ally Quinn, the well-known Washington journalist, has published a new memoir called Finding Magic. Even for those of us who have followed her nearly 50-year career with unflagging interest, it is full of news.
Ingeniously, Quinn has outfitted the book with a literary device guaranteed to discourage bad reviews. Her fellow scribblers can only kick themselves for not thinking of it first. Quinn begins with a loving portrait of her childhood in Georgia, where the family servants schooled her in voodoo. Her mother was already initiated. When the local vet misdiagnosed the family dachshund, Quinn tells us, Mom lost her temper and cried, “I hope you drop dead!”
“And,” she writes laconically, “he did.”
In the next chapter we learn that 10-year-old Sally came under the care of a doctor who upset her mother. Mom fed him the same line she gave the vet, and “he died shortly thereafter.”
Well, life goes on—not for the vet and the doctor, of course, but for Sally. She grew up and moved to Washington and dated a yummy reporter. Once he flirted with another woman. “I won’t say exactly what I did—even now it would be bad luck for me,” she writes. “I worked on the hex for several days.” The woman killed herself. In his reading chair, the reviewer stirs uneasily.
Next we read about Clay Felker, the editor of New York magazine, who commissioned a scurrilous profile of Quinn. She put a hex on him. Suddenly the magazine was sold and Felker was fired and publicly humiliated. “Clay never recovered professionally,” she tells us. “Worse, he got cancer, which ultimately led to his death.”
Here the reviewer pauses to reflect. That’s four hexes and four corpses, two undertaken by Sally when she got extremely upset. And bad reviews can be extremely upsetting to an author. By the time the reviewer reads about the fortune teller—she foretold an unhappy future for Quinn’s son and, after Sally worked her mojo, died of a cerebral hemorrhage—why, the glowing review practically writes itself.
Sally Quinn has been writing books and articles for more than 40 years, yet her prose retains a childlike, disarming artlessness that makes Finding Magic and its serial revelations all the more arresting. She buys a house, she switches jobs, she kills someone with a hex…the tone never changes. “During my college years I had occasional psychic moments,” is how she begins one chapter, as if daring you to stop reading. Another chapter begins: “I love the Tarot.” She talks to ghosts. On her first visit to the Middle East, she faces her own personal Arab–Israeli conflict: She is torn, she tells us, between sleeping with the Israeli defense minister and “the Palestinian leader, an incredible hunk wearing traditional robes.” (She decides to stay faithful to her beau back home.) She reads minds and thinks you can, too: “It is just a matter of time before we don’t have to speak to one another anymore.” She has sex frequently and ardently. It’s all here.
She calls her book a spiritual memoir, though “spiritual” is a word—“faith,” “magic,” and “religion” are others—that she never stops to define. Given her central place in the upper reaches of Washington’s ruling class over the last half-century, we are entitled to read the book as a generational document—an Apologia Pro Vita Sua for the Baby Boomer Georgetown set. One reviewer called her “the quintessential Washingtonian,” and so she is. Sally Quinn is one of the channels through which the revolution of the 1960s entered Washington and remade the city and American politics.
Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post hired her in 1969 to cover parties for the Style section. Her main qualification wasn’t her journalistic skill—she had none—but her connections to Washington’s high society. (Her father was a prominent Army general.) Back then, society reporters were deferential matrons who acted less as reporters than protectors; they might know the town’s salacious secrets but would never think of printing them. Quinn liberated herself from such scruples. She revolutionized the society beat. The journalist became part activist, part tattletale.
“I covered parties the way someone on the ‘Metro’ section covers crimes,” she once said. She had a reputation for being sexy and stylish, qualities she put to good use in an aristocracy dominated by a handful of self-designated wise men, semi-retired diplomats, and aging, ponderous columnists. Her interviewing technique resembled a Heimlich maneuver; it was to Sally that Henry Kissinger confessed to being a “secret swinger” and lived to regret it. Story by story, snicker by snicker, Sally and her peers dismantled the postwar Washington establishment. The establishment was too tired to put up much of a fight.
Like her fellow revolutionaries, Quinn was at first mistaken for an anti-elitist, striking a blow against the hypocrisy and pretension of the old order. She was nothing of the sort. She just favored a different kind of elite—one whose ranks were filled with people like her. By the time the Watergate scandal had laid waste to the capital, the city’s aristocracy had been remade by journalists for journalists, along with the politicians that journalists found appealing. John Kerry, Gary Hart, and Ted Kennedy were early favorites.
Soon enough, as in all revolutions, the vanguard became the bodyguard, and Quinn was top cop, policing the neighborhood and telling the bums to move along now. Early in the Carter presidency, a well-heeled but harmless couple from Georgia called the Bagleys bought a mansion in Georgetown and started throwing parties. These parties were unauthorized, and Quinn wrote an explosive piece in the Post destroying their reputations. The Bagleys left town. (They snuck back in later.) A young hayseed from Pocatello, Idaho, moved to Washington and started inviting big shots like Kissinger to his parties. Sometimes they came, and the situation was getting out of hand! Sally gathered anonymous quotes insulting the young man as a poseur. She strung them into a feature story and got it on the front page of Style. So long, hayseed. “It was like finding the cure for cancer,” she said later.
Quinn’s ruling class is aging now, but it survives, clinging to power, and it’s against this twilight backdrop that her spiritual memoir achieves a kind of poignancy. The elite of Quinn’s generation was the first in American history to turn wholesale from organized religion. “If any of them were religious,” she writes of her peers, “I certainly never knew about it. There was one thing that mattered: the story. Get the story; get it first and get it right. That was their religion. The First Amendment was their religion.” Nice—no getting up early on the Sabbath.
Quinn is proof of the observation attributed to G.K. Chesterton: When a person ceases to believe in God, the danger isn’t that he will believe in nothing, but that he’ll believe in anything. In addition to her hexes and ghosts, her Tarot and telepathy, Sally believes in Ouija boards, palm reading, astrology, fortune telling, Hindu gods, telekinesis, witchcraft, and pretty much anything else that crosses her line of sight. Anything, that is, but God, biblically understood. “In the end I have my own religion,” she writes. “I made it up.” So this is where we are, 50 years after the elites dropped conventional religion in pursuit of…something they could make up.
Self-invented religions will always be more appealing than God. They make no particular demands on the believer, moral ones most importantly. It’s a handy omission. “I am,” she assures us, “a good and compassionate person, ethical and moral, embedded in core values, someone who cares about others.” Meanwhile, her memoir produces plenty of hard evidence to the contrary. There’s that dead fortune teller, for one thing. For another: Her account, utterly remorseless, of how she systematically set about seducing Bradlee away from his wife and children is as harrowing as the hexes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Sally knows I’m not passing judgment on her. You do know that, don’t you, Sally? Right, Sal? Sal?
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The Ruling Classless
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The days of the Islamic Republic of Iran may be drawing to a close. What next?
The death of the actor Nasser Malek Motiee triggered the latest explosion in May. Before the 1979 revolution put the kibosh on his career, Motiee had been a fixture of the potboilers, police procedurals, and lusty comedies (Black-Clad Mehdi and the Hot Pants!) known collectively as “Film Farsi.” In the 1969 noir Qeysar, he played a butcher who sets out to avenge his sister’s rape, only to be stabbed to death by her assailants. “Qeysar!” the butcher cries out to his brother, the titular antihero of the film. “Where are you? They’ve killed your brother!”
Thousands flocked to Motiee’s funeral in Tehran, though he had been the subject of a media blackout and, save for a single role in 2014, hadn’t been permitted to appear on the silver screen for four decades. “Our state-run media is our disgrace!” his fans chanted at his funeral. Met with tear gas and the truncheons of security forces, they put a twist on Motiee’s best-known line: “Qeysar! Where are you? They’ve killed the people!”
Meanwhile, Iranian truck drivers have been on a nationwide strike for more than a week as of this writing. The drivers park their trucks on long stretches of highway and block access to gas stations and government buildings in protest against low wages, road tolls, and benefits cuts. They aren’t alone. Teachers, steelworkers, hospital staff, railway employees, and sugar-factory hands are among the other groups that have walked off the job over the regime’s apparent refusal to spread the nuclear-deal “butter” promised by the Obama administration—released Iranian assets that might total as much as $150 billion.
Women are removing their headscarves in defiance of compulsory veiling. Often, security forces hesitate to confront them directly, lest they incur the wrath of the public, though most of the women are identified and arrested after the fact. This gesture of feminine resistance, which first emerged during a mass uprising in December and January, has now become commonplace. And while the New Year’s uprising was suppressed, smaller, more scattered demonstrations continue to break out, forcing the regime to play whack-a-mole with dissidents.
The furies of the present have joined forces with the ghosts of the past. In April, a construction worker excavated a mummified body near the tomb of a Shiite saint in southern Tehran. The mummy appeared to resemble the corpse of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the founder of modern Iran, last seen in sepia-toned newspaper photographs decades earlier. The regime’s sketchy reaction—first confirming and later denying the rumors and eventually confiscating the mummy—only intensified the fervid speculation roiling the streets. Chants of “Long live Reza Shah!” rang out from soccer stadiums. Footage posted to social media showed a lion-and-sun flag, Iran’s traditional monarchic standard, fluttering high above a major thoroughfare in the city of Karaj.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the nuclear deal will no doubt compound the pressures bearing down on the mullahs. While regime change is not on the American agenda, the Islamic Republic may enter its twilight of its own accord. Make no mistake: The process could take years. The exact shape of events is impossible to foresee. Even so, American policy must prepare for the possibility. The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime.
But what exactly is that normal? Some in the West hope that events in Iran today will revive the spirit of 1989. A liberal flowering in Iran would redeem the Arab Spring, the rise of populists in Central and Eastern Europe, and America’s own Trumpian turn, among other recent disappointments. What better proof that history tends toward liberalism than the land of the scowling ayatollahs going liberal democratic?
Such velvety dreams are unlikely to materialize, however. Policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals would be wise to gird themselves for the more realistic outcomes for an Iran after the mullahs.
For more than two millennia, the unchanging principle of Iranian political life was estebdad, or arbitrary rule, and it remains so today. One defining feature was state ownership of all land. The state could grant plots to various classes as a special privilege but never as a matter of right. Moreover, all economic activity, agricultural or otherwise, involved winning the favor of the state; what the state gave, the state could take away. The implications for Iran’s political development were profound.
“Social classes did not enjoy any rights independent from the state,” the Oxford historian Homa Katouzian has persuasively argued, and “there was no law outside the state, which stood above society, despite a body of rules that were subject to rapid and unpredictable change.” Thus, “unlike in Europe, the state’s legitimacy was not founded in law and the consent of influential social classes.” From the satrap to the peasant, all lived in fear of and at the mercy of the state.
Pre-Islamic Persia had laws, to be sure, and with the Arab conquest came an elaborate religious code governing nearly every aspect of life. Yet neither the pre-Islamic law nor Shariah could order the relationship between state and society. Neither could act as a constitutional or fundamental law, a concept that simply didn’t exist in Iran. As Katouzian notes, “this is what made the arbitrary exercise of power possible, indeed normal.” State agents could punish without license from Shariah—or decline to enforce Shariah precepts when it pleased them.
The arbitrariness of power extended to its source at the throne. Rulers exercised power because they possessed divine grace, and they possessed divine grace because they exercised power. Rebellion was thus a fine way to seize power, so long as you succeeded. If you didn’t, you might have been beheaded if you were lucky, or had boiling oil poured down your throat if you weren’t. With no formal rules of primogeniture, the death of each shah triggered a succession crisis. The heirs-designate blinded or castrated male siblings to secure their own ascent to the throne.
Estebdad has left deep imprints on the Iranian mind. It is estebdad that must be credited for the genius of Persian poetry and literature and wit, so much of which said obliquely and elliptically what couldn’t have been said forthrightly, lest the writer get the boiling-oil treatment. Iranian manners, too, owe much to estebdad: The affected deference, that circular way of dialogue, the maddening refusal to speak directly—the key to all of these things is probably fear of arbitrary power. The downside is that estebdad has foreclosed the possibility of social trust.
Outsiders sometimes observe that while individual Iranians shine in every human endeavor, from art and literature to medicine and engineering, they rarely work well together. On the soccer field, for example, individual stars achieve heroic feats of kicking and dribbling, but Iranian sides founder before more cohesive foreign teams. From an early age, every Iranian boy is told that he is a little shah, and he grows up to encounter legions of other little shahs, all of whom live under the established, inescapable fact of the shah.
The main political consequences of estebdad were disorder and discontinuity. There were good shahs, great ones even. And there were bad ones. The problem was that government was never established on a principle or set of principles. There were no Permanent Things. Adalat, justice, wasn’t something that could be baked into a system. The best one could hope for was a just shah. Everything depended on the character and personality of the man sitting on the Peacock Throne. As political actors, Iranians toggled between high passion and magical idealism, on the one hand, and cynical passivity, civic indolence, and shocking venality, on the other. There was no moderate mean between these two extremes.
So it was that, when Western-style modernity and nationalism arrived, Iranians were caught flat-footed. Two-and-a-half millennia earlier, Persia had been the superpower of its day. But by the late 19th century, the country had reached a nadir. It was a time of illiteracy, malaria, and poverty, and the nation, especially the intellectual elite, was newly awakening to Iran’s dilapidation, material and spiritual. Shame as much as pride thus fueled the nascent Iranian nationalism. A poem of the era summed up the state of affairs:
Our army the laughingstock of the world.
Our princes deserving of the pity of beggars.
Our clerics craving the justice of the unbelievers.
Our towns each a metropolis of dirt.
Thanks to European imperialism and early globalization, Iranians came into closer contact with the West than ever before, and this only heightened their sense of humiliation and inadequacy. Diplomats, Orientalists, concessionaires, and missionaries brought with them the seeds of modernity along with their own commercial, scholarly, and imperial ambitions. These developments triggered an unprecedented legitimacy crisis in Iran at the turn of the 20th century.
Western-educated elites clamored for mashrutiat, government that was “conditional” on the consent of the people. Similar ideas percolated among some of the ulama, the high priests of Shiite Islam. Drawing on pan-Islamist ideas then gaining currency across the Middle East, leading ulama called for lawful government in which “the people—be they shah or beggar—would be equal,” as one influential cleric put it.
In 1906, the Majlis, or parliament, was established. But Iran’s brief experiment with constitutionalism was a disaster. The great powers, Moscow especially, were hostile to constitutionalism. The forces of estebdad wouldn’t relinquish so easily. And the constitutionalists were bitterly divided among themselves. The two decades that followed were marked by foreign invasion, tribal rebellions, and license instead of ordered liberty. Soon self-government came to be associated with terror, famine, and chaos.
In the early 1920s, an ambitious officer named Reza Khan stabilized the country’s borders, put down various rebellions, and forged a new nation-state from the shabby remains of the Persian Empire. The Majlis declared him shah in 1925, and he was crowned the following year. He dragged Iran, kicking and screaming, out of the depths of backwardness. The oil era had already dawned (in 1901), and the flow of black gold quickened his various projects. Roads were built, universities founded, a modern civil service born, even a new calendar adopted. Civil law and secular lawyers eclipsed Shariah and the clergy. Women were liberated, according to Reza Shah’s lights, whether they liked it or not. Estebdad remained the supreme principle, though it gradually softened, particularly under his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, the last monarch, who ascended the Peacock Throne in 1941 following his father’s abdication.
Reza Shah’s project would end six decades later in the Islamic Revolution. But how did Khomeini pull it off? Under the Pahlavis, Iranians had achieved an unprecedented degree of prosperity and social mobility. Toward the end, in the 1960s and ’70s, they grew accustomed to double-digit growth, vacations abroad, children educated at universities in Europe and America, international prestige. Life was good. Yet millions of Iranians managed to convince themselves that they would be better off with Khomeini at the helm. This was political ingratitude on an incomprehensible scale.
Khomeini’s powers of deception can’t be overstated. Few of those who supported him, particularly among the middle classes, appreciated that they were about to replace a benign autocracy with an Islamist state. Yet deception on a mass scale is impossible without a strong appetite for it on the part of the deceived.
Recall that estebdad had yielded centuries of disorder and discontinuity. Dynasties and shahs came and went, but there was nothing solid to hold on to. The pace of disruption and discontinuity accelerated under the Pahlavis. The prosperity and stability of the era were real enough. But modernity handed down from on high was dizzying. Mohammad Reza Shah, especially, lost sight of how conservative his people really were. Perhaps Iran wasn’t ready for Black-Clad Mehdi and the Hot Pants! and social-insurance schemes for Tehran prostitutes. Perhaps it wasn’t wise for the shah to be known to cavort with Madame Claude’s girls.
In 1971, the shah attempted to paint something like a vision of continuity with his celebrations of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. He had the right idea anyway, though in execution it entailed little more than a decadent party in the desert. Khomeini’s vision of Islamic justice, melded with vague leftish talk about the triumph of the dispossessed, was more enticing. Amid the “confusion of a people of high medieval culture awakening to oil and money,” as V.S. Naipaul described Iran’s revolutionary generation, Khomeini promised community, enchantment, and, above all, continuity with a wholesome Islamic past.
Yet the Islamic Republic proved even more destabilizing and discontinuous with Iranian history than had the dynasty it replaced. Resurrecting the rule of the warrior-imams of the seventh century and fashioning a sort of neo-Islamic Man called for a police-and-surveillance state that was utterly alien to Iranians. Islamic continuity, moreover, came at the expense of national pride and memory. Khomeini and his followers had no love for the pre-Islamic elements of Iranian identity, and like all totalitarians, they set out to erase whatever was incongruous with their ideology.
A state that exercised arbitrary power was one thing; a state that sought to reshape the soul quite another. The people lost the individual and social liberties they had enjoyed under the shah but gained none of the justice and stability they pined for. The new regime made life a misery in the name of ideology while retaining all of the venality and corruption of a classical Persian court. Forty years later, Iranians have had more than their fill of the Islamic Republic.
The key to Iran’s political future lies in the tension between the ineluctability of estebdad and the longing for continuity. If the Islamic Republic is to give way to a decent order, sooner rather than later, Iranians must resolve the dilemmas that have brought them to this point. This requires honesty and a willingness to read Iranian history as it really is.
First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away.
The presence of a shah needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. As the late Bernard Lewis insisted when speaking of the Arab world, it is possible to have freedom and deliberation and checks and balances within nonrepresentative, nondemocratic institutions. Iran has had a Majlis for more than a century, at various points during which the body operated as a genuine legislative chamber. In a post–Islamic Republic Iran, the Majlis can be revived as a true legislative body. But a revitalized Majlis wouldn’t obviate the need for a living authority, an ultimate guarantor of the state and of Iranian freedom.
A shah, moreover, can galvanize opposition to the current regime. The failed 2009 Green uprising and the more recent New Year’s revolt showed that while leaderless mass movements can lay bare the regime’s legitimacy deficit, they can’t finally overthrow the Islamic Republic. Labor strikes and hijab campaigns and occasional skirmishes with the security forces are useful. But they can’t answer the question: “Who do you propose should rule us?”
Perhaps the opposition forces will conjure a leader at the right moment and in organic fashion. Or maybe an ambitious would-be shah will emerge from among the security apparatus. Yet the most plausible current candidate is probably Reza Pahlavi, Reza Shah’s exiled grandson, whose prestige and popularity have spiked in recent years, as Iranians born after the revolution reckon with what they lost to their parents’ collective folly. Among the revolutionary slogans in currency today, the one with the greatest political meaning and potential is “Long live Reza Shah!” The slogan is pregnant with nostalgia, yes, but also with political imagination.
Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. To weather the storms of modernity, Iranians need a point of orientation—perhaps a mast to tie themselves to. Islamism wasn’t it. Iranian nationalism, however, could be the answer, and, judging by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.
When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: No longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographic abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force, and the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper in Iran than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.
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The question that the Jews of Britain and Europe must ponder
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.”
Why Left-ing Anti-Semitism?
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.
Islamization and Nationalism
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.