“Politics” Category

A Danger to Our Political System

After defeating the British in the Revolutionary War, General George Washington almost certainly could have seized control, and made himself dictator. Washington was revered, the Continental Congress was weak, and the argument that the colonies needed the stable leadership of a tested leader in the post-war period would have been an easy one to make. But he did not.

Washington’s insistence on civilian control of the military is now a bedrock of the United States’ political system. The very thought of the military intervening in our country’s political decisions, much less overthrowing a democratically-elected Congress or president, sends a shiver down the spine of Americans, and would cut to the deepest level of what it means to be American. That idea—that elected civilians are our leaders, and the military answer to them—has held strong throughout our history.

There is no physical barrier, however, that prevents the military from intervening in the political process, or even from removing elected leaders from office. There is no wall, no defense. The military controls the weapons, and could do so if they pleased.

What has prevented it here is the norm created when Washington relinquished power to Congress. It hasn’t happened because it violates an idea of what is acceptable in our country, and one that defines our country.

That is not the only norm we depend on within our system. We have depended, too, on the idea that even if we wholly disagree with officials elected to office and want to see them unseated as soon as possible, they are afforded the respect of holding office. They were elected to office through our political system, and while we may think they should not be in office, we at least acknowledge they were elected. Similarly, elected leaders have respected a norm that they will not use their new powers to persecute the people they have replaced.

Together with the Constitution, which slows down and impedes the ability of majorities to enact sweeping changes to our laws, these norms (more numerous than the three discussed above) limit the scope of change possible for a single election. One general election year will not mean that the previous administration will be thrown in prison and minority groups’ freedom of speech will be denied. It will not mean that the economy will be nationalized. It will not mean that all members of a racial group will be rounded up and placed in internment camps.

By doing so, it turns down the temperature on our political debate. When people’s rights are not being directly decided by a single election, or whether the last administration will be imprisoned, there is much less incentive for people to make drastic decisions, like for a president to refuse to transfer power to the elected candidate. Such norms help ensure stability.

I fear we are well down the path of weakening the very norms that have girded our democracy.

I am, of course, writing about Donald J. Trump, who will be the Republican Party’s nominee for president.

Trump, though, did not start this erosion. We can trace it in its current form back at least to the 2000 election, and certainly to Obama’s presidency, with the right’s courting of birther conspiracy theorists that insisted President Obama is a foreigner and thus incapable of holding office. We can lay blame on President George W. Bush for expanding the scope of executive power, legitimizing torture, and on President Obama for enshrining Bush’s expansion of power and expanding it further still. There is much blame to go around.

Trump is something altogether new, however. Whereas the past two presidents have undermined our norms at the edges while still paying respect to them (the role of the executive in our system, respect for the rights of all Americans, and the legitimacy of our political system itself), Trump has undermined our system’s norms whenever he has found it politically advantageous to do so.

Shadi Hamid writes:

His commitment to the protections enshrined in U.S. constitution are questionable, at best, and if we assume the worst, downright frightening (the difficulty with Trump is that he’s not precise with words, so it’s sometimes hard to make sense of what he’s saying). He has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database, elaborating that they could “sign up at different places.” When a reporter asked how this was different from requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany, Trump said “you tell me,” prompting The Atlantic’s David Graham to note that “it’s hard to remember a time when a supposedly mainstream candidate had no interest in differentiating ideas he’s endorsed from those of the Nazis.” Trump, for good measure, has also refused to disavow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans.

That is not even close to an exhaustive list, and Trump has added to it since, by stating that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit he is involved in, should Curiel should recuse himself from the case for impartiality because Curiel is of Mexican descent.

By doing so, Trump is using his position as a candidate for president to threaten a sitting judge, and is undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary. When a candidate for president uses his position to question a judge’s impartiality, the judiciary’s stature is weakened. What good are court rulings if the president states rulings that run counter to their interests are biased and illegitimate? Through his statements, Trump lessens the standing of the judiciary, and raises the specter of ignoring rulings altogether if he is elected. After all, why should the president respect “biased” and illegitimate rulings from an unelected body of judges?

Trump, too, is fond of threatening people he finds disagreeable. He has threatened the Ricketts family and David French’s family with consequences if they do not fall in line, and has used lawsuits as a bludgeon against people in the past. Those threats appear to be part of who Trump is and what he believes a good leader to be. He is, after all, the man that complimented the Chinese Communist Party’s strength for putting down the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protest with tanks and bullets, and the man that said he would compel the U.S. military to carry out unlawful orders, even if they refused.

Is that our norm of what the executive—the body of government that signs and enforces laws drafted by the democratically-elected legislature—is? Someone that questions the impartiality of a federal judge because of the judge, and uses his race as an excuse? Someone that doesn’t recoil at the idea of placing American citizens of one religion in a database so they can be tracked by the federal government? Someone that finds murdering the wives and children of terrorists as an intentional strategy morally acceptable, and believes it is “leadership” to force the military to carry out such atrocities? Someone that thinks it is not beneath a president to threaten private citizens for crossing him?

Those are not the norms we have established, or the norms that have provided remarkable stability in our political system since our founding. They are the signs of someone that fancies himself an authoritarian, and of a person that believes anything, or anyone, that stands in his way are to be crushed. They are the marks of a demagogue willing to do anything in the pursuit of power.

Trump will likely not be elected president. Despite that, by allowing this man to be the nominee for president for the Republican party, by allowing him to say and do the things he does, we are doing damage to our system of government. We are normalizing Trump’s behavior, normalizing his blatant use of racism and threats. He is raising the specter that things we did not think people would ever do, could be done as a result of a single election.

Trump will not be the end of our system, even if elected. But he is accelerating the decline of what has helped make our form of government so strong and resilient. And for that, we—members of the party that has elevated this man to be our nominee—should be deeply ashamed.

There is no honor in sticking by a party that makes Trump our standard bearer, no good to come from party unity.

June 7th, 2016


The United States is a country founded on ideas. Ethnicity and religion are not what have bonded us from our founding. It is the fundamental ideas expressed in our Declaration of Independence, and in our fight for independence, that run through our country’s history. Our founding set forth that individuals are ends unto themselves, and deserve to be respected as such; that government’s role is not to be the ultimate source of authority and power within society, but merely to protect the people’s pre-existing rights; and that through our will and determination, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

We have not always honored and lived up to those ideas. Our founding itself was stained with the deepest of shames, the enslavement of human beings, while our founders argued for the dawn of a new beginning. We subjugated the Indians, and cruelly abused them like non-humans. We let the cancer of slavery metastasize, until war was the only option remaining; and after slavery was broken, we allowed Jim Crow to replace it. We have not yet entirely grappled with what our country’s greatest shame means, nor have we left the effects of slavery to the pages of history. They remain here with us today.

And yet America is a tremendous miracle. From British colonialism and abuse, we won our independence as a country, and forged one of the greatest works of humanity: the Constitution. The Constitution not only explicitly laid out the extent of the federal government’s powers, and enumerated the rights of the people that must not be infringed, but created a political system that, through separation of powers and the pitting of different power centers against each other, limited the ability of the government to fall under dominance of a single group and single passion of the time, to limit the ability of the government to be used as a tool of repression, even if it represented the will of the majority. It is a marvel of all time.

Through our unique genesis, we forged an identity separate from ethnicity and religion. Our identity, what it is to be American, centers around our belief in respect for each other as individuals, and for our right to pursue our dreams. By doing so, our country has been able to adopt waves of immigrants, people utterly different from the people already here, and integrate them into our nation. Whatever our race, religion and culture, if we share the same fundamental ideas, we are one people. Our identity is our ideas.

We have not always lived up to that, either. But it is remarkable how many different peoples have immigrated to the United States since our founding, and in the ensuing decades became as “American” as anyone else. That is the strength of our country: We will take anyone, if they believe there is a better tomorrow through work. We can all have different skin colors, follow a different religion (or none at all), eat different food, have differing ideas for what the good life is, even speak different languages—and be unified as a single people. That is a miracle, and despite not always living up to it, it also aptly captures something fundamental to our country.

Our country, at its best, is not about “staying with our own kind,” or taking from others to increase the lot of “our people.” Our country is about being different, having different ideas—but being on the whole unified under an assumption that we can create a better tomorrow for everyone through work.

That is also why I have found Donald Trump’s campaign for president so disturbing. Trump has built his campaign—to “make America great again”—on the belief that America is lost, that we are an embarrassment, that we are weak, and that we can only return to “greatness” on the back of a great leader. Trump has made his appeal not by arguing for how we can empower all of us, as Americans, to pursue our dreams for a better tomorrow, but by appealing to the ethnic and religious differences between Americans. He has not just argued that open immigration could be harmful and we should be cognizant of it, but that Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers and killers. He has not just pushed for being mindful of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, but has flirted with the idea of registering all Muslim Americans in a database so they can be tracked, and with barring Muslim Americans traveling abroad from returning to their own country. He is a man that has played on conspiracy theory and overt racism.

Trump has praised the “strength” of repressive dictators such as Vladimir Putin and repressive governments such as the People’s Republic of China, and has said—often on the same day he threatened an individual or company with consequences if he is elected—that he would open up libel laws so journalists could be sued for writing or saying what he finds to be misleading or false.

Trump claims he is conservative. What I see is a man that, in order to rise to the top, willfully pulls on the ethnic and religious differences in our country, and uses and amplifies prejudice and hatred, to garner the support of whites. He is intentionally dividing us as a nation, pitting white Christians against Hispanics and Muslims, regular people against the wealthy and “media elite,” “Americans” (by which he means white people) against foreigners, which includes not only foreign nations, but American citizens that have descended from immigrants of foreign nations. Trump is tearing at the very fabric of our nation.

He tears at it, while also undermining the bedrock idea that the government does not lead our nation, but that the individuals do. Ideology may not be fundamental to Trump, but a belief in the supremacy of great leaders, and in their necessity for a country to do great things, is. That belief underlies his fondness for Putin, a man unafraid of using the power of the state toward his ends, and to crush his opposition. It underlies his praise for the PRC in 1989, when the PRC crushed a budding protest movement in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And it underlies his support for the use of torture and for killing the families of terrorists—great leaders do what is necessary to win.

Trump, then, is a man willing to divide us as a people, so that he can lead us to “greatness.” Trump’s idea of leadership is not to respect the limits of the federal government’s power, and the presidency’s power, but to do whatever he thinks is necessary (laws, morals, and individual rights be damned) to show our strength and impose his will, both on the world and at home. Trump does not see himself as the leader of a country defined by its rights, but as someone smarter and stronger than everyone else, and thus entitled to impose his will on whomever he pleases. There is a reason that “little,” “loser,” “low-energy,” and “weak” are some of his most-used insults for his opponents, and he speaks so often of being a “winner.”

I cannot support Trump because he is fundamentally destructive of what our country is. Trump is willfully tearing at what holds our country together and what defines us as a people. I cannot, and will not, support a man that appeals to our fears, to our baser instincts, that turns every issue into one of us versus them, and that peddles in conspiracy and racism. I cannot, and will not, support a man that fancies himself an authoritarian, a man that threatens people that say things he doesn’t like, and threatens to undermine the first amendment. I cannot, and I will not.

I will not support Donald Trump if he is the Republican Party’s nominee for president. If the GOP is remade in his image, I will leave the party. I owe the party no obligation, if the party has become destructive of what I cherish most. I cannot, and I will not.

I promise that I will fight Trump, the demagogue, now, and if he wins the nomination. I will not accept it, and nor should you.

If, like me, you are a Republican, I appeal to you to vote in your state’s primary, and to vote against Donald Trump. He has not won yet, and we can still fight. Let us defeat him. Let us win a victory for what we love about our country.

February 29th, 2016

“I own guns. Here’s why I’m keeping them”

Jonathan Blanks writes on why he owns guns and believes gun ownership is everyone’s right:

Like many Americans, my family history is closely tied to firearms. I was raised with a sense of duty to protect my loved ones. Danger wasn’t something that was abstract or imaginary in my family history or my upbringing, and so we had to learn to deal with it.

I’m not a Second Amendment absolutist, and I am open to changes to our gun laws. But gun ownership is important to me, and responsible individuals must be allowed to make the choice for themselves and their families if they want to own firearms.

Absolutely worth reading, especially with Twitter full of righteous stupidity like this:

So if you define “liberty” as the right to own a gun, go fuck yourself. You are a disgrace to all that’s good and right about America. – Mike Monteiro

Monteiro’s indignant tirade is representative of a sentiment that, in typical fashion, swept across Twitter and fell away in a matter of days—all anger, hate and righteous assurance that the speaker is absolutely right, and that the people they disagree with are not only wrong, but utterly stupid or evil. But for all of this righteousness, all of this anger, it is all hot air.

This sort of thing replaces thinking about an issue, reading about it and reading what other people think and actually considering it, with posturing. It is, ultimately, self-aggrandizing. It accomplishes zero, besides make the person feel good about themselves for their 140 characters.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jonathan Blank’s piece. He doesn’t argue by denigrating people he disagrees with, or questioning their intelligence or motivations—he makes a calm, reasoned argument for what he thinks.

Blanks argues that, as a black family in Indiana, guns were vital to his family’s defense from the KKK, and that having a gun was necessary to defend his girlfriend’s friend from an abusive husband. His thesis is that people have the right to protect themselves, and a gun is often the only way to do that.

That doesn’t just extend to defending yourself against other individuals, but also against an abusive state. The left is fond of arguing that gun ownership as a check against government violating our liberty is absurd because no one with a shotgun or AR-15 could successfully take on the U.S. military. This argument is absurd. The goal is not simply to defeat an abusive government, but to make it prohibitively difficult and bloody for the government to become tyrannical. And, indeed, it would certainly be possible to defeat an abusive government—the Afghan wars, Iraq war, Vietnam war,… and on and on show what guerrilla fighters can do against an overwhelmingly superior force.

But Blanks makes an even more important point: even if defeat was certain, it would not matter. Individuals have the right to defend themselves against violations of their rights, whether it comes from individuals or the government, and whether or not they will win. And guns are vital to that. There is no liberty if people cannot even attempt to protect themselves.

October 12th, 2015

Shouting Fire in a Theater

Today is an excellent day to re-read Ken White’s excellent overview of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s oft-referenced “shouting fire in a theater” quote:

Holmes’ quote is the most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech.

January 7th, 2015

Discriminating Between Discriminations

Julian Sanchez:

I’m perfectly open to the notion that it may be wise and justifiable to extent the protections of anti-discrimination law to groups not currently covered—but I also wish supporters of such reforms would acknowledge that there’s a genuine impingement on associational freedom involved in such extensions, and that no simple sweeping principle can obviate the need for a close examination of the tradeoffs in each case.

March 1st, 2014

Sean Penn Wants Chavez Critics Imprisoned

Sean Penn:

The Oscar-winning actor and political activist accused the US media of smearing Venezuela’s socialist president and called for journalists to be punished.

“Every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it, and accept it. And this is mainstream media. There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”

Not only does Sean Penn defend authoritarianism, but he suggests that critics should be imprisoned for calling Hugo Chavez a dictator.

Lovely guy.

February 22nd, 2014

Shoddy, Dangerous Thinking (GMO Edition)

Amy Harmon wrote a terrific article for the New York Times about a Hawaiian town’s “debate” over whether to ban genetically-engineered crops, and the insanely stupid things said about them:

A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.

Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)

The left’s global warming.

January 28th, 2014

“Inequality isn’t ‘the defining challenge of our time’”

Ezra Klein:

That doesn’t mean inequality isn’t hurting growth. It just means it’s difficult to find firm proof of it. But if inequality really was the central challenge to growth, would proof really be so hard to come by?

December 18th, 2013

Ponnuru On the Contraception Mandate

Ramesh Ponnuru:

From reading the New York Times, you might think that religious conservatives had started a culture war over whether company health-insurance plans should cover contraception. What’s at issue in two cases the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear, the Times editorializes, is “the assertion by private businesses and their owners of an unprecedented right to impose the owners’ religious views on workers who do not share them.”

That way of looking at the issue will be persuasive if your memory does not extend back two years. Up until 2012, no federal law or regulation required employers to cover contraception (or drugs that may cause abortion, which one of the cases involves). If 2011 was marked by a widespread crisis of employers’ imposing their views on contraception on employees, nobody talked about it.

Characterizing opposition to government-forced provision of contraception by employer-provided health insurance plans as an “imposition” of religious views is almost Orwellian; the only imposition being made here is by the government and supporters of the measure, such as the Times’ editors.

December 3rd, 2013

“Obamacare’s Secret Success”

Paul Krugman’s latest column, “Obamacare’s Secret Success,” has this to say:

Still, the facts are striking. Since 2010, when the act was passed, real health spending per capita — that is, total spending adjusted for overall inflation and population growth — has risen less than a third as rapidly as its long-term average. Real spending per Medicare recipient hasn’t risen at all; real spending per Medicaid beneficiary has actually fallen slightly.

He argues (and his title makes explicit) that “Obamacare”—ACA—is responsible for health spending declining. Except all he does is point out health costs have declined, and that ACA may be responsible. And he buries something important in a ho-hum “obligatory caveats” paragraph:

O.K., the obligatory caveats. First of all, we don’t know how long the good news will last. Health costs in the United States slowed dramatically in the 1990s (although not this dramatically), probably thanks to the rise of health maintenance organizations, but cost growth picked up again after 2000. Second, we don’t know for sure how much of the good news is because of the Affordable Care Act.

Acknowledging that he has no idea how much ACA is responsible for declining spending seems rather more important than an “obligatory caveat” in a column titled “Obamacare’s Secret Success” which argues that ACA is reducing health spending. It kind of sort of means that the entire column is speculative.

But it’s worse than that. The CMS estimates that ACA will increase national health expenditures.

November 30th, 2013

A Most Interesting NYT Article

In Colorado, voters defeated a measure to raise taxes in order to increase education spending. Here’s how the New York Times characterize the vote:

Had the referendum passed, the current flat state income tax rate of 4.6 percent would have been replaced with a two-tier system. Residents with taxable incomes below $75,000 would have paid 5 percent; taxable incomes above $75,000 would have been taxed at 5.9 percent. The measure would have poured money into poor, rural school districts, expanded preschool, bought new technology and encouraged local innovations like longer school days and school years, supporters said.

But the promise of higher teacher salaries and full-day kindergarten failed to resonate with voters, even in many reliably blue corners of the state and areas where the money would have had the greatest benefit. The state voted 65 percent to 35 percent against the overhaul, known as Amendment 66.

“It was a statement of a loss of faith in government,” said State Senator Mike Johnston, a Democrat and architect of the measure. “The reality may just be that Coloradans just deeply prize being a very low-tax state.”

“…Where the money would have had the greatest benefit.” This is ostensibly a news article about the measure, but it presumes something that isn’t at all a fact. Whether increasing funding would be beneficial is a contention, something that must be supported by a logical argument and evidence. It has no place in being a description of the events. There’s an importance difference between “[where funding] would have had the greatest benefit” and “where much of the funding would have went.”

That’s a subtle framing of the issue that guides readers to a conclusion that isn’t overtly stated by the article’s author, Jack Healy, and for which no evidence is provided.

Which is problematic, especially, because one voter quoted in the article contradicts that entire reasoning for why the measure was rejected, starting with the presumption that increased funding would necessarily benefit their communities:

Erin DeMarco, a political science student at the University of Colorado Boulder, was one of the voters Amendment 66 supporters needed to win over. A registered Democrat who voted for Mr. Hickenlooper and Mr. Obama, she said she wanted to see better schools, but balked when she saw the size of the tax increase.

“I felt a little guilty when I voted against it,” she said. “It tugged at my heartstrings. I just don’t always believe that money solves problems. It’s difficult for me to write a blank check to the government.”

“I just don’t always believe that money solves problems.” That’s a reason for voting against the measure that Healy’s “…where the money would have the greatest benefit” off-handed statement of fact rules out as a reason for why voters rejected it: if the increased funding necessarily benefits the communities, then voting against it because you don’t think increasing spending will solve problems by it’s very nature is not possible.

Words do indeed have meaning, and whether intentional or careless (or just an unintentional reveal of the author’s own viewpoint), his choice of them framed the issue to make one argument for why voters rejected the measure appear more reasonable.

November 7th, 2013

Markets and Health Care

Ezra Klein argues that consumers restrain costs for consumer goods by being able to “say no”—that is, they can refuse to purchase, say, a television from Sony if they charge too much. Klein continues that because for health care consumers cannot “say no,” market forces cannot restrain health costs. But government can, Klein says, and that’s ACA’s intent.

Reihan Salam responds:

But surely the cost of televisions (and most other things, including many necessities) is kept relatively low not because people can do without them but because people have a huge range of options in a very competitive market. Sony can’t charge you too much because you’ll just buy a television made by someone else. Health insurance (let alone care) can’t always be treated like that kind of commodity in every respect, of course, but I think (as conservatives tend to) that they can be to a far greater extent than most people on the left seem to believe.

October 22nd, 2013

Where Are Health Costs Headed?

Yuval Levin summarizes recent reports from the CBO and HHS actuaries on what they expect health costs to head over the next few decades:

They suggest that the slowdown in health inflation we have seen over the past decade is likely at an end, that Obamacare will not be bending the cost curve downward (as its champions promised it could), and that we are in dire need of health-care and entitlement reform that could better help contain costs. They also help us see just how daunting a challenge that really is.

The “Affordable Care Act” makes our health cost problem—already a disaster—worse, not better.

October 22nd, 2013

Policy and the G.O.P. Civil War

Ross Douthat on the Tea Party:

Yet at the same time, to the extent that policy differences are driving the current intra-G.O.P. fight, the populists tend to have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. Their strategy is disastrous, but their substance has something to recommend it. Which is part of the reason why it isn’t enough, for the Republicans to escape their current cul-de-sac, for the party leadership to “win” and the populist base to “lose” — let alone for the leadership to somehow jettison the base.

That’s the GOP’s conundrum: the Tea Party in the House is doing terrible things to the party, but there are the seeds for positive—even transformative—change of the GOP in the Tea Party with good leadership.

October 15th, 2013

Obama’s Constitutional Lesson

Ross Douthat:

The official “lesson” that the president’s words and choices are delivering is not one that actually elevates Congress back to its Article I level of authority. Rather, it’s one that treats Congress as a kind of ally of last resort, whose backing remains legally unnecessary for warmaking (as the White House keeps strenuously emphasizing, and as its conduct regarding Libya necessarily implies), and whose support is only worth seeking for pragmatic and/or morale-boosting reasons once other, extra-constitutional sources of legitimacy (the U.N. Security Council, Britain, etc.) have turned you down. The precedent being set, then, is one of presidential weakness, not high-minded constitutionalism: Going to Congress is entirely optional, and it’s what presidents do when they’re pitching wars that they themselves don’t fully believe in, and need to rebuild credibility squandered by their own fumbling and failed alliance management. What future White House would look at that example and see a path worth following?


Initially, I was positive about President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a military attack on Syria. But after Obama and John Kerry’s continued insistence that they were not seeking authorization because they are constitutionally required to, and that a “no” vote does not bar them from attacking Syria, I began re-considering it.

With that in mind, it’s clear that the Obama administration hasn’t sought approval because they believe the executive branch shouldn’t be able to unilaterally initiate military action (Libya should make their beliefs on it very clear), but rather because they lost British support for the effort and would not be able to gain authorization from the U.N. Security Council, and need some kind of legitimacy. As Douthat says, seeking congressional authorization is only a last resort.

That’s not positive. It’s inept, and it’s infuriating.

September 4th, 2013