Category Archives: Political Animals

J.B. Say on Wealthy Politicians

Jean-Baptiste Say’s Treatise on Political Economy holds up very well for a book whose most recent edition came out in 1821 (the first was published in 1803). For example, see this quotation on p. 427:

“Besides, there is some danger, that a man, who gives his services for nothing, will make his authority a matter of gain, however rich he may be. The wealth of a public functionary is no security against his venality: for ample fortune is commonly accompanied with desires as ample, and probably even more ample, especially if he have to keep up an appearance, both as a man of wealth and a magistrate.”

Thomas Paine on the GOP’s Infidelities

From chapter 1 of Thomas Paine’s 1794 book The Age of Reason:

“But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Paine’s insight shows why many Republicans have been deeply unhappy for the last four years. In order to maintain their standing in their group, Republicans have had to profess things they do not believe on crowd sizes at inaugurations, government spending and deficits, sharpies on maps, bump stocks for guns, the importance of character in leaders, freedom of the press, trade policy, antitrust policy, and more.

While being a political independent has its drawbacks, it also has an important benefit: I have never had to be mentally unfaithful to myself, and I never will. This has been good for my emotional health as well as my professional integrity.

Many Republicans are in poor shape on both of those fronts right now. What will they do when the Trump era ends? Has a genuine philosophical realignment taken hold in their party? Or are most Republicans just having a fling they will regret in the morning? My guess is that for many Republicans, the answer will be a little bit of both.

Retro Reviews: Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson – Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013)

Though military historian Azar Gat wrote Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, he gives extensive credit to fellow historian Alexander Yakobson for his comments and advice contributed throughout the book. Yakobson also authored the final chapter. I read this book at the recommendation of my former colleague Alex Nowrasteh.

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism has become the standard defense of nationalism. The trouble is that Hazony’s defense is not very coherent. In a sense, Hazony wrote a book-length version of “it’s not about race.” Hazony also struggles to say what nationalism might be about instead. Hazony also argues that nationalism is a recent phenomenon. After all, nations as we know them today have only been around for a few centuries.

Gat’s two main arguments cause problems for Yazony-style thinkers. One, nationalism is ancient. In fact, the impulses behind it predate our species. They are an inescapable part of the human condition. Two, nationalism is mostly about race. More precisely, it is mostly about ethnicity. Not exclusively, but mostly. Gat uses a broader, boutique definition of ethnicity for the purposes of his discussion, about which more below. But race is an important part of his use of the term. Unlike Hazony, he does not dodge the question.

Gat also does not defend nationalism. Nor is he interested in attacking it, though he is clearly put off by the cultural chauvinism and belligerence that often accompany nationalism, even in relatively peaceful places such as France. Gat instead seeks understanding. What makes nationalists tick? Why do they hold their beliefs? This 2013 book came out before nationalism regained its current voguishness in populist movements around the world. Nations may be a better book for that reason. It provides light without the heat that current events can inspire.

Nationalism predates the concept of nation, which is one reason why Gat focuses on ethnicity. To Gat, nationalism is just one possible way of expressing a deeper impulse. Gat doesn’t cite Adam Smith’s circle of concern theory from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but his thinking is similar. Basically, people care more about people close to them than they do about people who are socially distant. People care most about themselves. They care very much about close relatives such as children and siblings, though a bit less than about themselves. They care a bit less than that about cousins, aunts, and uncles, still less about second cousins, and so on.

The circle of concern is not an ironclad rule that applies in every single case, as Richard Dawkins convincingly argues in The Selfish Gene—along with any parents who have made sacrifices for their children. But as a guide to understanding human behavior, the circle of concern is a universal tendency.

As Adam Smith put it, a person in England will lose more sleep over losing his little finger than over a hundred thousand people dying in a natural disaster in China. This might sound cold or callous, and it is. Smith himself disapproved of this tendency. But Smith was writing about “is,” not ”should.” Those are separate questions, similar to the difference between fact and opinion. The reason Smith made that point, even though he did not like it, is that it is true.

In fact, growing the circle of concern was one of Smith’s greatest hopes for humanity. In a way, the whole project of modernity and the post-1800 Great Enrichment has consisted of people growing their circles of concern en masse. This moral vision, far more than material gain, was the foundation of Adam Smith’s case for free trade. It is the moral foundation for liberalism as a whole—liberalism in the original, and correct sense of the word.

Where does nationalism enter this picture? Humans have more sophisticated social arrangements than other animals, so our Smithian circle of concern naturally tends to be wider than in other species. For 95 percent of our 200,000-year history as a species, we lived in mostly-related clans of 50 to 150 people or so. But these bands would often slightly overlap with other nearby clans. While these encounters were often far from friendly, they provided a chance for groups to trade and to exchange members through intermarriage. This prevented inbreeding and created opportunities for trade, or for depleted groups to replenish their numbers.

There was an evolutionary advantage to having some social ties between clans between these clans, even if not at the same level as within-clan ties—again, remember the selfish gene. Often these adjacent clans would meet for seasonal feasts, holidays, or religious ceremonies—a form of social evolution that helped to strengthen survival-enhancing bonds.

Evidence from surviving classical sources such as Herodotus, Caesar, and Tacitus, as well as modern anthropologists studying today’s tribal peoples, have all found surprisingly similar pre-national social structures around the world, despite all the local cultural differences.

These networks of 500 to 1,000 people or so are about the outer limit of the number of personal relationships a human is able to maintain. Beyond that, everyone is a stranger. And strangers with no binding ties were as likely to steal food or kidnap mates as they were to trade peacefully. That is why people have an instinct to affirm their in-group and vilify their out-groups—back in the day, it was a survival mechanism.

Natural selection processes chose people whose circle of concern was wide enough to include adjacent groups, not just their everyday in-group. We are their descendants. At the same time, there was no such pressure for the circle of concern to extend wider than this, to perfect strangers—until very recently. Too recently for evolution to catch up to our new social circumstances.

As human societies scaled up into city-states, regional empires, and eventually nation-states, all the different facets of Gat’s concept of ethnicity come into play to progressively greater degrees. Having something in common, such as a language, religion, or a shared hometown or king gave people something in common. It made for an easy mental shortcut to determine if a stranger could be trusted.

Gat argues that language is usually the most important ethnic identifier. If someone does not speak your language, or does so with a noticeable accent, they are clearly other. Religion is another ethnic identifier. Someone who prays to foreign gods probably isn’t from around here. Dress and appearance matter for the same reason. The European divide of beer and butter in the North, versus wine and olive oil in the South, is another point of division. Jews and Muslims took their dietary customs with them throughout their travels, keeping them ethnically apart—in Gat’s sense of the term—from pork-eating peoples regardless of where they settled down. As the comedian George Carlin observed, people will always find excuses not to get along. Just ask sports fans at a Packers-Bears game.

While the genetic view of race is a fairly recent phenomenon, people have also always marked themselves apart by racial appearances. And ironically, the reason we do this is genetic. That means Gat’s argument about ethnicity and nationalism both is and is not genetically based. Race is literally only skin deep. But the reason why people so often fight so fiercely about race and ethnicity has genetic roots that are universal to our species. And race is just one of approximately a million and one ways to express that larger inborn tendency. That is where nationalism comes from—human nature’s in-group-out-group instinct.

Gat combines many of these factors in a very wide concept of ethnicity that varies from place to place and changes over time. Sometime around the invention of agriculture, out of this evolving mush eventually came the concept of fixed political boundaries. These too came about organically, usually in line with ethnic boundaries.

But because different facets of ethnicity have different boundaries, a single geographic line can never accurately reflect ethnic lines. It is literally impossible. Maybe two people with common genetics, language, and territory have a different religion, as in Serbia and Croatia. It is impossible to set a national boundary that fits every facet of ethnic identity, so war ensued. In many places, two or more different ethnicities live enmeshed together in the same cities and neighborhoods. If each wants its own state, how does one create a fair boundary?

These types of questions are difficult, and maybe impossible to answer. And that is one reason why war will likely always be with us. So will other, usually less lethal forms of social division.

This aspect of Gat’s thesis reminds this reader of the virtues of a cultural-national version of Ostrom-style polycentrism. Typical government services such as schools, parks, roads, and police are very different from each other. They each serve different constituencies with different needs and different boundaries. And the city workers providing those services all have their own varying needs. So why are nearly all of these wildly different services administered at just a few fixed levels—city, state, and federal?

This kind of shoehorning often has adverse effects on the quality of those services. Just as more flexible scaling of government services can make them more effective, maybe the same is true of nations. One size clearly does not fit all, as any history book will tell you. Maybe allowing for multiple concurrent sizes of “nation” that adapt over time would allow different people to live together more peacefully.

That, in a nutshell, is Gat’s thesis, plus a few outside applications of it. To illustrate his arguments, Gat spends the last two thirds or so of the book on a survey of world history. He briefly visits nearly every time period on every continent in at least enough detail to show how ethnicity and national sentiments have intertwined, peacefully and not. The same ethnic dynamics were nearly always in play before, during, and after modern nation-states emerged as we know them today. Yakobson’s concluding chapter applies his and Gat’s framework to present-day (in 2013) politics around the world.

Nations is the rare book that makes the reader see the world differently, permanently. It provides a magnifying lens that, when properly held, can bring into focus important details on world history; modern history; why countries exist in the first place; why larger structures such as the European Union (EU) are controversial despite being peaceful; why the EU’s faults are not necessarily random; and on today’s in-progress worldwide political realignment, which is increasingly based around a nationalism-versus-liberalism axis, rather than a socialism-versus-liberalism axis.

Book Review: A.J. Liebling – The Earl of Louisiana

Review of A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961)

A colorful book by a colorful author. I read this as preparation for a work event in New Orleans, which I had not previously visited. Liebling was a journalist for The New Yorker who was assigned to write about Earl Long’s 1959 campaign for governor of Louisiana. Liebling’s enthusiasm for food and drink were legendary, and his accounts of his and his interviewees’ restaurant meals are almost unbelievable. Earl Long, the younger brother of the legendary Huey Long, had a mental breakdown during the campaign and was forcibly institutionalized in Texas for a time before returning to the campaign trail.

Liebling gives a vivid portrait of Long. But he paints an even more vivid portrait of Louisianan politics and culture. As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, people in Louisiana don’t expect their politicians to be corrupt; they insist upon it. The people Liebling meets, whether high-ranking officials or ordinary man-in-the-street types, speak to this truth, often hilariously so. Liebling draws frequent parallels between Louisiana’s political system and Middle Eastern oil dictatorships. There are obvious differences, but also enough parallels to give one pause.

Politics by Meme

Here is a political meme that has been making the rounds on social media:

No photo description available.

I agree with this one of this meme’s main points–the federal government spends too much on corporate welfare. But its numbers are way off.

  • The biggest tax most $50,000 earners pay is the 15.3 percent FICA tax, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. That’s $7,650 on a $50,000 income, and it isn’t in the meme’s list.
  • Medicare, at 2.9 percentage points of the 15.3% FICA tax, costs $1,450 on a $50,000 income, not $235.81–plus premiums, if applicable. The meme is wrong here by more than six-fold. Not six percent, six-fold.
  • Spending $4,000 on corporate welfare implies that about 8 percent of national income goes to corporate welfare, or about $1.7 trillion. The actual figure is likely between $100 and $200 billion–a precise figure is impossible due to a lack of government transparency, and disagreements over definitions. Even allowing for substantial wiggle room, here the meme is off by as much as 10-fold. That is an entire order of magnitude.
  • A $50,000 earner spending $247.75 on military spending implies a military that spends more than $1 trillion. That is about $300 billion higher than the actual figure. The meme is wrong here by almost half. Though to be fair, much military spending is corporate welfare, and is unnecessary for national security besides.

Again, this meme makes a point I agree with about corporate welfare. It confirms my priors. But it does so dishonestly. Its numbers are wrong, often by multiples. And its errors all favor the point it tries to make. That one-sided tilt means its mistakes are probably not just random error. Whoever made it is hurting a good cause.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Politics-by-meme is harmful. Do not engage in it. Political memes are as bad as cable news. Their numbers are often dodgy. Their primary accomplishments are feeding confirmation bias while intensifying people’s unhealthy tribal tendencies to affirm one’s in-group affiliation while vilifying out-groups. Political memes add heat without light at a time when the opposite approach is badly needed.

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

Thomas Paine – Common Sense

A few years ago, I had a brief conversation with Tom Palmer in which he drew a contrast between the bourgeois Paine and the more aristocratic Edmund Burke. Paine is direct, unsubtle, and efficient, both in writing style and in his revolutionary fervor. Burke has a more lengthy, detached, and tradition-minded prose style, and a cautious, almost tentative political philosophy to match it.

Having finally sat down for a serious study of Paine for the first time, Tom’s point makes a lot of sense. Both men were liberals, in the correct sense of the term. But they were also very different from each other. Both supported the American Revolution. But where Burke opposed the French Revolution, Paine not only supported it, he participated in it. The two men also engaged in a war of words so heated that, while living in France, Paine was convicted in absentia in England for his attacks on Burke.

But that was all in the future for Thomas Paine in January 1776. Common Sense is a masterpiece of the pamphlet format, which was popular in 18th century America, as Bernard Bailyn describes in great detail in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Shorter than a full book or even a monograph, but longer than a magazine story, pamphlets were a common persuasive tool during Revolutionary times. They were also often read aloud, since literacy was far from universal in those days. This fact of life influenced pamphlets’ short length, their direct, simplified writing style, and their common use of universally-understood metaphors and references that everyone knew. Paine, though he was a deist and not a Christian, devotes a significant portion of Common Sense to the Bible’s warnings against the dangers of kings–many of which had come true under George III. In an appendix added later on, Paine appeals to Quakers to drop their pacifism and join the Revolutionary cause.

Among Paine’s more practical insights is that America and Britain essentially separated as soon as British troops fired their first shot. There was no going back to the way things were, even if people wanted to. Additionally, continued union would cause economic harm to the American people through no fault of their own. Otherwise-willing European buyers and sellers with no grudge against American merchants would keep their wallets closed and their ships away from Americans for as long as they remained British subjects. Continued allegiance to the crown was also potentially bad for American soldiers’ life expectancies if Britain were to press them into its military and its America-unrelated conflicts. Paine’s foreign policy non-interventionism was integral to the Founders’ thought, and today’s political leaders would do well to move in that sensible direction.

Anonymous – A Warning

Anonymous – A Warning

I read this during the impeachment hearings. The book is clearly a rush job, and it doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground. This book’s effect instead is more cumulative. Its impact comes from painting a consistent picture of President Trump’s personality, his management style, and how it affects policymaking and personnel. Many of the shared inside stories and anecdotes I hadn’t previously heard line up well with Trump’s already known tendencies, and are consistent with what other inside reports from the White House reveal.

Anonymous believes Trump is unfit for office, but opposes both impeachment and any 25th Amendment actions. He (she?) would like Trump to be defeated in the election, whether in a primary or, the committed Republican grudgingly says, by a Democrat. Despite fears that Trump might not respect the results of a close election, Anonymous believes those risks are far less than they would be than with impeachment, or especially a 25th Amendment action.

Anonymous, however, also worries that Democrats are too caught up in Trump’s us-vs.-them style for their own good. They are at risk of choosing a candidate—Anonymous ventures no names—who pairs a Trumpian temperament with far-left policy views. Rather than flattering their opponent through imitation, it would be better for Democrats to choose a moderate. Such a candidate—Anonymous again names no possibilities—would be more electable. They would also do less damage on the policy front, from Anonymous’ conservative perspective. Time in the wilderness could also do the Republicans some good as they think over what they have done. This reviewer almost certainly has a different notion of “good” than Anonymous, but his/her larger point has merit. The GOP needs to cool its overheated emotions.

Anonymous has also rethought the thesis of their New York Times op-ed. The grown-ups in the room are simply not capable of reining all of Trump’s rash decisions. The “steady state” contingent, as Anonymous calls it, has also been shrinking. Good people and/or solid conservatives are leaving the administration in frustration, or are being fired for telling the President things he does not want to hear. Their replacements tend to much more accommodating to the President. As this natural selection process continues, the quality of the administration’s work will continue to deteriorate.

Anonymous argues that a second term would remove the pressure Trump feels to maintain his base’s approval, and move him in a more authoritarian direction. I disagree with this for two reasons. First, his base’s approval means much more to him than just job security. His ego needs it. He genuinely wants and needs popular approbation, hence all the campaign-style rallies and red meat tweets. That said, apparently his staff has long been encouraging him to do as many rallies as possible. Theoretically, when Trump is preoccupied with the rallies, he is less likely to scuttle his own policy initiatives through a tweet or an impulsive, and often temporary, flip-flop.

Second, Trump’s base support has not yet been hurt by anything ranging from his proposing stricter gun control to his obvious non-evangelicalism to his growing spending and deficits, to his trade war’s disproportionate harm to red states. As long as Republicans remain personality-driven rather than policy-driven, Trump has little to worry about from alienating his base.

This is not a book of great depth, but it doesn’t need to be to get its point across. If there is a cause for pessimism, it is that Trump came along during a political realignment, as historian Stephen Davies has argued. In the new nationalism-vs.-cosmopolitan debate, Trump has rapidly pulled the Republicans to the nationalist pole. The Democrats, who currently lack a single figure to rally around, have yet chosen to occupy the same pole or moving to the opposite, cosmopolitan pole. Their primary field contains strong candidates on each side.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t Trump. Nor is it his party. It is a public ideology that is shifting in a nationalist direction. In the short term, America’s more-or-less liberal institutions will pass Trump’s stress test. The more important battle is long-term. Both parties need to discover some semblance of liberal values. Republicans will continue to reject them for as long as Trump is president. From there, who knows. Frankly, a more important short-term objective is getting Democrats to be an effective opposition. If one party is going nationalist and populist, the other should take up the opposite pole. That means resisting the temptation to copy Trump’s amygdala-driven populism.

Anonymous – A Warning

Anonymous – A Warning

I read this during the impeachment hearings. The book is clearly a rush job, and it doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground. This book’s effect instead is more cumulative. Its impact comes from painting a consistent picture of President Trump’s personality, his management style, and how it affects policymaking and personnel. Many of the shared inside stories and anecdotes I hadn’t previously heard line up well with Trump’s already known tendencies, and are consistent with what other inside reports from the White House reveal.

Anonymous believes Trump is unfit for office, but opposes both impeachment and any 25th Amendment actions. He (she?) would like Trump to be defeated in the election, whether in a primary or, the committed Republican grudgingly says, by a Democrat. Despite fears that Trump might not respect the results of a close election, Anonymous believes those risks are far less than they would be than with impeachment, or especially a 25th Amendment action. Yes, Trump is apparently that unstable and short-sighted.

Anonymous, however, also worries that Democrats are too caught up in Trump’s us-vs.-them style for their own good. They are at risk of choosing a candidate—Anonymous ventures no names—who pairs a Trumpian temperament with far-left policy views. Rather than flattering their opponent through imitation, it would be better for Democrats to choose a moderate. Such a candidate—Anonymous again names no possibilities—would be more electable. They would also do less damage on the policy front, from Anonymous’ conservative perspective. Time in the wilderness could also do the Republicans some good as they think over what they have done. This reviewer almost certainly has a different notion of “good” than Anonymous, but his/her larger point has merit. The GOP needs to cool its overheated emotions.

Anonymous has also rethought the thesis of their New York Times op-ed. The grown-ups in the room are simply not capable of reining all of Trump’s rash decisions. The “steady state” contingent, as Anonymous calls it, has also been shrinking. Good people and/or solid conservatives are leaving the administration in frustration, or are being fired for telling the President things he does not want to hear. Their replacements tend to much more accommodating to the President. As this natural selection process continues, the quality of the administration’s work will continue to deteriorate.

Anonymous argues that a second term would remove the pressure Trump feels to maintain his base’s approval, and move him in a more authoritarian direction. I disagree with this for two reasons. First, his base’s approval means much more to him than just job security. His ego needs it. He genuinely wants and needs popular approbation, hence all the campaign-style rallies and red meat tweets. That said, apparently his staff has long been encouraging him to do as many rallies as possible. Theoretically, when Trump is preoccupied with the rallies, he is less likely to scuttle his own policy initiatives through a tweet or an impulsive, and often temporary, flip-flop.

Second, Trump’s base support has not yet been hurt by anything ranging from his proposing stricter gun control to his obvious non-evangelicalism to his growing spending and deficits, to his trade war’s disproportionate harm to red states. As long as Republicans remain personality-driven rather than policy-driven, Trump has little to worry about from alienating his base.

This is not a book of great depth, but it doesn’t need to be to get its point across. If there is a cause for pessimism, it is that Trump came along during a political realignment, as historian Stephen Davies has argued. In the new nationalism-vs.-cosmopolitan debate, Trump has rapidly pulled the Republicans to the nationalist pole. The Democrats, who currently lack a single figure to rally around, have yet chosen to occupy the same pole or moving to the opposite, cosmopolitan pole. Their primary field contains strong candidates on each side.

Trump is a bad president. But ultimately, the problem isn’t him. Nor is it his party. It is a public ideology that is shifting in a nationalist direction. In the short term, America’s more-or-less liberal institutions will pass Trump’s stress test. The more important battle is long-term. Both parties need to discover some semblance of liberal values. Republicans will continue to reject them for as long as Trump is president. From there, who knows. Frankly, a more important short-term objective is getting Democrats to be an effective opposition. If one party is going nationalist and populist, the other should take up the opposite pole. That means resisting the temptation to copy Trump’s amygdala-driven populism. I am not optimistic.

George Will – The Conservative Sensibility

George Will – The Conservative Sensibility

This book displaces 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft as George Will’s grand statement. Early on Will explicitly disavows much of his earlier book’s thesis, having learned since then that government is neither capable nor interested in improving a nation’s character. One reason for this is that nations do not have character, individuals do. The sentiments of even the most stirring campaign speeches do not apply to everyday life.

I have never entirely shared Will’s worldview or his policy positions, yet I have long enjoyed reading and learning from him. For some reason I will always remember his infamous column inveighing against blue jeans as an ur-text for old fuddy-duddies everywhere. Like Will, I do not own a pair. At the same time, I do not share his animus for the casual, easygoing philosophy they apparently represent.

Unlike many political pundits, Will has also evolved over time—though likely not sartorially. Always a staunch conservative, he was one of the few prominent Republicans to criticize George W. Bush’s post-9/11 overreactions, from the PATRIOT Act to the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also looked askance at Bush’s runaway spending, deficits, and his enactment of the largest new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, four decades prior.

After eight years of President Obama normalizing the dangerous new trajectory Bush established, Will was deeply disappointed when Republicans chose Donald Trump as their 2016 nominee. The GOP had a chance to stop 16 years of Bush-Obama excesses, and return to what Will saw as the party’s traditional emphasis on limited, responsible government—though this reviewer disagrees that this tradition existed anywhere in policies the GOP has actually enacted when in power.

Instead of a return to Reagan or Goldwater, Republicans nominated a populist who has neither knowledge of nor interest in conservative policies or principle. In line with its nominee’s personality, the GOP has doubled down on its mistake rather than owned up to it. Shortly before this book came out, a disappointed Will left the GOP and became an independent.

Unusually for a book released in 2019, Will does not mention Donald Trump once in its more than 600 pages. Not only will this decision help the book age better—presidents come and go every few years, while ideas are timeless—it also helps to keep Will’s spleen in check. And in true George Will fashion, ignoring Trump is also a deliberate insult that is both understated and effective. It’s not about him.

Despite the title, The Conservative Sensibility plainly shows that Will’s sensibilities have become more liberal, in the correct sense of the word. I still part company with him on many areas, from his over-emphasis on cultural and political tradition to a borderline Manichean view of family structure—one model is almost purely good, while all other models are almost purely bad.

But he does do nuance in other areas, and I find agreement with many of them. The grandest of all traditions is organized religion, and Will uses this book to come out of the closet as an “amiable, low-wattage atheist.” This is an especially brave move since many conservatives are arguably more prejudiced against atheists than they are even against gay people and immigrants.

Will, fortunately, has an open mind on these issues as well, and he also shows good sense throughout on international trade, which has become another flashpoint in recent years. Increasingly, as historian Stephen Davies has argued, the relevant political divide is no longer progressive-conservative or capitalist-socialist. It is nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism. As the GOP takes a nationalist turn, Will has turned in a more cosmopolitan direction, hence his break.

While, again, I do not agree with all of Will’s views, this is a fascinating document. It comes out during a major political realignment. Will has clearly taken one side, and his longtime party is increasingly choosing the opposite side, leading to a well-publicized break. It also shows the evolution of a careful thinker. Most people become reflexively more conservative and even crochety as they age; Thomas Sowell comes to mind. Will has become more liberal, without turning to the left. Even as Will reflects inward more than he used to, he has adopted a more outward-looking, liberal worldview. He admires the American founders not because they were the founders, but because he genuinely admires their Enlightenment values.

And as always, Will is a fine prose stylist. While he has an impressive vocabulary, he is less interested in showing it off than he is in picking the right word to convey his meaning, Better, he puts those incisive words into compact, crisp sentences. He writes to say something, not to ornament the page. While The Conservative Sensibility is easily twice as long as it needs to be, George Will’s late-career magnum opus deserves the label. Both left and right could use more calm and principled voices like Will’s, for whom party identity is not everything.

Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

Note: I wrote this review about a month ago, before Congress began an impeachment investigation against President Trump. I have left it unedited.

Alberta is a political correspondent for Politico. I read his book with Stephen Davies’ political realignment thesis in mind. According to Davies, people tend to align around two opposite poles in politics–but those poles tend to move around every few generations. For a lengthy period starting around the end of World War II, those two poles were capitalism and socialism. Now, with the Soviet Union almost 30 years gone, those poles have lost their relevance. Worldwide, political parties are realigning around new poles. This time around, it’s a nationalism-vs.-globalism axis.

This is apparent in the UK’s Brexit debate, and the election of populist leaders in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. The process usually takes a couple of election cycles, and happens faster in some countries than in others. As Alberta’s book unintentionally shows, realignment is happening right now in America. It is also fairly far along, but not yet complete.

The GOP’s civil war is a referendum about President Trump on the surface. But the deeper philosophical split is one of nationalism against a more cosmopolitan worldview. The same fight is happening in the Democratic party, though without its own Trump-like figure to rally around or against, the struggle on the left side of the aisle is quieter. Alberta focuses almost exclusively on the GOP; a similar treatment of the Democratic Party’s realignment process would be a welcome addition to the literature.

The main fault with this book is that it is far longer than it needs to be. This is especially true of its 2016 campaign coverage, which feels as endless as the original campaign did. 2016 takes up about a third of a book that covers an entire decade. A fair amount of the campaign season slog in the book is essentially an ESPN-style highlight show of debate highlights, gaffes, and flash-in-the-pan candidates and personalities who were relevant for a few news cycles, but not particularly important for Alberta’s larger story arc.

Alberta convincingly shows, though again in more detail than necessary, that once Republicans choose a leader, they’ll follow him no matter what. This was apparent during George W. Bush’s presidency, when Republicans went along with Bush’s massive spending and entitlement increases and needless wars, and even the Keynesian bailout on which he collaborated with President Obama, who is otherwise mostly a two-minutes hate figure in the GOP.

Republicans’ pre-existing meekness has greatly amplified under Trump, almost to the point of becoming the party’s defining characteristic. He is strongly disliked inside his own party, but nobody in a position to is willing to put up meaningful opposition, whether to Trump’s spending and deficits, or his trade and immigration policies. They are just as meek about Trump’s intentionally divisive rhetoric, cozying up to dictators, and at times, outright racism.

Paul Ryan’s tragic career arc is the most prominent example, and Alberta tells it masterfully. Ryan’s choice of party over policy backfired, and ultimately led him to retire–though he was also put in an impossible situation. He became House Speaker with his party in mid-realignment. He also had a President foisted on him who is not temperamentally fit for the job, and has no philosophical commitment for or against Ryan’s policies, making him neither friend nor foe, despite their shared party membership.

Ryan’s story is is just one of many sad commentaries on party politics. Alberta shares savage assessments about Trump from some of Trump’s closest allies—many without the cover of anonymity. It is almost worse that Republicans are going along with Trump’s policies with their eyes open. They know better, and yet they continue to support Trump’s policies, values, and rhetoric. They have chosen to be this way.

Alberta’s story of weak Republican knees extends to the human weakness for a good us-vs.them narrative. People are eager to affirm their identity as part of a group, and are quick to vilify people outside it. This is why hard partisans are so eager to believe odd conspiracy theories, such as Barack Obama being born in Kenya, or Hillary Clinton running a prostitution ring from a pizza parlor—stories which Alberta tells in comic, yet tragic fashion. It also explains why President Trump’s base and party stick by him despite almost widespread misgivings about his character and his policies.

Adding Davies’ political realignment thesis on top of Alberta’s storytelling adds another level. The GOP’s reluctance to pursue limited government policies under Bush has become an active hostility to its Reagan-Goldwater tradition. People with an economist’s views on trade, immigration, and spending restraint used to be merely ignored. Now, they are actively sought as the enemy, to the point of Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro bizarrely comparing the Wall Street Journal to the communist China Daily. The GOP is still running on an us-vs.-them narrative, but the definition of “them” has changed. “Them” used to be socialists or people who prefer big government. Now “them” is seen in national, cultural, or racial terms.

The question is what will happen post-Trump. Both parties have strong populist elements. But in a two-party system there is likely only room for one strong populist party. Will that party be the Republicans or the Democrats? It’s too early to tell. The GOP base has eagerly embraced national populism, but most of the party establishment is playing along reluctantly. That support is also largely personality-based, and that personality will be gone from politics in either 2021 or 2025. The Democratic party is also divided, though the base-establishment split isn’t nearly as clean. They also lack a personality-cult figure to rally around. Much as I dislike horserace politics, how this one plays out over the next few cycles will be interesting to watch. About all we know for at this point is that there are very few good guys in this story, and they will all likely lose.