The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The Palestinian Authority Loses Its Authority
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hese are alarming times for Jews in Britain and Europe.
The British Labour Party is convulsed over the realization that it is riddled with anti-Semitism. Jeremy Corbyn, its leader and a friend to Hamas, has been exposed as belonging to Facebook groups hosting claims that the Jews were behind ISIS and 9/11, that the Rothschilds controlled the world’s finances, and other such paranoid theories. The backwash from the exposure of these groups revealed a tsunami of anti-Jewish insults, smears, and libels by Labour supporters. Corbyn’s responses, often truculent and insulting to the Jewish community, have only deepened the crisis.
Last year, according to the Community Security Trust, saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since the CST started recording such data in 1984. In the past, surges in these incidents had occurred in response to the reporting of Israeli military action. That’s disturbing enough. But what was more disturbing here was that this record surge had occurred in the absence of any such Israeli activity.
Worse is happening in mainland Europe. In Paris, an 85-year-old survivor of the Shoah, Mireille Knoll, was stabbed to death and her body burned by a young Muslim. Last year, a man shouting “Allahu akbar” beat up Jewish schoolteacher Sarah Halimi and threw her to her death out of her Paris apartment window. In January, a teenage girl in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles wearing the uniform of her Jewish school was slashed in the face with a knife. Later that month, an eight-year-old boy was beaten in the same area because he was wearing a kippah. In February, two Jewish men in Paris were attacked with a hacksaw amid a volley of Jew-hating abuse.
In Amsterdam, a kosher restaurant long targeted for attack had its windows smashed in March by a man holding a Palestinian flag and shouting “Allahu akbar.” Holland’s chief rabbi says that, on the street, curses or taunts of “dirty Jew” are now quite normal. At the beginning of Chanukah last year, two Syrians and a Palestinian firebombed a synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden. A few days later, a Jewish cemetery in Malmö was attacked. In Germany, the Israeli flag has been burned and Jewish pupils bullied by Arab schoolmates. And so on and on.
In May 2017, the Pew Institute conducted a survey of 2,000 residents in each country in Eastern and Central Europe. Twenty percent of respondents said that they didn’t want Jews in their country, and 30 percent didn’t want them as neighbors. In Romania, 22 percent wanted to revoke rights of citizenship for Jews, and 18 percent of Poles said the same. Across Europe, nationalist parties, some with disturbing anti-Semitic echoes and histories, are rising.
And, so, many Jews are asking: Isn’t this 1933 all over again? Or the Weimar Republic, which enabled the rise to power of German Nazism? Isn’t history just repeating itself?
Well, yes, and no. Yes, we can all hear the unmistakable echoes. In particular, we can recognize the refusal once again to acknowledge the true nature and extent of a gathering threat, not least among Jews themselves.
But there are certain key differences. Nazi Germany involved a state policy of genocide. Today, European governments may be ineffectual in resisting Islamist extremism or defending their Jewish populations against the broader Jew-hatred coursing through their societies—but this time most of the people of Britain and Europe are passionately opposed to what they also see as a threat to their own way of life from Islamization and the erosion of national boundaries. They are passionately committed to upholding Western values, human rights, and one law for all.
There are three different sources of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe: on the left, on the right, and in the Muslim community. All these threats to the Jews are connected to one another. All are rooted in threats to Britain and Europe. All are creating a perfect anti-Jewish storm.
The Threat from the Islamic World
The threats to Britain and Europe are coming both from within and without. From without, they are coming from Islamism and Islamization. From within, they are coming from an anti-Western view of the world that also refuses to correctly identify the Islamist threat from without and combat it.
The nature of the Islamist threat takes several forms. There are the constant eruptions of terrorist violence. The vast majority of terror attacks in Britain and Europe is the work of Islamic extremists. Intelligence officials say that 23,000 jihadists who pose some degree of terrorism risk are living in Britain, with 3,000—only!—under investigation or active monitoring.
There’s sexual violence. Britain has lived through grooming and pimping gangs, overwhelmingly composed of men of Pakistani Muslim heritage targeting young white girls as “trash.” Germany and Sweden have seen a huge rise in rape and sexual violence associated with Muslim migrants.
Then there’s the cultural attack, as in the “Trojan Horse” infiltration of schools in Birmingham by Muslim extremists aimed to force them to confirm to Islamic precepts. Similar infiltration of Labour Party constituencies, as attested by one or two brave Labour MPs, aims to force the party to conform to Muslim demands.
Despite all this, the officials governing Britain and Europe refuse to acknowledge that the Islamist threat is based on religious fanaticism—on an interpretation of Islam that although not supported by many Muslims is nevertheless dominant within the Islamic world. Instead, identifying these threats as rooted in Islam is damned as Islamophobic.
Since any criticism of Islam is deemed Islamophobic, there’s a refusal to acknowledge the enormous problem of Muslim anti-Semitism. Yet this is one of the principal drivers of the Islamist threat to the West. Islamist ideologues and jihadists believe that modernity is a threat to Islam that must be eradicated and that the Jews are the demonic creators of modernity. Paranoid conspiracy theories and other deranged falsehoods about Jews pour out of the Islamic world in an unstoppable torrent. Opinion polls consistently show that hatred of Jews is far more prevalent among Muslims than in the wider community. The Muslim British journalist Mehdi Hasan wrote in 2013: “Anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace…. It’s our dirty little secret.”
CST figures suggest that a disproportionate number of Muslims are involved in anti-Jewish attacks. Out of 420 anti-Semitic offenders in 2017 of whom an ethnic description was obtained, 238 were described as white Europeans, 77 as black, 75 as Asian, and 30 as Arab or north African. Muslims are officially estimated to constitute just over 4 percent of Britain’s population. Although it’s not possible to be exact, the proportion of Muslim offenders in the CST figures would seem to be several times more than 4 percent.
It’s apparently Islamophobic to draw attention to these things.
We have to be very careful not to promote true prejudice against Muslims, just as we would be regarding any other group. Many Muslims are opposed to Islamist extremism, and Muslims are most of its victims.
But there is enormous pressure not to acknowledge the threats to life and liberty that are widespread within the Muslim world, including anti-Semitism. Anyone who calls out these threats is denounced as a bigot. But those who issue such denunciations themselves help perpetuate Muslim Jew-hatred.
The reason no one is allowed to talk about Muslim anti-Semitism is the cultural prism through which left-wing progressive circles view the world. And this represents the threat from within.
This left-wing prism is responsible for eroding Western values, undermining the defense of Britain and Europe againstjihad, and exposing Jews to attack. These are all connected. You cannot understand the resurgence of paranoid, unhinged anti-Semitism unless you understand that the West has been tearing up the very idea of reason itself along with the moral codes at the heart of Western civilization.
Leftists view the West as the historic and current oppressor of the entire developing world. This Western cultural self-hatred has a complex history, at the root of which lies the erosion of biblical morality by the tides of secularism. But in my view, the key political driver of this cultural demoralization was the Holocaust.
It simply smashed to smithereens Europe’s belief in itself as the exemplar of superior cultural values. The Holocaust was conceived and directed, after all, in the heartlands of high European culture, the supposed crucible of enlightenment and rationality. It wasn’t just the Jews who died in the extermination camps: It was also the West’s (or Europe’s) concept of itself as moral and rational.
Lethally demoralized, Western cultural elites took an axe to the building blocks of their civilization: an axe to education as the transmission of that civilization, an axe to the traditional family as the best way to generate emotionally resilient inheritors of that civilization, and an axe to national identity as the political expression of that civilization.
Policies and laws passed by national governments now had to take second place to transnational institutions, such as the UN and EU, and legal frameworks, such as international human-rights law. With no Western nation or values thought worthy of defending to the death, wars to establish justice and freedom were deemed inferior to conflict resolution, negotiation, and peace processes. Between God and the devil, Western liberals would split the difference and broker a triumphant compromise.
National identity was replaced by factional interest groups. Morality was replaced by a view of the world based on competing power blocs. Biblical morality was replaced by man-made, universalizing ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism or multiculturalism.
Every one of these ideologies was anti-Judaism or anti-Israel. Jews, after all, are always in the way of any universalizing ideology. We are the people of one book alone and of one land alone. We are ha’ivrim, the people from the other side—the people who have always dwelled alone. This is something many diaspora Jews try to deny. It is something our postmodern culture will not accept. And it is something that has helped fuel the madness over Israel.
It’s a commonplace that the hatred of Israel on the left was caused by the Israeli David supposedly turning into Goliath. That, though, doesn’t begin to explain it.
Anti-Israelism has exactly the same characteristics that make traditional anti-Semitism a unique derangement. Both are based entirely on falsehoods and malicious distortions; both single out Israel and the Jews for double standards and treatment afforded to no other nation, people, or cause; both accuse Israel or the Jews of crimes of which they are not only innocent but are in fact the victims; both dehumanize Israel or the Jewish people; both impute to Israel or the Jewish people demonic global conspiratorial power; both are utterly beyond reason.
Yet on the left, this connection is vehemently denied. The treatment of Israel is described as mere “criticism” of its behavior. But it isn’t criticism at all. Criticism is rational. This is irrational and malicious demonization and delegitimization of Israel and of Zionism. Zionism is merely the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. This anti-Zionism singles out the Jews alone for the destruction of their nationhood.
The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is fake. As Ruth Wisse has observed: “Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism〞combined into the modern phenomena of anti-Semitism / Zionism〞can best be described as the organization of politics against the Jews.”
This is the new anti-Semitism. Trying to understand it, however, is like peeling a rotten onion: Beneath every rancid layer lies a yet more rancid layer.
The outer, most visible layer is fairly obvious. The left in general now subscribes to beliefs once considered extreme. It has absorbed the Marxist concept that everything has to be understood in terms of political power. The world is divided into the powerful and the powerless. Those with power can never be good; those without power can never be bad. Those who make money have power over those who don’t make money. Those who make money are bad; those without money are good. Jews make money. Therefore Jews are powerful and bad.
The 19th-century German anti-Semite Wilhelm Marr, who is credited with inventing the term, ascribed to the Jews the attribute of global power. Israel —which isn’t really Western at all—is seen as menacingly powerful. That is its crime, and that is also why anti-Israelism is umbilically connected to anti-Semitism. Even though Jews are now equipped with military power solely to defend themselves against annihilation, this breathes life into the paranoid delusion that the Jews are so powerful that they pose a threat to everyone else.
The next layer of the onion is even more rank. This is that—as the black joke that isn’t a joke at all would have it—the West will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust. This isn’t just because of the terrible legacy of guilt carried by the West. It is because of jealousy.
What on earth about the Holocaust can provoke such jealousy? It gives the Jews what many in the West perceive as the trump card of victimhood.
I have often heard the Jews accused of sucking up all the victimhood in the world and leaving no room for anyone else to be a victim. What does this nonsensical claim mean? It can only mean that the enormity of the crime against the Jews was so vast that people think any victim status claimed by anyone else is rendered minor by comparison and thus devalued.
But why do these people want to be considered victims in the first place?
It’s because victimization gives them a moral free pass. The belief is that if you are a victim, you can’t be held responsible for your own misdeeds. You can never be a victimizer; you can never be a racist; you can never be a genocidal psychopath.
And so no one in the developing world can ever be a victimizer, a racist, or a genocidal psychopath. They can only ever be the victims of such people. The Palestinian Arabs can only ever be their victims. And as such, the Palestinian Arabs and the rest of the developing world obtain a get-out-of-jail-free card for everything—including genocidal mass murder.
So now every group that doesn’t conform to the left-wing definition of power—deemed to be pale, male, heterosexual, Western—claims victim status and that get-out-of-jail-free card. That’s our victim culture. It now drives all before it. But Jews can’t be victims because, as everyone knows, they emerged from the Holocaust to run the financial world, the media, the law, the arts, American foreign policy. So the Jews are all-powerful, aren’t they?
Yet Jews are in fact the most persecuted people on earth, who even now have to sacrifice their children in Israel to defend themselves year in, year out against genocidal fanatics bent on their extermination. So how can this not be recognized?
And here’s where we peel down to the most sickening layer of the onion. For the real reason for the burning resentment against the Jews over their status as supreme victims is that it’s thought the Holocaust enabled them to get away with it.
Get away with what, exactly? Why, all the stuff that anti-Semites think about the Jews, that they are rapacious and disloyal and grasping and are out to control the world. In other words, such people think these anti-Semitic libels are actually true; but the Jews’ status as ultimate victims has silenced people who can no longer utter them. And that’s resented as unfair.
It is this reaction by anti-Semites to the Holocaust, no less, that has helped create our invidious victim culture. People thought that if the Jews had got a free pass for their misdeeds, then so too could any group that claimed to be victims. The difference, though, is that, while victim groups thus claim impunity for acts of irresponsibility, abuses of power, or other bad behavior, the Jews are by contrast wholly innocent of the crimes that anti-Semites so falsely lay at their door.
Thus, victim culture is innately anti-Jew. But victim culture lies at the very heart of progressive left-wing thinking.
Moreover, support for Palestinianism is also innately anti-Jew. So-called Palestinian identity is a fiction invented to exterminate the uniquely historically and legally valid Jewish claim to the land of Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, viewed by the Western left as a moderate entitled to a state, has a doctorate in Holocaust denial, explicitly venerates the wartime Palestinian Nazi-ally Haj Amin al-Husseini, and uses his media outlets to transmit Nazi-style demonization of the Jews.
In the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, PA TV misrepresented a photograph of concentration-camp victims as Arabs and wrote that Jews burned Arabs in Nazi ovens. Every single person who supports the Palestinian cause connives at promoting this murderous anti-Jewish filth.
So why should Labour Party members who support the Palestinian agenda of Holocaust denial, attacks on Judaism, and unhinged conspiracy theories about Jewish power now be so shocked that other Labour Party members are coming out themselves with Holocaust denial, attacks on Judaism, and unhinged conspiracy theories about Jewish power?
the left can’t admit its anti-semitism
The fact is that the new anti-Semitism is a seamless robe of Israel-hatred and Jew-hatred. People deny this because they think of anti-Semitism as only against Jews as people. They can’t recognize it when it’s against the collective Jew in the State of Israel.
Those on the left also believe that they embody virtue so they can’t possibly be anti-Semitic. Only the right can be anti-Jew. This is historically and philosophically illiterate. Both left and right have the same parent in the counter-Enlightenment and German romanticism. This spawned in due course both Communism and Fascism. Karl Marx wrote: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew?\Huckstering. What is his worldly God?\Money.”
Left-wingers, however, are constitutionally unable to accept that they can be racist or anti-Semitic because such an admission would undermine their self-image of unimpeachable moral purity and go right to the root of their entire political and moral personality. So they shelter behind the fiction that hating Israel is decent and moral while hating Jews is beyond the pale. We can hear this self-serving solecism from some who claim to have seen the light about Labour Party anti-Semitism, and who say they now realize they were wrong to blame all Jews for the crimes of Israel.
Anti-Israelism is inescapably anti-Jew. Yet anti-Israelism is the default position in progressive circles. So even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed tomorrow, anti-Semitism on the British left would not disappear. The symbiosis between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews is now part of the DNA of the progressive world.
Because those progressives believe that anti-Semitism is to be found only on the nationalist right, the very same left-wingers who obsessively anathematize Israel, support its Arab would-be destroyers, and are struck dumb about Muslim anti-Semitism in Europe strike a pose of pious concern about anti-Semitism among European nationalists. Yet although some of those nationalists do have troubling anti-Semitic or fascist overtones, Jews have much more to fear from those they are trying to stop.
A German government study published in January found that male migrants may be responsible for more than 90 percent of a recent increase in violent crime. In Sweden, a leaked report last year revealed that there were now 61 Islamic “no-go zones” where Islamist extremists have taken over. Sweden’s National Police Commissioner, Dan Eliasson, pleaded, “Help us, help us!”—warning that the police could no longer uphold the law.
Across Europe, the entire political establishment has for years connived at or turned a blind eye to the mass immigration of mainly Muslim migrants and the steady march of Islamization—the evidence for which is demonstrated not least by the attempt to criminalize as “Islamophobic” any criticism of the migrants or concern about the resulting erosion of Western culture.
As a result of this political and cultural disenfranchisement, the people of Europe are now turning to parties outside the political establishment that promise an end to uncontrolled mass immigration. For this, such voters are dismissed as bigots and xenophobes. The aggressive or anti-Semitic behavior by many migrants is ignored or denied.
Instead, those who want to stop this influx are themselves demonized as racists and anti-Semites. The president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, says: “Right-wing populist parties are resorting to both anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant discourse to gather political support.”
Now, there’s no doubt that there is an enduring strand of virulent, indigenous anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Research suggests that almost one in five Hungarians openly demands the emigration of the Jews. In Poland, the government is intent upon denying its anti-Semitic past. A new law criminalizes anyone who accuses Poland of having been complicit in the Holocaust. (As it happens, I have written a novel, The Legacy, which has just been published and which deals with this very issue—and which even features a walk-on role for the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation.)
Those who deny their anti-Semitism are doomed to repeat it. So it is in Poland. Anti-Semitic outbursts in the Polish media and among politicians have significantly increased since the law’s passage last February, with wild claims of Jewish conspiracies and comparisons of Jews to animals.
So traditional, old-style Jew-hatred is unfortunately still very prevalent in countries with a terrible history of persecuting the Jews. Some of the new ultra-nationalist parties coming to the fore in Europe, such as the Austrian Freedom Party, Golden Dawn in Greece, or Jobbik in Hungary, are openly anti-Semitic or have Nazi pasts. Others, though, merely want to restore and defend national identity, democratic national sovereignty, and Western cultural norms and practices against creeping Islamization. Yet all parties committed to the defense of Western cultural norms and national identity in Europe are being equally damned as racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic.
In Britain, the government’s failure to identify correctly and tackle Islamist extremism is turning the Jewish community into collateral damage. The refusal to acknowledge that the problem of Islamist extremism is particular to Muslim culture—although many Muslims are opposed to such extremism—has meant that the government strategy for dealing with it involves imposing equal restrictions on all religious practices it believes lie outside the liberal consensus, such as the refusal to teach sexuality in ultra-orthodox Jewish schools.Throughout Europe there are growing pressures to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter. This liberal secular intolerance poses a real threat to religious Jewish life.
British Jews themselves, however, are also reluctant to call out Muslim extremism. Recently the chief rabbi, Efraim Mirvis, broke cover to complain that Muslim leaders were silent in the fight against rising anti-Semitism. “The threat to Judaism and Jews from the world of Islam is one which can only be cured from within the world of Islam,” he said. Quite right. But Jewish leaders themselves urged the British government under Prime Minister David Cameron (to his astonishment and irritation) to admit many more Muslim migrants; and they appear more anxious to make common cause against Islamophobia and xenophobia than to bring the full extent and nature of Muslim anti-Semitism into the open.
More dangerous still, Jews on the left who promote multiculturalism and campaign loudly against Islamophobia are themselves helping to stoke anti-Semitism. People who are angry and resentful at the way mass immigration is destroying their national identity bitterly resent being told by Diaspora Jews who have their own potential refuge in Israel that it’s racist to oppose multiculturalism. Not only is it dangerous for Jews to oppose Europeans’ pursuit of their own national identity. It’s morally wrong. We Jews have ours. Why can’t they have theirs?
In Britain, most Jews voted against Brexit. They are frightened by assertions of national identity. They think it leads to nationalism, and that means anti-Semitism. They think Europe protects against anti-Semitism and that Brexit is motivated by nationalism. Haven’t they noticed that the rise of the ethno-nationalist groups in Europe that frighten them so much has taken place under rule by, and precisely because of, the EU?
Jews are protected only when a culture feels confident and strong. Which is why, in fact, Brexit offers a sliver of hope.The revival of British national identity may, over time, see off group rights and identity politics. Greater cultural and national confidence should mean more tolerance of Jews, not less.
The lost soul of Europe
Why is anti-Semitism on the rise in the West? Broadly because the West is in trouble. And a society in trouble always turns on the Jews. So much general hatred and irrationality now course through the West. Anti-Semitism, though, is not just a prejudice or a species of bigotry or hatred. It’s much more than that. It represents a kind of moral and spiritual death.
Europe lost its soul in the Shoah: the soul that was created by Jewish biblical precepts. Turning against itself, Europe has turned on the Jews.
Without its Christian base, the West is nothing. But Christianity in Britain and Europe lost its way a long time ago. Losing their faith, many Christian churches turned instead to social and political activism, liberation theology, and the radical Marxist analysis of the World Council of Churches. Those progressive churches have denied their Jewish parent. Embracing instead their Islamist assassin in the misguided hope of saving their flock, they are in the forefront of the charge against Israel. In the process, they are destroying themselves. But a society without a religious core rests on sand.
Many Jews, especially those on the left, see no problem with mass Muslim immigration except for Islamophobia. Such Jews are either indifferent to Israel or they believe many of the lies told about it. Indeed, tragically, many of the leaders of the new anti-Semitism are themselves Jews.
For all these members of the tribe, the idea that it may be time for the Jews to leave Britain is no more than paranoid hysteria. For other British Jews, though, the current situation is deeply, profoundly upsetting and lowering. The anti-Semitism is bad enough. But it’s not just the anti-Semitism that’s so devastating. It’s the reaction to those who call it out for what it is.
The same people who claim to see anti-Semitism in European populism or the political base of Donald Trump regularly accuse Jews of claiming anti-Semitism just to “sanitize the crimes of Israel” or “bring down Jeremy Corbyn.”
This reaction is worse, far worse, than the anti-Semitism itself. It’s worse even than indifference. For it imputes to the Jews malicious intent in claiming that Jewish people are being maliciously targeted.It says they are lying. It blames the Jews for their own victimization.
This reaction is the inescapable evidence that the Jews are being abandoned.Those of us who have loved Britain for its gentleness, its tolerance, its decency, its stoicism, its reasonableness, and the dampness of both its weather and national temperament feel as if we have been orphaned. But maybe we were living all along in a fool’s paradise.
Some people think Europe is over, that the demographics are against it and that it will become a majority-Muslim culture in a few decades. My guess is that Europe won’t go down without a fight. If that happens, the Jews are likely to get it in the neck from all sides. Whichever way it goes, it’s not a pleasant prospect.
So is it time to leave? It’s very personal, and I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone what to do. I can only speak for myself and say that for some years now, I’ve been spending a great deal of my time in Israel. Because even with 150,000 Hezbollah rockets pointing at us from Lebanon, even with Hamas trying every day to murder us, and even with Iran working toward its genocide bomb to wipe us out, Israel is where I feel so much safer and the air is so much sweeter, and it’s where Jews are not on their knees and where no one will ever make me feel I am not entitled to live and don’t properly belong.
Israel is where we have astonishingly renewed ourselves as a nation out of the ashes of the Shoah. Israel is where all those who want us gone meet their nemesis in the political realization of the eternal people. Israel is the ultimate, and ultimately the only, definitive and triumphant repudiation of anti-Semitism and the true vindication of the millions of us who perished in the unspeakable events that we memorialize on Holocaust Memorial Day.
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There’s a constitutional crisis, but it’s not the one you think
They pat themselves on the back for cutting the corporate tax rate, a reform that has had bipartisan support for most of this century yet barely happened. And they praise themselves for confirming judges, an act that requires only a simple Senate majority now. But that’s about the sum of it.
They are less inclined now to talk about health-care reform, which was the foremost plank of every Republican platform since 2010 but fell apart last year and seems to have been abandoned. Presidential priorities such as immigration and infrastructure are going nowhere. The same can be said of longstanding Republican priorities such as entitlement reform.
The budget process has never been so hobbled. Not only did we come close to an unprecedented government shutdown during single-party control of Congress and the presidency, but this year has also marked the first time in the four-plus decades since the modern budget process was created that neither chamber has even considered a budget resolution.
And the trouble didn’t start in just the past few years. Presidential hyperactivity in recent decades has masked a rising tide of dysfunction—giving us policy action to observe and debate while obscuring the disorder that was overtaking our core constitutional infrastructure. It kept us from facing what should be an unavoidable fact: Congress is broken.
So whether you measure it by legislation, public approval, member satisfaction, even just committee work or each house’s ability to live by its own rules and procedures, the institution looks awfully dysfunctional. And the primary reason for that dysfunction may be the worst news of all: Congress is weak because its members want it to be. And that means the structure of our system, the insights of its framers, and the incentives that shape our politics don’t offer obvious solutions.
The Constitution gives the Congress powers but not responsibilities. The president is required to execute the laws and tasked with responding to changing world events on the country’s behalf. The courts have to consider cases and controversies put before them and apply the laws accordingly. But while the general scope and reach of the Congress’s authorities are laid out in Article I, the institution is not really told what it must do within that scope. That’s because the assumption was that Congress would naturally seek to control things and run as far and as hard in pursuit of power as the Constitution allowed, so that only boundaries were needed.
James Madison believed the legislative branch of government would exhibit an unquenchable ambition. As he wrote in Federalist 48, it would always be “extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.” In Federalist 51, Madison offers this as the reason for the bicameral legislature: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches.”
The legislative branch would be so dominant because the intense ambition of its members couldn’t really be contained. Those members would speak most directly for the public, and their jobs could not be bounded by the laws as the job of a judge and a president can be. They would have the power to make the laws, after all, and so would be the moving force in our regime, striving incessantly to act.
Today’s Congress simply defies that expectation. It suffers from a malady the framers never quite imagined when they thought about politics: a shortage of ambition. Members are certainly eager to retain their offices, but they seem oddly indifferent to using those offices.
For example: About half a year from an election that could plausibly end their unified control of Congress for a while, congressional Republicans appear to have decided to spend this time doing essentially nothing. Even if bipartisan agreement is too hard to achieve, they have the opportunity, using the budget-reconciliation process, to take on serious legislative work with bare majorities. And they have a president eager to sign practically anything. But they are choosing to send him little of consequence.
It is precisely the president’s relative passivity that helps us see Congress’s ambition shortage. As an institutional matter, and in terms of his uses of his formal powers, Donald Trump is almost certainly the weakest president we have seen since before the New Deal. He is intensely interested in playing the leading role in the drama of our national politics, but he views that role in terms of media and cultural theater. He has barely lifted a finger to advance any legislative agenda of his own. He has used his executive authorities less aggressively than any modern president (and has used them mostly to reverse the aggressive hyperactivity of his predecessor). He has populated his administration with many officials rightly inclined to restrain the presidency. And he has proven largely incompetent to propel the engine of the federal bureaucracy in any particular direction on most issues.
Every White House, moreover, mirrors the personality of the chief executive. So the Trump White House has been a hothouse of frenetic, undisciplined, and unproductive chaos—self-obsessed, media-obsessed, but ultimately uninterested in the substantive work of the presidency. At least in domestic affairs, we are getting a flavor of what our system of government might look like without a president.
And what we’re learning from this strange experience is that the role of presidential overreach in undermining our system has probably been overstated, while the role of congressional underreach has been underappreciated. Congress has not looked upon Trump’s weakness as an opportunity and has not stepped in to fill the vacuum. The little that has gotten done (tax reform in particular) has certainly looked more like the agenda of congressional Republicans than of the president. But very little has gotten done. And members of Congress spend much of their time waiting to see what the president will say next.
This turn of events might cast the state and modern history of our constitutional system in a rather different light from the one in which conservatives have been inclined to see it over the last few decades. It suggests that the two trends that have most worried conservatives about the system—the trends toward excessive executive power and excessive judicial activism—are both rooted in congressional dereliction.
This also helps make better sense of the history of the administrative state, which has been distorted some in the popular conservative telling. The villain of this story is Woodrow Wilson, so that the tale has been about presidential excess from the start. But the historical evidence leaves little doubt that Congress created the administrative state, and indeed that it did so with little presidential guidance or involvement more or less until the New Deal. The original “independent” regulators were formed as commissions and given a peculiar middle spot between the branches of our government in part precisely so that they would not simply add to the president’s arsenal of authorities—and would remain answerable to Congress to a meaningful degree.
This began to change with the New Deal, but very much with Congress’s complicity. And by the last few decades, a pattern of congressional neglect has clearly emerged that has been misattributed (at least in part) to presidential and judicial excess. That pattern has dominated the work of our constitutional system in this century. Broad delegations of power in statutes have let presidents wield what are properly legislative authorities, and intentionally vague legislation has empowered judges to fill gaps that legislators should never have left open. Members of Congress are happy to complain about the other branches, but they are not inclined to use the enormous power at their disposal to restrain those competing institutions and reassert their own. We have seen this in health care, education, energy and banking regulation, and across the full scope of domestic affairs. And Congress’s abandonment of its role in foreign policy has been, if anything, even more comprehensive.
That presidents and judges would have rushed to capitalize on these opportunities is no surprise. They are ambitious, as the framers knew they would be. Why Congress would willfully create such opportunities for them is the question to be answered.
So how could there be a shortage of legislative ambition? What did James Madison miss?
He didn’t get the psychology of politicians wrong. People who run for Congress are still very ambitious and driven. But their ambition is now channeled away from the institution of Congress and redirected along two related paths.
The first is partisan. As polarization has increased, members of Congress have grown more inclined to understand their political and policy ambitions in partisan terms and therefore to see themselves as belonging to a team that extends beyond Congress. That means when they are in the president’s party, they generally work to advance the president’s priorities—because they usually share those priorities, and because they expect success for the president to redound to their own political benefit.
This obviously slackens the institutional tensions that are supposed to keep our constitutional system in balance. That’s how we could find congressional Democrats earlier in this decade calling on President Obama to assert the authority to rewrite immigration laws on his own, seemingly unconcerned about the usurpation of legislative prerogatives. It’s how we find Republicans asking President Trump to use his regulatory power to do things they could do with legislative power—to protect religious liberty or enable oil drilling along the coasts.
It is worth noticing in this regard, and when it comes to the decline of Congress more generally, that the problems have been thoroughly bipartisan. There is a popular genre of political science and commentary devoted to blaming Congress’s problems on the behavior of Republicans since the Gingrich era of the 1990s. They are derided as somehow simultaneously dogmatic and nihilistic, and blamed for turning the institution into a partisan combat zone. In this telling, it was the end of a blissful half-century of Democratic dominance that started all the trouble.
A more plausible diagnosis, offered by political scientist Frances Lee of the University of Maryland, is the simple fact that control of Congress is now in question in just about every election. This has turned up the partisan heat. The minority party at any given moment imagines it could take over next time and get everything it wants, and so it feels little pressure to cooperate with the majority just to get half a loaf or less. And the majority knows that its hold on power is endangered and so avoids bipartisan initiatives in favor of forcing the minority to take hard votes on wedge issues.
Both parties behave this way, in and out of power. And they also emulate each other’s behavior toward the president when control of the White House switches—as we have seen with the Democrats’ budget antics in the Trump era, which have been nearly identical to Republican shutdown politics in the Obama years. And both Republican and Democratic members have deferred and delegated to the president when their party has held the White House.
To some extent, this is because members are happy to pass off to the president and to judges the responsibility to make hard choices. But they do this not only when it comes to unpopular measures they don’t want tied to them. As a White House staffer in the Bush Administration, I frequently encountered member requests for executive actions in properly legislative domains that had broad popular support, or at least broad Republican support. Members were perfectly happy to claim credit for getting the president to act rather than acting themselves.
Members from the party out of power in the White House will sometimes suddenly discover a deep concern for congressional prerogatives, of course. But these discoveries rarely reach beyond the bounds of partisan convenience and have tended not to involve enacting durable institutional restraints on presidential power. Presidential overreach is convenient for Congress, because members don’t view the institution as the most important channel for their own ambition.
But members do not simply subsume their own ambition beneath that of their party. Ambitious people have pride and want prominence. That, too, remains as true today as in Madison’s time. But it points to the second, and even more pernicious, kind of redirection of ambition that is the distinct disorder of the Congress in this century, and that results in a more complicated kind of dereliction of congressional responsibility.
Simply put, many members of Congress have come to see themselves as players in a larger political ecosystem the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather engaging in a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience. Their incentives are rooted in that understanding of our politics and so are not about legislating. They remain intensely ambitious, but their ambition is for a prominent role in the theater of our national politics. And they view the institution of Congress as a particularly effective platform for themselves—a way to raise their profile, to become celebrities in the world of cable news or talk radio, whether locally or nationally, to build a bigger social-media following, and in essence to become stars.
They can best use this platform not by engaging in the mundane work of legislating but by taking part in dramatic spectacles and by fueling the outrage that is now the engine of our politics. Even for its own members, Congress seems to be most valuable as an object for commentary and a prop in a livid morality tale about corruption.
Matt Gaetz, a freshman Republican congressman from Florida, has made a name for himself as an aggressive and quotable partisan combatant on cable television. When a reporter from Buzzfeed asked him in February whether he was concerned that he was gaining notoriety rather than prominence by doing this, his answer was: “What’s the difference? People have to know who you are and what you’re doing if your opinions are going to matter.”
It is easy to imagine President Trump himself offering the same answer. And indeed, the rise of performative politics in Congress mirrors the performative approach to the presidency embodied by Trump—though it was also very much in evidence in his predecessor’s behavior. In both the elected branches, we find people inside a key institution yearning for the role of the outsider, and therefore essentially acting on the institution rather than in it. Something of the same pattern is evident in the courts today. And we can see it outside of government, too, in the professions, in the universities, in the media, and throughout the culture. Many of our key institutions are coming to be treated by their occupants as platforms for a kind of moralistic performance art.
Congress, like any serious institution, can only function by socializing its members to work together. But when those members see the institution as a stage for their individual performances, they do not become socialized and are left in a kind of anti-social form, each trying to shine. They often cannot wait to rush off the floor of the House or Senate, find a camera, and tell a waiting viewing public just how badly broken Washington is. This makes accommodation very hard to come by, and it makes legislating difficult and rare. It has everything to do with why so little gets done in Congress now and why every budget process ends with the threat of a shutdown.
This is exacerbated further by the related loss of protected spaces for deliberation in Congress. Every institution needs an inner life—a sanctum where its work is really done. Congress has progressively lost that inner life, as its deliberative spaces have become performative spaces, everything has become televised, and there is less and less room and time for talking in private. By now, the Speaker’s Office around midnight as a government shutdown approaches is almost the only private space left, and that is therefore where much important legislation gets made—so that various reforms intended to democratize the Congress and make it more accountable have resulted in a less democratic and accountable institution.
This has happened in the name of transparency. And transparency is a good thing. Without it, institutions that serve a public purpose can easily become debased and unaccountable. But every good thing is a matter of degree, and we have treated transparency as a good thing with no costs, when in fact it can have some enormous costs, and these must be accounted for. In this case, the cost is a Congress that increasingly has the appearance of a show, and that does less and less real bargaining, accommodating, and legislating.
Combine that with related reforms also intended to curtail corruption—most notably the elimination of earmarks in legislation—and it becomes easier to see why the intense ambition of legislators finds itself directed to things other than legislating, and so in turn why Congress seems so dysfunctional.
None of this points to any easy answers. In fact, although pretty much everyone who watches Congress (including its members) would now agree that institutional reforms are needed, there is not much agreement about just what such reforms should aim to achieve.
Congress isn’t working, but what is it failing to do? Is its purpose—like that of a European parliament—to enable the majority party to enact its agenda while it holds power? Or is its purpose—as envisioned by the framers of our Constitution—to compel accommodation among competing factions in a diverse and often divided country?
Reformers with the former goal in mind tend to see the partisan dereliction of congressional responsibility as a potentially promising development. They aim to make Congress more pliable, to remove obstacles to pure majoritarianism, and to empower party leaders and more efficient procedures. Those who seek the latter propose reforms that would instead empower Congress over the executive, empower members and especially committees over leaders, and encourage substantive policy conflict in Congress as a way to ultimately force compromise. They seek not ways to make the most of dereliction, but ways to reinvest the ambition of members in the work of their institution.
The experience of this century should teach us to prefer the second course. A weak Congress invites aggression from the other branches, and a Congress whose members direct their ambitions outside the institutional framework of our system sends that system dangerously out of balance—exacerbating partisan polarization and public frustration. Only an assertive and functional Congress—a Madisonian Congress—can help our politics find the practical accommodations essential to both addressing public problems and lowering the temperature of our overheated public life.
The insight that the problem with Congress is that members’ ambitions are now misdirected can help reformers think creatively and practically about what Congress needs. The budget process, which is at the center of Congress’s troubles, clearly needs to be reformed with this insight in mind—perhaps by eliminating the distinction between authorizing and appropriating legislation and breaking up the big spending bills into many smaller pieces that would have Congress always legislating but in focused and discrete ways that offer members concrete reasons to be engaged.
A transformation of oversight is also plainly in order. It is particularly important now to give Congress more of a role in federal regulation, maybe requiring its assent for major rules (as the so-called REINS Act would do), requiring it to legislate a formal regulatory budget for the executive branch just as it now imposes a budget on spending, and (as Kevin Kosar and Philip Wallach have proposed) providing it with a specialized agency to oversee regulation on the model of the Congressional Budget Office.
There is no easy answer to the incentive for performative over legislative politics, of course. But congressional reformers should consider whether transparency has gone too far, and whether limits might be placed on the televising of all floor and committee action. A much more robust role for committee work in setting the schedule for congressional activity and in drafting and revising legislation would also give members a more legitimate forum for prominence and therefore more of a chance to invest themselves in legislative work.
None of this would solve the overarching problem. But institutional reforms can be a matter of degree, and Congress could stand to improve its functioning incrementally. Such improvements should always keep in mind Madison’s exhortation in Federalist 51 that “the interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
The real trouble, however, is that any reforms along these lines would first require members to want them. If the problem with Congress is a shortage of properly constitutional will, this is all the more of a problem when it comes to institutional reforms of the Congress.
Congress is weak and dysfunctional because that suits its members. It could renew itself only if its members wanted such renewal. The health of our constitutional system rests on the premise that the officials who populate it will be ambitious on behalf of the institutions they occupy. A shortage of constitutional ambition is the real trouble with Congress—and not only with Congress.
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Selectivity in the social sciences.
Last year, I criticized universities for hurrying to implement programs to combat microaggressions, “mostly subtle, mostly inadvertent slights directed at racial minorities and other ‘marginalized” groups.’” According to a review of the research conducted by Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University, there was little, if any, evidence that such programs do more good than harm. Universities, which should pride themselves on following the evidence wherever it leads, seemed to have succumbed to the pressure to “do something” about racism.
One might imagine that this phenomenon is limited to administrators and faculty who don’t understand what the science says. Alas, scientists have proven little better than non-scientists at weighing the evidence, when it comes to politically charged topics like race and gender bias.
For those who want to know more about this problem, I recommend Lee Jussim’s blog, Rabble Rouser. One could accuse Jussim, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, of prejudice in favor of rabble-rousing, particularly concerning left-wing bias in the sciences. However, he and his colleagues recently provided the first empirical support for a proposition widely believed by psychologists, which holds that inaccurate stereotypes can have a cumulative effect far greater than what we can see in “dyadic” studies involving one perceiver and one perceived.
It is conventional political wisdom on the left that, for example, when teachers inaccurately claim that women are less equipped to excel in college than men, women will underperform as a result. This effect is believed to be observable across a variety of inaccurate stereotypes, particularly about race and sex. It may have been just like rabble rouser Jussim to notice that a widely held left-affirming view lacks empirical support. But it is also just like Jussim to investigate and let the chips fall where they may, or, again, to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Following the evidence wherever it leads may be damaging to the conventional wisdom that women scientists suffer widely from “implicit bias” when it comes to their prospects for career advancement. There is certainly some evidence for this proposition. A well-known study that presented participants with identical applications for a lab manager position, with only the gender of the applicant varying, found that participants “rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.” There is also evidence from multiple studies, finding bias in favor of women.
As Jussim points out, scientists who cite the first study and fail to acknowledge the existence of the others seem to be biased in favor of the thesis that bias explains disparate outcomes. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a conference in 2016 in which “presentation after presentation by famous, influential, and prestigious scientists argued for the power and prevalence of implicit gender biases in peer review,” the vetting of a scientist’s grant proposals and paper submissions by other scientists. But “not a shred of evidence of implicit bias in peer review was actually presented” at the conference.
Jussim doesn’t claim that no such evidence exists. But he is distressed that distinguished scientists were presenting as settled science the implicit bias explanation for differences in professional outcomes, even though the evidence for that explanation is, at best, quite mixed. He pointed us to a recent series of studies in which five different political science journals looked for evidence of bias in their peer review processes. Even though “the journals differ in terms of substantive focus, management/ownership, as well [as] editorial structure and process, none found evidence of systematic gender bias in editorial decisions.”
The only bias the speakers at the AAAS demonstrate here is “bias in favor of bias.” Jussim concluded that “this sort of thing is commonplace, when scientists allow their political agendas to drive their claims about science.” This conclusion does not imply that all claims regarding the influence of bias in higher education are false or, more broadly, that the scientific method doesn’t work. It does suggest that scientists who are adept at exposing the foolishness of non-scientists need to attend more closely to their own.
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Will the reverence Trump inspires outlast his presidency?
Approximately once every quarter for the last two years, we’ve been bombarded by declarations that Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP is complete. The frequency with which the verdict is rendered would suggest the thesis is flawed.
Trump’s takeover of the GOP was complete after he secured the party’s presidential nomination, but it was also complete after he won the presidency. It wasn’t Trump’s GOP until his first address to a joint session of Congress, or maybe when threw congressional Republicans under the bus to accept a deal offered by “Chuck and Nancy,” or when Trump-skeptical Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker ran for the exit. Most recently, this week’s primary contests in South Carolina and Virginia indicate that, at long last, the GOP’s resistance to Trump is in its death throes.
Trump’s “takeover” of the GOP requires constant affirmation because the president is still regarded with suspicion by some of his party’s most prominent federal and state-level elected officials. Of course, Trump as both the president and the titular head of his party commands the fealty of the party’s base voters, its enforcers in media, and elected officials who do not dare offend the party’s core constituents. For them, the “Trump’s takeover of the GOP” theme needs repeating because the condition might be uniquely ephemeral.
Trump’s occasional clashes with Republican lawmakers receive levels of attention disproportionate to their relevance because Trump himself and his followers elevate those conflicts into dramatic contests. It is a satisfying opportunity to relive 2016—a protracted battle Trump and his acolytes decisively won. But those fights are rarely about policy. They are usually about personality.
For example, why did Rep. Mark Sanford lose his primary fight? The Beltway analysis holds it was his frequent criticisms of Trump that did him in. And while there were certainly other issues in the campaign (Sanford lost the support of his state’s Republican establishment and took hits for failing to spend sufficiently on infrastructure as governor), his opponent successfully transformed the race into which of the two loved Trump more. Sanford’s sins consisted of scolding the president for defending white nationalists in Charlottesville and promising to pay the legal fees for his most violent supporters. Policy disagreements took a back seat.
Sanford’s loss came as a surprise to the Freedom Caucus, of which he is a member in good standing. This conservative body of lawmakers, many of whom are staunchly supportive of the president and serve as a bulwark in defense of his agenda in the House, has been critical of Trump’s decision to register his opposition to Sanford on Election Day just in time to get some credit for his loss. Their consternation is understandable. The Freedom Caucus has served as the vanguard for Trump. They have held firm to a hardline approach to immigration, and they are leading the effort to force the Justice Department to disclose information related to its ongoing investigations into Trump and his associates. But Donald Trump cannot suffer personal effrontery, and so one of the Caucus’s leading members had to go.
In Virginia, a truly noxious candidate has managed to secure the Republican nomination to face Senator Tim Kaine in the fall. A transplant from the Upper Midwest, Corey Stewart has leaned heavily into his adopted Southern roots and sought out some questionable associations. He’s draped himself in the Confederate flag, compared the removal of Confederate statuary with the actions of ISIS, associated himself with the “alt-right,” accused Democrats of forging Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and openly supported the virulent anti-Semite and failed congressional candidate Paul Nehlen. Virginia’s Republican figures have attacked Stewart, and the GOP’s Senate committee has withheld its endorsement.
Stewart is playing the part he thinks is most effective in the age of Trump. In 2015, Stewart was, like every other Republican ladder-climber, touting his “relationship with minority voters” because that’s what the 2012 “autopsy” recommended. “That’s what Republicans need to do in order to continue to win elections in Northern Virginia,” he added. Trump demonstrated that there was another path to victory. Barring a miracle, Corey Stewart will not be the next U.S. Senator from Virginia. The satisfaction Republican voters might derive from nominating this flawed candidate is roughly equivalent to screaming into a pillow; a cathartic but fleeting thumb in the eye of “elites.” Stewart and his like will have as lasting an impact on the history of the republic as Todd Akin or Sharron Angle.
Of course, Tuesday’s election results suggest that the GOP is the Party of Trump. They also indicate that the Party of Trump is hard to define beyond association with the man himself. That is due, in part, to the fact that Trump’s policy preferences and ideological affinities are fluid. Six months ago, if you weren’t defending the president’s threat to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, you were a spineless appeaser. Today, if aren’t supportive of Trump’s obsequious praise for the murderous dictator, you’re a blood-soaked warmonger. Trump promised to punish China for its trade practices and currency manipulation, only to selectively abandon those positions. Where Trump stands on NATO, NAFTA, ObamaCare, Russia, Syria, the G-7, DACA, the export-import bank, and a whole range of issues depends on which side of the bed he got up on that morning.
The North Star by which voters can gauge fealty to Trump is the extent to which Republicans defer to him personally. That’s why, as Sen. Corker said, something approaching a cult of personality has sprung up around the president. Voters simply do not have consistent policies and ideological affinities to help them navigate a complex and confusing political environment. The powerful desire to enforce group solidarity around Trump is creating the appearance of homogeneity, but it’s cosmetic. That’s why we are privy to regular assertions that the GOP is Trump’s party now. It requires repetition because it is not self-evident.
Yes, the Republican Party is the party of Trump. But the centrifugal pull associated with the principle and ideology toward which Trump was and remains hostile continues to pull on the Republicans whose political maturation predated Trump’s inauguration. A fair reading of the political environment must concede it is still unclear which of these two competing forces will win out in the end.