape than people think) and his red gingham shirt, a gift from his wife (“I worried I looked like a tablecloth in a diner,” he confided).

There is no question Hillary has benefited from her husband’s success, so there is a limit to the debate over whether Bill’s a help or a hindrance. Additionally, the type of weaknesses often matter in politics more than anything. Hillary has an obvious aversion to the commoners. She is not a people person, and does not appear to like the voters whose support she needs. She does not like the press, though they would step in front of a train for her. And the Democratic Party she seeks to lead is, more than ever, disgusted by freethinking individualism and nonconformist behavior. So every interaction with the voters is, for Hillary, a mine field.

And it doesn’t help, either, that the Democrats’ identity politics necessitate a total lack of humor. Their comedians become court jesters at the thought of another Clinton presidency; Stephen Colbert, in his move to late-night television, will go from impersonating Bill O’Reilly to impersonating Giacomo.

It is into this stuffy, grievance-filled atmosphere that Hillary will send Bill, the last liberal not named Brian Schweitzer who can smile without being prodded by an aide to do so. The message from Hillary’s campaign is simple: You probably don’t like me, and I don’t like you; but my husband’s a funny guy, and he’s the free toaster you get by signing up for Hillary.

Is it a winning slogan? Don’t be so eager to write it off. For one thing, this sort of campaign phoniness is usually a hindrance in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, especially during a primary contest. But if Hillary’s campaign continues into 2016, there won’t be a primary contest. Iowa voters won’t choose Martin O’Malley over Hillary because she doesn’t grill her own steaks. It’s doubtful heartland voters would choose O’Malley over a root canal, in fact.

Does it hold Hillary back in the general election? Like every version of this question, the answer depends on who her opponent is. But a more interesting question is whether it helps or hurts Hillary to have Bill on the campaign trail with her. Voters may like talking to Bill, but at a certain point they’re going to notice that like actors need stunt doubles, their would-be president needs a schmooze double.

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BuyPartisan and Our Polarized, Overly Politicized Civic Culture

Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

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Have you tuned in to recent congressional floor debates, read political blogs, or watched prime-time political talks shows and thought to yourself: “What this country needs is more polarization with an extra helping of mutual suspicion and the politicization of everything you keep in your house”? If so, you might need a sabbatical from political media. What you most certainly don’t need, but probably very much want, is this iPhone app that can enable your full transformation into a raving lunatic.

It’s called BuyPartisan, which is clever. It allows you to scan the barcode of products at the grocery store to see how that company allocates its political donations. It was created by Matthew Colbert, formerly a Capitol Hill staffer. For those whose political advocacy is a bit high-proof but not yet completely insufferable, the app will help them reach their potential. According to CBS, the app has about 100,000 users, which suggests there are very many people across the country desperate for a way to stop getting dinner-party invitations.

As the L.A. Times reported:

“We’re trying to make every day election day for people,” Colbert said, adding that the app helps consumers support products that reflect their political beliefs.

BuyPartisan doesn’t directly urge users to boycott products, but that’s likely how many consumers will use it.

Well then I suppose this proves there is such a thing as too much democracy. In any event, Colbert was the first to develop the app, but he wasn’t the first to attempt to release this virus into the air:

It’s all based on publicly available data compiled by non-profit groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

“My first reaction was, cool, we tried to do that!” Sunlight’s Gabriela Schneider said.

More such wisdom from Schneider:

“When I go to vote and when I go to make a purchase, I should know what’s the politics behind that. I should be able to know who’s behind the political ad that’s telling me to vote this way or that way,” Schneider said.

At the very least, it makes you look at your household products in a different way.

If you were wondering if it’s at all possible for a news organization to publish a story about political spending and not find the long and winding road that inevitably leads to the Koch brothers, the answer is: No, it’s not possible. The media’s Koch obsession is just who they are at this point:

The app showed 95 percent of contributions made by Quilted Northern toilet papers went to Republicans. The parent company, Georgia Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries.

“So for those that really care about it and who like that side, they can buy it,” Colbert said. “And for those that don’t like that side, they can go, ‘Maybe I don’t want to buy it. Maybe there’s a different toilet paper I want.'”

I suppose you can look at the Quilted Northern aspect in two ways, if you’re a Democrat whose daily activity is governed by DNC talking points. On the one hand, Harry Reid told you the Kochs are un-American, and therefore you perhaps won’t give them your money. On the other hand, it would be completely demented to boycott toilet paper made by a company whose parent company is owned by libertarians. The question, then, comes down to whether you’ve managed to follow politics closely and keep your sanity.

On a more serious note, such apps would be harmless if we lived in a society that could handle such detailed information with a sense of dignity. Unfortunately, we know what many people will do with such information. Last year, the CEO of Mozilla (developers of the Firefox browser) was forced to step down after committing the thought crime of years ago donating to the prop 8 ballot initiative in California, which opposed gay marriage.

I personally know someone who received death threats after donating to the campaign of a Republican governor, and I am certainly not alone in that regard. We have seen a demand for full campaign donor transparency coupled with the IRS’s witch hunt targeting conservative and pro-Israel political activists, a very clear signal from national Democrats that political voices are to be identified for the purpose of silencing them.

The instinct to have everything on your grocery shopping list conform to an unyielding loyalty to a political party is not a healthy one. And neither is an app that caters to it.

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Ben Carson Once Again Slanders America

Via Mediaite, Dr. Ben Carson–a best-selling author and Fox News contributor who’s hinting he might run for president in 2016–is once again comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

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Via Mediaite, Dr. Ben Carson–a best-selling author and Fox News contributor who’s hinting he might run for president in 2016–is once again comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.

Having previously said America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” Dr. Carson was asked about this by the Washington Post. Does he regret the comparison? The answer: No.

“You can’t dance around it,” he told the Post. “If people look at what I said and were not political about it, they’d have to agree. Most people in Germany didn’t agree with what Hitler was doing…. Exactly the same thing can happen in this country if we are not willing to stand up for what we believe in.”

So does Dr. Carson really believe that dispassionate people “have to agree” with him that America today is “very much like Nazi Germany”? This claim, having been stated and re-stated, is what you’d expect from a disoriented mind.

Just for the record, according to the widely respected Freedom House, on a scale of one to seven–with one being the best rating–the U.S. earned the highest rating possible in the three areas Freedom House examines: freedom status, political rights, and civil rights. So far from being very much like one of the most tyrannical and malignant regimes in human history, America is one of the freest nations on earth. Not perfect for sure; but not Nazi Germany, either.

None of this means, of course, that some things President Obama has done aren’t quite problematic. They are; and many of us have written repeatedly about them. Still, Dr. Carson’s rhetoric is unhinged. If he really believes what he says–if he can’t distinguish between Germany under Hitler and America under Obama–he’s not to be taken seriously. It would mean his sense of reality is massively distorted, that he’s living in a world of make-believe. And if he doesn’t believe what he says but is simply saying it to win the hearts of some on the right, he’s unusually irresponsible and cynical.

From my vantage point Dr. Carson seems to be trying to appeal to, and perhaps has had his attitudes influenced by, people on the right who routinely toss around words like “tyranny” and “police state” to describe America. There seems to be a competition in some circles to see who can employ the most extreme language to characterize America during the Obama years. This is a mirror image of what the left did in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s some on the right who employ this slander.

What we’re seeing is a species of Obama Derangement Syndrome. (Liberals suffered from Bush Derangement Syndrome in the previous decade.) It’s what sometimes happens when those belonging to a political party/movement become enraged by the actions of a president who is from the other party. Their rhetoric spins utterly out of control. In doing so, they discredit themselves and the movement they purport to represent.

Dr. Carson really needs to stop with America-is-like-Nazi-Germany comparisons.

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In Picking Crist, Dems Look Beyond Florida

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything–or you just might become governor of Florida. Last night, Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for Florida’s upcoming gubernatorial election, in which he’ll face incumbent Rick Scott. In doing so, he completed something of a trifecta: he was the Republican nominee for governor the first time he ran, then was the independent candidate on the ballot in his run for Senate after the rise of Marco Rubio, and now he’s the Democratic candidate for governor. Whoever you are, whatever you believe, Charlie Crist has at one point or another pretended to agree with you.

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If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything–or you just might become governor of Florida. Last night, Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for Florida’s upcoming gubernatorial election, in which he’ll face incumbent Rick Scott. In doing so, he completed something of a trifecta: he was the Republican nominee for governor the first time he ran, then was the independent candidate on the ballot in his run for Senate after the rise of Marco Rubio, and now he’s the Democratic candidate for governor. Whoever you are, whatever you believe, Charlie Crist has at one point or another pretended to agree with you.

It’s easy to dismiss the smarmy, oleaginous Crist as a transparent phony and a walking caricature of everything Americans profess to hate about politics. But there is a certain degree of sincerity in his insincerity: it can be argued he has finally found his place in the natural order of politics. Indeed, just glance at his career arc: Republicans saw him as an unprincipled fraud and booted him from their ranks. Democrats saw him as an unprincipled fraud and nominated him to represent their party.

Nothing about that is out of the ordinary. The Democrats have today taken on the ideology of power. Barack Obama ran two vapid campaigns driven by a personality cult and enforced groupthink. He has chosen, and his people have accepted (thus far at least), Hillary Clinton as his successor, who virtually guarantees the same type of campaign all over again. Ideas are dangerous things, and liberals tend to keep their distance from them. Hence their decision to have Crist represent them in a key state.

But what people often forget about cynical, self-serving politicians is this: they tend to stick around. If you act as a conduit for taxpayer cash and a megaphone for all and sundry personal grievances, you can get a lot of people to vote for you. How many? Well, that’s a question Crist seeks to answer not only for himself but for Democrats nationally. As Florida-based political consultant Rick Wilson writes:

You may share the kind of visceral dislike of Crist with most Republicans, but you need to know that the risk of Charlie Crist reaches far beyond Florida, and offers an insight into an emerging behavior of national Democrats. While we chase perfection, they chase election. They demonstrably don’t care about character, and Crist is a perfect example of the moral vacancy of Democratic voters.

You’re thinking, “Meh. Florida’s crazy. So what if he wins? The GOP owns the Legislature.” Don’t count on it. Florida’s GOP majorities in the House and Senate have some admirable scrappers, and some will fight Crist until the last dog dies. But there’s already a Quisling Caucus in the State Senate quietly whispering that Charlie might not be so bad.

Next, Charlie is very much a road-test for limits of reinvention of future Democratic candidates, including the Damsel of Chappaqua. He transformed himself from far-right Reagan Republican to left-of-Obama liberal in a year and a half without missing a beat. There is no lie the man won’t tell, no promise he won’t make, and no deal he won’t cut to return to power. Hillary is watching, as are other Democrats, as Crist attempts to define history down.

Wilson posits that Crist will hope not only to be a model for America’s soulless liberalism but will also seek to boost his new party’s fundraising, rejuvenate its political machine, and go to bat for the expansion of federal programs in the two years between Election Day 2014 and Election Day 2016. All that is normal state politics, but it does have national implications.

A good example of why that is comes from the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake. In a piece about the implosion of the campaign of Ed FitzGerald, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee in Ohio, Blake notes that what FitzGerald’s freefall exposed was the Democrats’ lack of a good farm system. Blake explains that in Ohio, Republicans improved their electoral map in the House as well as the state legislature. That means, simply, more Republicans and fewer Democrats to choose from.

But Blake goes on to say that Republicans have pressed this advantage in states beyond Ohio. And Florida is one of them. He notes that in Florida, not only do the Republicans have a numbers advantage due to redistricting but they hold far more competitive districts, which helps develop candidates. Here’s Blake:

So while 11 Florida districts lean Republican by seven or fewer points, just one Democratic-leaning district is even remotely competitive.

Want to guess which kind of district is more likely to produce a credible candidate for statewide office? Hint: It’s not the district where the incumbent only has to impress his or her heavily liberal constituents.

It is not altogether too surprising, then, that Democrats had to go looking for a hired gun like Crist. But the real aim of the national Democrats backing Crist is to staunch the statewide bleeding and then start rebuilding the roster of future candidates.

And they’re relying on Crist to get the state Democrats up off the mat so the national party can try to secure its tenuous hold on Florida in presidential elections as well. All this is a pretty far cry from where Crist was just four years ago, as a Republican about to turn independent. You can argue Crist and the Democrats are taking a cynical route to power all you want; you can’t say they don’t understand the stakes.

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De Blasio and the Left: Reality Bites

After Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory, I wrote that New York’s incoming mayor had benefited greatly from what I called “the Obama effect.” President Obama had developed the blueprints for an inexperienced far-left activist to win a general election: rely on lofty rhetoric, because no one believes it anyway. That is, no one believes a modern-day politician would be foolish or reckless enough to actually carry out all the left’s preferred economic and security policies. Today’s New York Times confirms that I was mostly right: I should have said “almost no one.”

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After Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory, I wrote that New York’s incoming mayor had benefited greatly from what I called “the Obama effect.” President Obama had developed the blueprints for an inexperienced far-left activist to win a general election: rely on lofty rhetoric, because no one believes it anyway. That is, no one believes a modern-day politician would be foolish or reckless enough to actually carry out all the left’s preferred economic and security policies. Today’s New York Times confirms that I was mostly right: I should have said “almost no one.”

It turns out that some delusional true believers really do expect liberal politicians to trash the private sector in the name of social “justice” and sacrifice public safety out of some deranged hatred of the police. And they are unhappy with de Blasio. The new mayor might have thought he earned a bit of patience from the left. After all, he has already restricted effective and legal policing, and the results are clear: shootings have increased as the police have taken fewer guns off the street.

But that appears to have only whetted the appetites of the city’s hard-leftists. They got a taste of mayhem, and want more of it:

The mayor who shot to fame denouncing stop-and-frisk tactics and luxury condominiums is now defending hard-nosed policing and cutting deals with developers, bowing to the realities of leading an unruly city but also angering an activist left that propelled his rise to the Democratic elite.

Impatience with the mayor is now spilling into outcry. On Wednesday, housing advocates will march in Harlem to highlight what they say is a too-weak effort by City Hall to build affordable homes. And the Rev. Al Sharpton is planning a march on Saturday to call for an end to aggressive policing in the wake of a black Staten Island man’s death after being placed in a chokehold during a routine arrest.

Mr. de Blasio, who advisers say is deeply concerned about disappointing his supporters, has struggled to explain that the lofty liberal rhetoric of his mayoral campaign cannot be imported wholesale into City Hall — that there may be a limit on how many affordable units can be extracted from developers, that the so-called broken-windows policing strategy often credited with helping to lower crime cannot be abandoned overnight.

Really the whole story is worth reading. De Blasio, of course, isn’t actually tough on crime–by normal standards, at least. Only in the fever swamps of the left is he taking a hard line. And in a way, you can’t blame them. He did tell them he was one of them. On the other hand, there was no reason to believe him–the idea that de Blasio was being completely honest on the campaign trail did not really occur to seasoned observers. De Blasio’s base wants him to govern as if he were insane. He’s not insane. Therefore they will continue to be disappointed.

But the fact that he’s not insane is not a high enough bar. Public safety has already receded, and some of the miraculous gains made by de Blasio’s predecessors are beginning–only beginning–to fade. He’s at a crossroads, but it does offer de Blasio an opportunity: he has plenty of time to correct his mistakes and keep New York City on an even keel for the rest of his term.

It’s early enough that the damage from de Blasio’s mistakes is far from irreversible. And I think the Times story is unfair to de Blasio when it says: “Yet at home, Mr. de Blasio, who swept into office on the promise that New York City could be governed from the left, is discovering that liberalism has its limits.”

Is it true that de Blasio is discovering that liberalism has limits? I doubt it. Surely de Blasio has some terrible ideas about governing, as would anyone who was inspired to public service by the Marxist Sandinistas. But the manifold failures of big-government liberalism throughout the last century make it unlikely that any politician smart enough to win a serious office like New York City mayor in a landslide is just learning, on the job, that liberalism has limits. Liberalism is nothing but limits.

What de Blasio is dealing with now is a sector of the left–grown increasingly louder and more numerous in recent years–that doesn’t consider the results of public policy to be relevant. For the dedicated left, the value in a policy is its intentions and the purity of its identity politics. Gun crime is up, and to the left it matters not. De Blasio is not learning that his policies reduce public safety. He’s learning that his left-wing base wants those policies anyway.

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Norman Podhoretz on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews

Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

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Readers of COMMENTARY will no doubt be interested in a newly released interview with the magazine’s long serving former editor Norman Podhoretz. The interview, which includes fascinating insights into the evolution of the magazine, as well as some lively reflections from one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals on his own life and work, was recorded at a recent event organized by the Tikvah Fund as part of an advanced institute on Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews. You can watch a full recording here, at the Tikvah Fund’s newly launched Live @ Tikvah blog, which features highlights from all of Tikvah’s academic programming.

During the wide-ranging discussion with the Tikvah Fund’s executive director Eric Cohen, Podhoretz offers a colorful first-hand account of both the emergence of the New Left and the origins of neoconservatism. Describing vividly the political atmosphere he witnessed during the height of the Cold War, Podhoretz recounts the turns of his own ideological transition: from anti-Communist liberal to fellow traveler of the counter-cultural left, before he then began the move toward what would come to be called neoconservatism, a move primarily driven by the pernicious anti-Americanism that was becoming ever more prevalent on the radical left at the time.

Some of the most illuminating parts of the discussion concerned COMMENTARY’s evolution and Norman Podhoretz’s role in these developments. Podhoretz reminded listeners of COMMENTARY’s founding ethos, established in the wake of the Second World War as a fiercely anti-Communist liberal and Jewish magazine. Taking over as editor in 1960 at the age of just thirty, Podhoretz steered the publication from being a predominantly Jewish magazine that took an interest in wider affairs to a general interest magazine with a special concern for Jewish affairs. And having initially given prominence to writers coming from the left, Podhoretz would soon reorient the magazine’s stance once again, leading it to play a crucial role in countering the most subversive elements responsible for waging the culture war, and perhaps more significantly still, positioning COMMENTARY to play a leading part in shaping American thinking on combating the expansionism and ideology of the Soviet Union.

Toward the end of the conversation, Podhoretz gives his thoughts on such contemporary concerns as radical Islam’s war on the West, Israel, religious faith, and the current state of American Jews. He reflects on why so many American Jews still adhere to a certain left-leaning liberalism, and in turn on why this political outlook has been bad for society in general, and why it remains “bad for the Jews” in particular.

If nothing else, listening to this interview, one is reminded of just what a powerful and compelling voice Norman Podhoretz has been over the years, and just how much American conservatives today owe to the work that he and his generation undertook.

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Will Clinton Run as Elizabeth Warren?

The Democratic strategy of outright dishonesty about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision was nowhere more extreme than in Hillary Clinton’s ludicrous response to the ruling. As I noted at the time, Clinton sounded as though she flew around the world as secretary of state but never got off the plane. She called the ruling “a really bad, slippery slope” and comparable to “a disturbing trend that you see in a lot of societies that are unstable, anti-democratic, and prone to extremism.”

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The Democratic strategy of outright dishonesty about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision was nowhere more extreme than in Hillary Clinton’s ludicrous response to the ruling. As I noted at the time, Clinton sounded as though she flew around the world as secretary of state but never got off the plane. She called the ruling “a really bad, slippery slope” and comparable to “a disturbing trend that you see in a lot of societies that are unstable, anti-democratic, and prone to extremism.”

In reality, aside from the ignorance this displays about both the societies Clinton visited on her Instagram tour and the country she hopes to lead as president, the ruling was precisely the opposite. It reaffirmed America as a place of religious liberty and a beacon to those fleeing religious persecution in the countries Clinton visited and pretended to pay attention to while the world burned.

But there was another element of irony to Clinton’s remarkably misinformed and mendacious comments: they were a direct challenge to her husband, who as president signed into law, with the encouragement of many Democrats, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on which the Hobby Lobby ruling was based. What Hillary likened to unstable and anti-democratic societies, her husband called “a standard that better protects all Americans of all faiths in the exercise of their religion.” On signing RFRA, Clinton said:

The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom, that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our Founders cared a lot about religion. And one of the reasons they worked so hard to get the first amendment into the Bill of Rights at the head of the class is that they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and Government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp.

Why has Hillary Clinton moved so far to her husband’s left that she openly equates the religious freedom he championed with the world’s authoritarians? One answer is: anger–specifically, the anger of the Democratic base, which has shifted far to the left from where it was two decades ago. That’s the upshot of an in-depth and informative Politico piece today on Hillary’s balancing act between wanting to remind voters of the economic stability of the 1990s and decrying the pro-business policies that helped bring it about, policies that have fallen out of favor with the Occupy Wall Street base of the Democratic Party and thus with the party’s congressional leaders as well. Headlined “A Clinton approach for angrier times” (though the headline seems to have changed this afternoon) the piece notes:

On a broad range of issues from tax policy and Wall Street reform to religious rights, more than a dozen senior Democratic strategists and people who have worked with the former first family told POLITICO that Hillary Clinton will have to craft a platform that reflects the party’s shift left and populist sentiment across the political spectrum that distrusts entrenched interests and worries about growing wage inequality. Some described this balancing act as one of the most significant issues for the potential presidential candidate.

“This is the most important set of conversations going on right now. We are in a different economic era that requires a different kind of response,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network who shaped the economic message for Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. “Apple isn’t making the same products they were 20 years ago, so you should not expect any Democrat to obey policies that are over 20 years old.” Rosenberg added that no one in the Hillary Clinton orbit underestimates the task she faces.

Clinton is an insider who is close to Wall Street and who can’t seem to get people to stop shoveling money at her and her family. This might not be an issue in a general election, because Republicans and independents don’t demonize the very idea of wealth and success the way Democrats do. What Clinton seems to fear is someone like Elizabeth Warren–but not necessarily as a candidate. The risk Warren poses to Clinton is surfacing in the populist fury Warren is kicking up around the country as she campaigns for Democratic candidates who need star power but who still want to pretend they don’t know who Barack Obama is.

The Washington Post reports on “a string of recent Warren appearances in red and blue states alike, where Democratic base voters have embraced her fiery message as an envoy to working-class voters frustrated with both Wall Street and the Obama administration.” Warren has ditched the policy-wonk pretense of her pre-Senate days and embraced intellectually shallow, populist messages and policies. What’s troubling for Clinton is that Warren’s shoddy demagoguery is connecting with an extreme-minded, angry liberal base. Whether she directly challenges Clinton for the nomination or not, Clinton is clearly already letting Warren set the agenda.

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Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and the Dangers of Complacence

It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

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It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss Democrats’ legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Senate Democrats say as soon as today they could bring up a bill that would, as Politico terms it, “override” the high court’s ruling, which followed the course set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Democrats want to push this as part of the “war on women” by making shameless false claims about the court’s ruling and trashing both RFRA and the First Amendment.

Conservatives have been generally dismissive of the White House’s “war on women,” and for good reason. Additionally, they may be further tempted to deride the left’s response now that they’ve won a limited victory at the Supreme Court. It also requires a heroic effort to take seriously any policymaking that begins with Harry Reid including Clarence Thomas in his category of “white men” who should be ignored. Reid is railing against the Supreme Court, but he does not appear to be terribly familiar with it. (As an aside, why mention the race of the justices at all if this is an issue about gender? Because leftists can’t speak, apparently, without accusing someone of being racist.)

But this attitude would be a mistake, with regard to the Hobby Lobby pushback. To be sure, conservatives should avoid getting drawn into a fictitious debate on birth control based on completely false premises and designed not to advance policy solutions but to give Democrats yet another chance to insult the intelligence of the nation’s women and to put Christianity–and by extension, religious belief in general–on trial. After all, it’s unlikely that yet another Reid-led Democratic effort to undo basic American rights will pass the House.

And getting drawn into this debate risks giving the Democrats what they actually want: a change of subject. As the Obama presidency plummets in popularity and the corruption and abuse of power scandals keep multiplying, the Democrats want to talk about anything but the issues dragging them down.

Nonetheless, conservatives should think twice about taking the debate over this bill–not the president’s executive action, but the Senate bill on which there would presumably be debate and a vote–too lightly. What the Democrats are trying to do is build a public-policy consensus that would erode religious liberty by holding a referendum on whether America’s first freedom, and the basis for the American project, should be undone in the service of left-wing culture-war extremism.

Is it worth undermining religious freedom just so Democrats can distract the electorate from their inability to govern with a public discussion about the economics of sex? For Democrats like Harry Reid, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Basic freedoms are fine in the abstract, according to Democratic policymakers, but they often infringe on Democrats’ quest for power. So they must be subverted.

Conservatives must understand that the risk here is not actual policy, since the bill won’t pass the House. The risk is that by ceding space in the public sphere to liberal demagogues, they won’t engage the important part of this debate. Since, as I’ve written previously, opposition to religious freedom is now a partisan Democratic position, conservatives are the last line of defense. What they don’t want is for the left to own a debate that could build a public consensus against those freedoms. If conservatives won’t speak up for religious freedom, nobody will, and it will be ignored and trampled.

It’s also important because none of this takes place in a vacuum. In a very smart piece for BuzzFeed, Chris Geidner tracks the evolving fight over religious exemptions in employee non-discrimination legislation. He notes that LGBT groups and their supporters are backing away from anti-discrimination legislation they were initially inclined to support because of the religious exemptions being added. The bill will probably not be advanced in the House this year, Geidner notes, and explains why these groups are fighting about it anyway.

He gives three reasons: to shape the next version of this legislation that comes through Congress in the next session; because the groups are unnerved by the Supreme Court’s upholding of religious freedom protections in the Hobby Lobby case; and to influence President Obama’s forthcoming executive order on the issue. In other words, these groups recognize that although the Democrats’ demand for employee-sponsored drugs that may act as abortifacients has nothing to do with gay rights, in some way it has everything to do with it.

Settling law and winning public debates over religious freedom affects other laws and other debates that follow it. Just as the Supreme Court sets precedent in legal rulings, so too the passage of laws and other actions set precedent in how the public understands the issues at play and how politicians can attract support for their own legislative projects. The left has always operated with the knowledge that there’s no off-season here. They are counting on conservative exhaustion, complacence, or both. Conservatives must demonstrate neither.

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Walmart, Wages, and the Public Good

Who knew corporations could do snark? When New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote a column called “Walmart, Starbucks, and the Fight Against Inequality,” claiming that Walmart’s low wages forced many of its employees onto public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid, David Tovar, the communications director for Walmart, treated it as a first draft and pointed out its many factual inaccuracies. He then posted it on the Walmart website. It makes for hilarious reading.

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Who knew corporations could do snark? When New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote a column called “Walmart, Starbucks, and the Fight Against Inequality,” claiming that Walmart’s low wages forced many of its employees onto public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid, David Tovar, the communications director for Walmart, treated it as a first draft and pointed out its many factual inaccuracies. He then posted it on the Walmart website. It makes for hilarious reading.

Egan’s argument is that if Walmart paid higher wages, its employees wouldn’t need public assistance. Using very dubious math and a “study” that left-leaning Politifact.com calls “mostly false,” Egan describes Walmart as a “net drain” on taxpayers. Tovar points out that Walmart is the largest taxpayer in the country.

I doubt that Timothy Egan has ever gone into a store to buy something and, on being told the price, insisted on paying more. So if Walmart can hire a satisfactory employee at a given wage, why should it insist on paying more? For one thing, it would violate its fiduciary duty to the stockholders. For another, it would have to raise the prices its hundreds of millions of customers pay.

Egan’s column, demanding that Walmart pay higher wages, is classic modern liberalism, solving the problems of the world with other people’s money, and using junk statistics to justify it.

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Don’t Abet Academia’s Crackdown on Religious Liberty

By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

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By far the most strategically canny aspect of liberal institutions’ multifront attack on religious freedom in America has been the (alas, successful) bid to divide and conquer. From within the Jewish world, for example, it’s been sad to watch Jews insist that obvious violations of religious freedom of Catholics shouldn’t concern Jews, because the Democratic White House has not yet come for them.

The latest instance of non-Christian acquiescence in state-sponsored religious bigotry is on the issue of religious groups on public college campuses. The New York Times reports on the trend of religious groups, usually evangelicals, losing their college affiliation for refusing to sign the loyalty oath masquerading as an “anti-discrimination” agreement.

The Times centers the story on Bowdoin College, but notes that the real issue is the California State University’s public system–the largest of its kind in the country–joining the campaign, which Christian students and leaders understandably see as a possible tipping point against them. Like the Constitutional clergy of revolutionary France who took the oath of allegiance to the new secular state, the Times reports that “At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems.”

Yet it’s easy to understand the evangelical groups’ concern with the extent, though not the spirit, of the oath:

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith — in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

No kidding! Would a Jewish group be comfortable with a non-Jew leading prayer services? In charge of the group’s Torah study? The evangelical groups do not forbid non-believers from participating in their activities. They simply want their religious practice to be led by members of their religious community. And for this, they are paying the price:

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

“It’s absurd,” said Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity, a national association of evangelical student groups, including the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship. “The genius of American culture is that we allow voluntary, self-identified organizations to form, and that’s what our student groups are.”

Some institutions, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have opted to exempt religious groups from nondiscrimination policies, according to the Christian Legal Society. But evangelical groups have lost official status at Tufts University, the State University of New York at Buffalo and Rollins College in Florida, among others, and their advocates are worried that Cal State could be a tipping point.

The Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, mainline Protestant, and other non-evangelical groups that have signed this modern-day Civil Constitution of the Clergy probably think they are simply avoiding a fight that doesn’t pertain to them. That’s plain madness, and shameful to boot.

But it’s also counterproductive. When the left-liberal establishment seeks to infringe their own rights, they will have already acceded to this conformist fanaticism and surrendered any right to expect other religious groups to come to their aid. This is particularly careless for the Jewish community, which is such a demographic minority that in such cases they have no strength but in numbers–a lesson they bewilderingly seem intent on unlearning.

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Cuomo’s Left Flank Gets Back in Line

Over the last few weeks a minor drama broke out within New York’s political left. The Working Families Party, a mix of liberal activists and interest groups that includes labor unions, threatened to run its own candidate for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. On May 29, the New York Times quoted the WFP’s co-chair as saying that, due to Cuomo’s apparently insufficient leftist instincts (yes really), “Unless there is a significant new development in the next 24 hours, I don’t expect the state committee to endorse the governor.”

That development did not come within 24 hours, so the WFP went into its Saturday nominating convention with the threat intact. It didn’t happen even when Cuomo made an appeal Saturday night via video to the convention and live phone call. The leaders of the WFP were clear. “Party leaders had detailed specific language for Mr. Cuomo to use in his video, according to people familiar with the matter, and on at least one topic—increasing the minimum wage—he hadn’t used it,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes that Cuomo remembered his lines just in time:

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Over the last few weeks a minor drama broke out within New York’s political left. The Working Families Party, a mix of liberal activists and interest groups that includes labor unions, threatened to run its own candidate for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. On May 29, the New York Times quoted the WFP’s co-chair as saying that, due to Cuomo’s apparently insufficient leftist instincts (yes really), “Unless there is a significant new development in the next 24 hours, I don’t expect the state committee to endorse the governor.”

That development did not come within 24 hours, so the WFP went into its Saturday nominating convention with the threat intact. It didn’t happen even when Cuomo made an appeal Saturday night via video to the convention and live phone call. The leaders of the WFP were clear. “Party leaders had detailed specific language for Mr. Cuomo to use in his video, according to people familiar with the matter, and on at least one topic—increasing the minimum wage—he hadn’t used it,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes that Cuomo remembered his lines just in time:

With the clock ticking, Mr. Cuomo spoke by phone to a smaller group backstage, including a top aide to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Emma Wolfe, and WFP members Jonathan Westin, Javier Valdes and Deborah Axt. This time, Mr. Cuomo used the agreed-upon language (concerning giving local authorities the ability to adjust the minimum wage within a formula), according to people familiar with the call.

Why would Cuomo go through all that trouble just to secure his left flank? The answer is that the WFP is more influential, and can make more trouble, than people outside the New York area (most of whom haven’t heard of the party) tend to think. As the Times mentioned in its report, a recent statewide Quinnipiac poll found Cuomo at 57 percent in a one-on-one matchup with Astorino, but sliding to 37 percent with the addition of a WFP candidate on the ballot.

In reality, the high drama wasn’t all that dramatic. Cuomo doesn’t want a challenger to his left because he doesn’t want the narrative of being too conservative, not because he would actually have his reelection spoiled by the WFP. The WFP wanted something similar: they know they can’t cost Cuomo his reelection, but they don’t want the narrative of seeming to cave on principle.

So Cuomo pretended to care about their opinions, and the WFP leadership pretended to believe him.

None of this is particularly surprising, and in fact speaks to the general mood of the left nationwide. The Democrats have, almost without exception, become the party of government. Their agenda is the agenda of the state, and their power is the bureaucracy. This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Democrats believed the establishment was essentially conservative–not just the government’s muscular foreign policy but the social mores of the age as well. Even as late as 1980 there was a genuine struggle within the party, leading to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge to a sitting Democratic president–a turn of events hard to imagine taking place today.

But today’s conformist left takes it one step further. While the Republicans were struggling to free their party from next-in-linism, the Democrats became the party of get-in-linism. Forget truly challenging a sitting president; the Democrats don’t want a primary fight for an open nomination, as evidenced by the emerging Clinton juggernaut. They went from challenging an incumbent president to hesitant to challenge a presumptive nominee.

This is not, by the way, spinelessness. It’s logic. As the Democrats’ policies have become increasingly unpopular, the party’s approach to governance has adjusted accordingly. Rather than compromise on legislation, they have simply empowered unelected bureaucrats and shielded them (not always successfully) from accountability. This has become a vicious circle: if Democrats don’t have to win public approval for their actions, they become less adept at engaging actual arguments, which forces them to turn to ever more executive power grabs.

It also means left-wing activists, such as those at the WFP, have more to gain by getting in line and ensuring Democrats win elections, because the vast expansion of the bureaucracy means there are more spoils to go around. The WFP is not going to defeat Cuomo, but they do need to make an occasional point about their own relevance. Their point has now been made, and they’re back in line. And the party of government rolls on.

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Solving the GOP’s Middle Class Problem

Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

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Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

As for what I discovered in my analysis of the middle class, let me start with their mood, which is anxious, insecure, and uneasy. National Journal‘s Ronald Brownstein, in analyzing the data from an April 2013 Heartland Monitor Poll, said, “The overall message is of pervasive, entrenched vulnerability–a sense that many financial milestones once assumed as cornerstones of middle-class life are now beyond reach for all but the rich.” 

These concerns are largely justified. Since the turn of the century, middle class Americans have been working harder yet losing ground. Wages are stagnant. (The typical household is making roughly the same as the typical household made a quarter of a century ago.) Meanwhile, the cost of living–especially health-care and higher education costs–has gone way up. For example, health-care spending per person, adjusted for inflation, has roughly doubled since 1988, to about $8,500. The average student debt in 2011 was $23,300. (For middle class families, the cost of one year of tuition equals about half of household income.)   

The middle class is also increasingly pessimistic, with two-thirds of Americans thinking it’s harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents and three-quarters believing it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed.

The middle class holds the political class largely responsible for the problems they face. Sixty-two percent place “a lot” of blame on Congress, followed by banks/financial institutions and corporations. 

If Congress in general is held in low esteem, the situation facing the GOP is particularly problematic. Middle class Americans are more likely to say that Democrats rather than the Republicans favor their interests. Polls indicate 62 percent of those in the middle class say the Republican Party favors the rich while 16 percent say the Democratic Party favors the rich; 37 percent of those in the middle class say the Democratic Party favors the middle class while only 26 percent say the GOP does. When asked which groups are helping the middle class, 17 percent had a positive response to Republican elected officials; 46 percent were negative. (For Democrats, the numbers were 28 percent positive v. 40 percent negative.) 

The challenge of the GOP, then, is to explain how a conservative vision of government can speak to today’s public concerns; and to explain how such a vision should translate into concrete policy reforms in important areas of our national life. 

“Policy is problem solving,” I wrote in the introduction:

It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

Room To Grow suggests some ways forward, with special emphasis on what can be done to assist and empower those who are, and those who want to be, in the middle class.

Reactionary liberalism is intellectually exhausted and politically vulnerable. There is therefore an opening for conservatism to offer a different way of thinking about government, to move from administering large systems of service provision to empowering people to address the problems they confront on their own terms; to provide people with the resources and skills they need to address the challenges they face rather than to try to manage their decisions from on high. The task of the right isn’t simply to offer new policies, as vital as they are, but to explain the approach, the organizing principle, behind them. It is, as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin puts it, replacing a failing liberal welfare state with a lean and responsive 21st century government worthy of a free, diverse and innovative society. It’s time we get on with it.

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Trigger Warnings

Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

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Conservatives are having a field day with the latest nonsense to come out of academia, trigger warnings. These are meant to warn people that certain subject matter that might be troubling to them will be covered in a course. Movies and television have long had rating systems to warn of violence, foul language, nudity, etc. And I see nothing wrong with that.

But do college professors have to warn students that The Merchant of Venice involves anti-Semitism or that All Quiet on the Western Front is about warfare, or that the history of Africa will refer to colonialism? Is it possible that students matriculated at respectable colleges might not already know that Shylock is a Jew or that Gatsby isn’t a card-carrying feminist? Alas, the answer to that is yes. But even so, are they so delicately constructed that encountering anti-Semitism in a play written more than four hundred years ago might cause significant distress?

Jonah Goldberg also points out a contradiction:

And what a strange madness it is. We live in a culture in which it is considered bigotry to question whether women should join combat units — but it is also apparently outrageous to subject women of the same age to realistic books and films about war without a warning? Even questioning the ubiquity of degrading porn, never mind labeling music or video games, is denounced as Comstockery, but labeling “The Iliad” makes sense?

It is a madness that will pass, I’m sure, as the academy undergoes the wrenching changes that will undoubtedly come in the next 20 years, for the 20th-century model for higher education is in terminal collapse. But meanwhile, this latest idiocy reminds me of a long-ago joke when movies were first being rated: “To some, it is the simple story of a boy and his dog. For others it is something more. Rated G for those who think it is a story of a boy and his dog. Rated X for those who think it is something more.”

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Why Bigger Government Does Not Equal More Services

The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

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The Democratic group Third Way is releasing the results of a survey on political “moderates,” which deviates from, and is more informative than, surveys on supposed “independents.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has piece discussing the survey as well as a memo Third Way officials gave Ball ahead of time to frame the results. It’s an interesting survey, especially with the parties gearing up for midterm elections. But the survey is undermined by a flaw that pervades such polls with regard to voters’ attitudes toward the size and scope of government.

That particular recurring survey question is rarely if ever challenged, but those who want an honest rendering of Americans’ political and policy preferences shouldn’t let it slide. Or, rather, conservatives shouldn’t let it slide, because the question is dishonestly designed to elicit a more favorable answer for supporters of expanding government. Here’s Ball:

Moderates’ perspective on the role of government has elements in common with both liberals and conservatives. Only 23 percent of moderates favor a larger government that provides more services (compared to 54 percent of liberals and 13 percent of conservatives); 37 percent favor a smaller government with fewer services (compared to 12 percent of liberals and 62 percent of conservatives).

As anyone who knows anything about the government can tell you, this is what our president might call a false choice. The simple fact is that the growth of the modern bureaucratic state is such that the larger government/more services vs. leaner government/fewer services framing is outdated and irrelevant. This type of poll question is trumpeted often by liberals who either don’t fully understand how the government works or who do understand but prefer not to clue their readers in on the con.

For example, during the controversy over Cliven Bundy, the New York Times’s Josh Barro was one of the commentators who sought to use the issue to make the point that limited-government conservatism, and especially libertarianism, can be explained by race. Here’s Barro:

A 2011 National Journal poll found that 42 percent of white respondents agreed with the statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Just 17 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Asians and 25 percent of Hispanics agreed. In 2011 and 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Asian-Americans and fully 75 percent of Hispanic-Americans say they prefer a bigger government providing more services over a smaller one providing fewer services, compared with just 41 percent of the general population.

An obvious problem is the wording of each question. The first question he uses offers two choices: government is either the problem or the solution. The lack of nuance–and, plainly, honesty–helps Barro’s argument but does a great disservice to his readers (though in fairness it’s not as though Barro himself wrote the survey question). The second question is the one that reappears in the Third Way survey.

The truth of the matter is that government has become unmanageably large in many ways, undermining the idea that a larger government necessarily results in more services.

A good resource for those who want the more accurate picture is Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody, which takes aim at the reasons government has, on important issues, ground to a halt. Howard opens with the story of the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the channel that connects New York Harbor to the port of Newark, the largest on the East Coast. The bridge, however, isn’t high enough to accommodate ships built to use the widened Panama Canal, set to be completed next year.

So what’s the solution? Howard notes that the government agency in charge decided the choices were either build a new bridge or dig a tunnel, each costing more than $4 billion. Then a new idea presented itself: raise the existing bridge roadway, at a cost of $1 billion, saving $3 billion. The resolution was “like a miracle.” And it went nowhere. The full story is worth reading and incredibly convoluted (which is Howard’s point), but here’s the gist:

Building anything important in America requires layers of approvals from multiple levels of government—in this project, forty-seven permits from nineteen different governmental entities. Environmental review has evolved into an academic exercise, like a game of who can find the most complications. Balkanization of authority among different agencies and levels of government creates a dynamic of buck-passing. “The process is aimed not at trying to solve problems,” Ms. Papageorgis observed, “but trying to find problems. You can’t get in trouble by saying no.” With any large project, something might go wrong. More studies are done.

The story of the Bayonne Bridge, and others like it–Howard’s book makes for sobering but important reading–is that the larger government got the more it cost while providing fewer services. Howard writes about school systems paralyzed by regulations, the culture of corruption fostered by the inability to navigate all the red tape, the resulting “involuntary noncompliance,” and the government’s erosion of civil society while then failing to provide the services whose responsibility was transferred from the private sphere to the public sector.

Larger government doesn’t just erode freedom. At a certain point, it begins providing fewer services than it did before it ballooned beyond manageability. Howard shows that often the only way around the most absurd bureaucratic extremism is public shaming. That should be applied to the survey questions designed to enable such bad governance as well.

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