Our December feature
If the Republican Party descends into civil war over the next two years, a luncheon in October of this year will count as its Fort Sumter. On the second day of the wildly controversial government shutdown, GOP senators gathered for a private midday meal to discuss their next steps. Kelly Ayotte, elected by New Hampshire voters in 2010 as a Tea Party darling, stood up and walked toward her Texas colleague Ted Cruz. She was waving the printout of a mass email sent by the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), a group closely identified with Cruz. The email harshly denounced 25 GOP “traitors” who “betrayed their principles.”
How did they do such a terrible thing? By casting a procedural vote—a vote to end debate on a “continuing resolution” that would have kept the government open. Listing such conservative stalwarts as Ayotte, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Thune of South Dakota, and John Cornyn of Texas, the email condemned their insufficiently implacable opposition to ObamaCare and scolded them for “giving Democrats the power to implement this terrible law.” Declaring that “most Republicans promise to stand up for conservative principles during the campaign, but then let us down after they’re elected,” the SCF went on to “thank Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) for their extraordinary courage.”
A startled Cruz had to muster some of that extraordinary courage to answer an emotional Ayotte, who struck a third solon at the scene as “especially furious.” Ayotte demanded: “Will you disown this awful thing that’s aiming to hurt the majority of your colleagues?” Cruz replied: “I will not,” thus provoking a response that several of those present later described to the press as a “lynch mob.” Republican after Republican took turns blasting the golden boy of the right for his disrespect, divisiveness, immaturity, and utter failure to provide a strategy for achieving even minimal GOP gains through the deeply unpopular shutdown.
The crisis ended two weeks later with a more or less complete Republican humiliation. The government was reopened with not a single concession made to those who had engineered the crisis. Cruz then made a muted attempt to reconcile with the 44 other Republicans who had been elected to serve alongside him at least until the end of 2014. At another closed-door luncheon on October 30, Cruz attempted to reassure his beleaguered colleagues that he would not intervene on behalf of their primary challengers. Speaking of the SCF, which had recently invested more than $1 million in scathing attack ads against a half dozen Republican incumbents, Cruz said he would refuse to help the group raise more money and would request that his image be removed from their materials. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself the target of particularly nasty ads saying he had “helped Barack Obama and Harry Reid fund ObamaCare,” tartly noted that Senator Rand Paul (McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian) had already taken similar steps to disassociate himself from such attacks more than six months before. But he nonetheless thanked Cruz for his belated gesture of semi-solidarity.
Even as the most strident conservatives in both houses of Congress pulled back from their prior confrontational postures toward fellow Republicans in an effort to preserve working relationships on Capitol Hill, the grass roots continued to smolder and blaze with intra-party antagonism. In crucial 2014 Senate races, at least a half dozen well-entrenched Republican incumbents face primary challenges from insurgents with Tea Party affiliations.
Never before in American history have so many sitting senators faced serious opposition from candidates within their own party. The celebrated Republican populist victories of recent years involved competition for open seats—in which younger insurgent candidates such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio defeated more moderate and better-known rivals in bids to replace retiring Republicans.1 Only very rarely have Republicans seeking reelection lost their seats to ideological opponents in primary battles. One such battle did lead to a grassroots triumph in 2010, when the mild-mannered and deeply conservative three-termer Robert Bennett of Utah lost to the former Supreme Court clerk Mike Lee, who then went on to certain victory in the general election. But that same year, the little-known Joe Miller in Alaska edged Senator Lisa Murkowski in a breathlessly close Republican primary and then conducted such an inept campaign as his party’s nominee that he lost the general election to Murkowski, who ran as a write-in candidate for her own seat. Two years later, outspoken Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock terminated the distinguished 36-year Senate career of Richard Lugar in the primary before terminating his own general-election candidacy (and handing the seat to the Democrats) with comments in a televised debate that a baby conceived in forcible rape counted as a “gift from God.”
As with the examples of Miller and Mourdock, primary challenges to incumbent GOP senators within the last 50 years have produced results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In 1978, the anti-tax activist Jeffrey Bell, a brilliant disciple of William F. Buckley’s, took on New Jersey’s “silk-stocking Republican” Clifford Case, who had served in the House and Senate for 34 consecutive years. Case described himself as a “middle-of-the-road progressive” and lost to Bell, a recent transplant from Texas, by a mere 3,473 votes. The general election proved far less competitive, with basketball star Bill Bradley, the Democratic nominee, trouncing Bell by a comfortable eight-point margin and beginning an uninterrupted string of Democratic Senate victories covering 14 different elections and 35 years of New Jersey history.
California displayed a similar pattern, after the state superintendent of public instruction, Max Rafferty, a charismatic Goldwater conservative, took on three-term, good-government moderate (and Republican Senate Whip) Tom Kuchel in the turbulent year of 1968. After his narrow victory in a bitter primary, Rafferty lost a close race to doctrinaire liberal Alan Cranston even as presidential nominee Richard Nixon carried his home state by 220,000 votes. After Cranston’s four terms, his even more liberal successor, Barbara Boxer, won four terms of her own and holds the seat to this day. In other words, Rafferty’s audacious challenge proved to be an important milestone in California’s fateful transition from reliably red state (Republicans won 9 of 10 presidential races there from 1952 through 1988) to the deepest of deep-blue sure things (Democratic nominees have carried the state for the past six elections).
As it happens, one of us—Michael—retains an indelible memory of Max Rafferty’s Los Angeles victory celebration when he won his upset primary victory 45 years ago: I was then taking part in the larger Democratic rally scheduled across the hall on that balmy June night at the Ambassador Hotel. I had taken a leave of absence from my junior year at Yale to campaign around the country for Robert Kennedy and had gathered with more than a thousand fellow volunteers to await final returns on our closely fought primary race against Senator Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy addressed the jubilant crowd around midnight, then exited the ballroom through the kitchen—where he met his assassin. The exultation of a victory gave way instantly to waves of moaning, gasps, and tears.
Meanwhile, the Rafferty campaigners got final confirmation of their own candidate’s surprising win against Senator Kuchel, and their own party kicked into full force with a Dixieland band blaring “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The hotel was on lockdown, so none of us could leave. I walked over to their shindig, lavishly festooned with bunting and balloons, and nervously tapped one of the celebrants at the edge of the crowd. He was a heavy-set, balding guy in a blue-and-white striped seersucker jacket. “Hey, come on!” I shouted over the din. “Senator Kennedy has been shot—right across the hall. Don’t you think you ought to get somebody to tone it down?”
“Another Kennedy down? Another reason to celebrate!” he laughed, and turned away.
That awful response didn’t represent anything like the norm for the Rafferty campaigners, of course. But this smug self-righteousness, the ideological depersonalization of a fellow American who was deemed an enemy rather than a neighbor with wrong ideas, has become a regrettable norm in American political life. That kind of depersonalization continues to characterize the left’s response to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and it has begun to seep into the primary challenges for incumbent Republican senators in 2014—challenges not to partisan antagonists or those with genuinely different worldviews but to conservatives deemed insufficiently or falsely right-wing.
Consider Matt Bevin, the Kentucky businessman who has loaned $600,000 to his own campaign to savage Mitch McConnell and his supposedly “liberal” record—a strange designation for a politician who has earned a lifetime rating of 90 percent from the American Conservative Union. While relentlessly slamming McConnell as a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only), it was Bevin who once abandoned all notions of party loyalty in 2004 when he decided he could see no meaningful difference between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Bevin actively campaigned for Michael Peroutka, the hapless presidential nominee of the Constitution Party. Peroutka drew one-tenth of 1 percent of the national popular vote. The Senate Conservatives Fund now provides crucial support to Bevin’s current quixotic quest.
In South Carolina, Lindsey Graham won landslide Senate victories in 2002 and 2008, and compiled an ACU rating of 89 percent along the way. But one of his three Tea Party–aligned challengers, Nancy Mace, slams his “outrageous” voting record, his alleged efforts to “appease” Barack Obama, and his supposed “go-along-to-get-along” approach to leadership—despite Graham’s prominent place in efforts to block the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and to force the administration to disgorge the truth about Benghazi.
Three-term senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming received similar condemnation from his primary challenger, Liz Cheney, despite his status as one of the Senate’s most consistent conservatives (with a 93 percent lifetime rating from the ACU).
None of these vigorously challenged incumbents could properly qualify as moderate or collaborationist, any more than rock-solid conservatives like Pat Roberts of Kansas or Thad Cochran of Mississippi, both of whom have also drawn 2014 Tea Party rivals. During the recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis, Roberts emerged as one of the most outspoken and conspicuous supporters of the filibuster against ObamaCare staged by Ted Cruz, but that hasn’t stopped physician Milton Wolf, who yearns for a “citizen legislature” and rails against “career politicians,” from launching a bitter assault on the long-time senator’s record and character.
Handicappers predict none of these GOP challengers will succeed in unseating their well-established opponents. But they can still generate nomination fights that drain millions from Republican donors and solidify the image of a dispirited, dysfunctional, badly fractured conservative movement. While beleaguered incumbents like to put the best face on such situations by claiming that a “spirited” primary (whatever that means) somehow reinvigorates the party, there’s no evidence at all that Republicans help their prospects when they concentrate on attacking one another rather than assailing Democrats. Even when incumbents prevail in primary battles, they squander funds, focus, and dignity that might otherwise help them sail to victory in general-election campaigns. Their challengers will also leave behind accusations and insults that the Democrats can easily recycle in November—in much the same way that the Obama campaign repurposed over-the-top Newt Gingrich charges about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital. And in those exceedingly rare occasions when one of the challengers actually beats the odds and wins a nomination (as in the case of Richard Mourdock), the defeated incumbent and his loyalists may feel so bruised and resentful that they offer tepid support, at best, in a general election.
In other words, primary challenges to sitting members of the Senate or the House can seriously damage the party’s overall prospects and most certainly will do nothing to burnish the Republican brand. Regardless of the outcome of each of the various battles in this possible “civil war,” bitter internal disputes over whether a given candidate qualifies for admiration as a pure-bred “true conservative” or deserves contempt as a mongrel squish can only strike swing voters and independents as eccentric, fanatical, or even cultish—especially at a time when barely a third of the electorate describes itself as “conservative.”
It is also peculiarly anachronistic. There was once an ideological divide in the GOP, when liberal Republicans like Clifford Case (alongside Jacob Javits of New York, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the geographical outlier Mark Hatfield of Oregon) were genuinely hostile to conservatism and protective of their place in the mainstream “establishment.” They were, indeed, RINOs, if by Republican you mean someone who generally adheres to a right-of-center point of view. But demographic and geographic changes in the United States over the past 40 years have basically made those original RINOs an extinct species. Talking about manifestly conservative politicians of the early 21st century as though they are no different from liberals rightly creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of voters who do not follow the ins and outs of Republican politics day to day, and inclines many of them to back away in discomfort as one does when seeing a married couple squabble in public.
The intra-party bickering qualifies as so manifestly self-destructive, in fact, that it raises the question of why any sane and thoughtful person would support the project of what might be called “party purification.” The common answer, promoted by prominent talk-radio hosts nearly every day and echoed at Tea Party rallies and other gatherings of true believers, involves the stubborn conviction that “real conservatism wins every time.” According to this line of reasoning, nominees like McCain or Romney (or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush) will always lose to a fiery liberal ideologue like Barack Obama because the public perceives their conservatism as wavering, inconsistent, and inauthentic. The argument is the grandchild of Richard Nixon’s 1969 argument that a “silent majority” of patriotic conservatives awaits mobilization by inspired leadership. This idea suggests that an assemblage of solid citizens has become temporarily disenchanted with electoral politics and has taken to slumbering in the family-friendly vastness of flyover country—needing only the merest kiss of a Constitutionalist Prince Charming to awaken them to eager activism that will “take our country back.” Ted Cruz gave direct expression to this notion in an interview on ABC News in July 2013. “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges,” he explained. “Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”
This formulation ignores the experience of landslide winners such as Richard Nixon in 1972 or George H.W. Bush in 1988, whose cautious campaigns that sought to file the rough edges off their reputations for harsh conservatism (remember “a kinder, gentler America”?) hardly presented them as “strong conservatives.” Going back a bit further in political history, Nixon’s own mentor, Dwight Eisenhower, reveled in his easygoing, middle-of-the-road reputation and won two sweeping victories that revived a long-frustrated GOP after two decades in the wilderness. Just four years after Ike left office, the party turned to the most uncompromising conservative of them all, who inspired his acolytes with the ringing declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” but Barry Goldwater went on to lose 44 states in one of the ugliest routs in Republican history.
As for Ronald Reagan, he earned his two epic victories not by generating tidal waves of freshly mobilized conservatives but by being massively appealing to precisely those moderates that today’s Tea Party faithfuls so conspicuously despise. In fact, the percentage of all voters who described themselves as “conservatives” for Reagan’s first landslide victory in 1980 was far lower (28 percent) than the percentage who showed up for Mitt Romney’s losing effort in 2012 (35 percent, a record high). Reagan won because he carried self-described “moderates” by six points and won independents by a staggering 15 percent. With those margins at the center of the electorate, it hardly mattered that self-described Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the 1980 exit polls by a seemingly fatal margin of 43 to 28 percent.
Some of those who argue Romney lost because of his lack of conservative principles offer as proof the fact that “3 million missing Republicans,” turned off by Romney’s impurities, failed to show up at the polls on Election Day. Given that Romney lost by 4 million votes, this argument might seem problematic from the get-go, but if indeed millions of disgruntled conservatives stayed home, such a fact would support the contention that Republican candidates suffer when they are not seen as sufficiently conservative. But it’s not a fact. It’s not true. The people who keep arguing this point fail to grasp that Romney’s vote total at the end of Election Night 2012 was not the final result. Romney’s ultimate tally—60,932,235—was actually a million more than McCain drew in 2008, and just a million fewer than George W. Bush had won in his triumphant reelection four years before. In fact, the Republican vote totals have proved remarkably stable in each of the past three elections, as did the percentage of the electorate who saw themselves as “conservative” (34 to 35 percent each time).
Moreover, the results in down-ticket races in the 2012 election suggest that Romney might have hurt himself more had his campaign adopted a more aggressively ideological tone. He succeeded in carrying five states—West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota—in which ardently conservative Republican Senate candidates went down to crushing defeat, despite strong Tea Party support. In crucial swing states such as Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, Romney also came notably closer to beating Obama than did outspokenly conservative GOP Senate nominees to besting their Democratic rivals.
This pattern reflects a deeper truth about the Republican Party and its national electorate. It is not just general-election voters who fail to embrace candidates who claim to be the truest and purest conservatives. For the past quarter century and the past seven presidential election cycles, Republican primary voters have demonstrated a consistent preference for consensus-building candidates from the party’s very broad center and have displayed a reliable reluctance to accept ideologically pure contenders from the GOP’s more combative edge.
Despite persistent legend, recent nominees—George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney—haven’t been imposed on the unwilling grass roots by fat-cat bosses in smoke-filled rooms. They have won a series of fiercely contested primaries, beating such impassioned conservative alternatives as Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and many more. To believe that contenders who failed to win the GOP nomination would have fared better in the general election is to embrace the utterly illogical proposition that they could have appealed more strongly to the independents and Democrats who turned up in November than they did to the Republican loyalists who voted against them in the caucus and primary process. When it comes to the practical utility of ideological purity, why should we expect true-believer candidates to perform better with voters who don’t share their conservative outlook than they do with primary voters who do?
One of the reasons that “true conservatives” have regularly underperformed in nomination struggles in recent years is that the differences among Republicans have become far more stylistic than substantive. They have come to involve questions of strategy and tone far more than divisions over policy. Every GOP representative in both houses of Congress voted against ObamaCare and opposed raising taxes; all credible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 will be pro-life (more or less), pro-gun, and in favor of reduced spending, simpler taxes, and strong border security. On the divisive issue of illegal immigration, not one of the candidates in either 2008 or 2012 (no, not even John McCain) backed the path to citizenship previously endorsed by GOP winners such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
This wide-ranging and durable consensus on major issues—a conservative consensus without question—has allowed the House majority under John Boehner to maintain remarkable operational unity over the past three years. But one would not know that from the tone of discussion over the past few months. Cruz and Lee and others made it an axiom that a Republican’s conservatism was to be judged not by shared beliefs or prior votes but by his acceptance and advocacy of Cruz’s and Lee’s tactics. It was time to “fight,” and there was only one way to fight, and that way was to shut down the government. Failure to “fight” was not only deemed cowardice; it was considered tantamount to a vote for ObamaCare. Meanwhile, as they strained to hold the line, ObamaCare made its debut and promptly began to self-destruct. But only when the Cruz-Lee non-strategy was abandoned would the general political discussion turn, as it then did with a vengeance, to the looming national health-care disaster.
The Civil War of the 1860s brought devastation to the country and claimed more than 700,000 lives—but at least it helped to settle disputes on slavery and states’ rights. The potential Republican civil war of 2014 could bring destruction to a great political party but would resolve no significant disputes. At times, the enthusiasm for ferocious but unfocused intra-party conflict has displayed a distinctly suicidal edge: On the eve of the government shutdown, Representative John Culberson of Texas addressed a meeting of House Republicans and tried to encourage his colleagues by citing the doomed heroes of United Flight 93. As they broke up their final caucus, preparing to face an uncertain strategy and a largely hostile public, Culberson cheerfully observed that the occasion reminded him of September 11 and bellowed to the assembled politicos, “Let’s roll!”
Other leaders of the no-compromise caucus preferred to invoke the bloody sacrifice of the defenders of the Alamo, or of the 300 Spartans who held off the Persians (temporarily) before the mass slaughter of Thermopylae. Ted Cruz himself told a talk-radio audience that he took his inspiration from Braveheart, fondly recalling the scene in his favorite film when Mel Gibson’s 13th-century Scottish rebel urges his warriors to “Hold! Hold! Hold!” Somehow, the Texas senator neglected to remind his listeners that the movie ended with Gibson’s character being drawn and quartered.
Those who entertain this odd fascination with self-sacrifice actually bear little comparison with the selfless heroes they celebrate. Rather than risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, they are actually hoping to give new life to their own political careers, earn fortunes in campaign contributions, and win honor from voices in conservative media who have made a conscious marketing decision to stake out the most uncompromising positions they can to protect their right flanks from broadcast insurgents.
Nor will the members of Congress who stood with Cruz and Lee suffer from their choices; safe in their gerrymandered House districts or serving in Senate seats from unassailably red states, they won’t perish at the end of Persian spears or go down in flames in a Pennsylvania cornfield. Even those who fail miserably in their long-shot primary challenges next year may enjoy long-term benefits from enhanced press attention, higher speaker’s fees, guest shots on cable news, and even potential book contracts.
The incentive to engineer and profit from conflict is even greater for those who are not running for office but who are making a name and an increasingly good living in the larger political universe.
As the centralized party structure of the GOP (and the Democrats) began to weaken over the past decade due to campaign-finance reform legislation and various court decisions, a new class of political activists began to rise—first on the left and then on the right. Harnessing the power of the Internet to raise money faster, more cheaply, and more broadly than anyone had ever imagined possible, this new class was and is remarkably entrepreneurial. It aggressively seeks marketing opportunities; it continually tests new messages for their effectiveness and pull; it piggybacks off current news events to deepen its brand with consumers.
The key, as with all marketing, is emotion—often, negative emotion. Bush-hatred drove grassroots leftist fundraising to unparalleled heights in 2004. Fear of ObamaCare and the stimulus helped drive unprecedented Tea Party efforts in 2010 that led to the colossal GOP House victories in November of that year.
Once successful, however, angry messages get stale. New targets of opportunity must be found. And many of these Anger Entrepreneurs on the right mine their gold in the negative emotions of conservatives who are having grave difficulty making sense of a world in which almost everyone they know dislikes liberalism and despises Obama but in which liberals and Obama seem to have the upper hand. The answer seducing all too many of them is that their cause has been sabotaged from within and that the best route to greater success lies in removing the saboteurs.
The rewards for marketing a successful message can be vast. Last year, a fight inside the conservative organization FreedomWorks led to the departure of its chairman, former Representative Dick Armey. He was bought out with an astounding $8 million handshake—from a grassroots group formerly known as Citizens for a Sound Economy dedicated to fiscal prudence and the promotion of ideas. With the departure of Armey, an experienced political hand, FreedomWorks broke free to dedicate itself in 2013 to threatening Republicans who did not support the effort to shut down the government.
Perhaps the greatest example of the growing power of this outside entrepreneurship came this year when South Carolina firebrand Jim DeMint resigned from his Senate seat to take over as head of the Heritage Foundation and its recently organized political arm, Heritage Action. With Heritage Action’s extraordinarily aggressive advocacy of the argument that the only acceptable vote for a conservative to take in September 2013 was the immediate and total defunding of ObamaCare, DeMint showed he could be far more influential outside the realm of electoral politics than he ever had been within it.
And what DeMint and his fellow activists insisted upon meant certain defeat. Perhaps they honestly believed along with Cruz and Lee that there would be a national uprising against ObamaCare (before its disastrous implementation began) that would force Democratic senators from Republican-voting states to withdraw their support and vote to destroy it perhaps with enough new recruits to the cause to override the president’s promised veto. But once it became clear that this was a fantasy and some 22 Democratic senators would never turn against ObamaCare, and there would be no defunding, they refused to abandon their infatuation with glorious martyrdom. You proved your loyalty and fealty to conservative principles only if you agreed to go down with the ship.
This notion of victory through defeat resonates with many who seem to believe the cause is already lost. After all, whenever desperate battlers turn to suicidal strategies, they do so because they understand that they have no realistic hope of conventional victory.
The determination of some extremists on the right to tear apart the Republican Party has a disturbing historical echo—hearkening back to the enthusiastic “fire-eaters” in Charleston and Montgomery who forced cooler heads to go along with secession in 1861. They knew they had little chance of prevailing in an all-out military struggle against the far more populous and industrialized North, but they became intoxicated with the romance and excitement of their doomed “glorious cause.” One of us—Michael—recently received a long letter from a furious listener of his talk-radio show. He denounced me as a “traitor” and a “gutless wimp who won’t lift a finger to rescue wounded warriors from the field of battle,” thanks to my refusal to back Ted Cruz in his shutdown strategy. My correspondent concluded his diatribe with this warning: “If you and your neo-con buddies succeed in undermining the heroic last stand fight by true conservatives and the Tea Party then we will have no alternative but to fight a second civil war. And this time, I can assure you, we will win.” Actually, we always assumed “we” had won last time, too. Certainly, the Republican Party honored the successful War for the Union as a significant triumph that gave it unbreakable majorities for more than 60 years.
The Republican Party still exists to contest elections at every level, from townships to the White House. Like the Democratic Party, it was once a jumble of often contradictory regional interests that every now and then managed to coalesce nationally with a unified message. But it has come over time to serve as the electoral vehicle for the right of center, generally speaking, just as the Democratic Party serves as the vehicle for the left of center. To fulfill its mandate, it must attract votes and voters, especially because—as has been the case since the New Deal—the GOP’s self-identified following has always been somewhat smaller than its rival’s. What purpose can be served from reducing the reach of the party and limiting its appeal? There is obviously no benefit here to the Republican Party, but there is great benefit that might accrue to those who seek to control the political marketplace on the right.
The most important lessons about sacrifice and victory come from an even better Oscar-winning movie than Braveheart—one that celebrates a legendary commander who won not only isolated battles but also the wider war. In Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, the general delivers an unforgettable exhortation standing in front of a suitably gigantic American flag. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” he growls. “You win a war by getting the other poor dumb bastard to die for his country.” It was Nixon’s favorite movie. He watched it repeatedly before winning 61 percent of the vote in 1972.
Republicans will win meaningful victories only when they lose their appetite for martyrdom and fratricide and concentrate on forcing the other side to pay a political price for its own incompetent performance and dysfunctional ideology. Most Republicans, as the history of the last 40 years demonstrates, want precisely that. The question now is whether this real majority will be overrun. If that happens, the truest beneficiary of the intra-Republican civil war will be the Democratic Party, and those who divided the right will deserve some share of the blame for the advancement of the very policies and principles they claim to abhor.
1 That same year in the race for Joe Biden’s old Delaware seat, the bizarre Christine O’Donnell bested the Republican regular Mike Castle in Delaware and thereby ensured the victory of a Democratic nonentity named Chris Coons, who would almost certainly have lost to Castle.
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A GOP Civil War: Who Benefits?
Must-Reads from Magazine
Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.