Category Archives: Political Animals

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.

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

This 1967 book has long been a Cato Institute favorite, and had been on my to-read list for years. It was particularly influential on Gene Healy’s Cult of the Presidency, which makes a compelling case for reining in an executive branch that has grown proportionally too powerful compared to the legislative and judicial branches.

Bailyn is a very detailed writer; his more recent The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction is so filled with minutiae in its chapter-by-chapter crawl of the different regions of North America’s east coast takes almost as long as the actual journey. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is much livelier in comparison. It opens with a close look at the origins of pamphlets as a medium, in Bailyn’s usual microscopic detail, discussing everything from page size to word counts to stylistic conventions—yet it’s genuinely interesting, and difficult to put down.

Other themes get similar treatment, but Bailyn always keeps in mind the bigger picture; there is method to his madness. Along the way I was surprised to learn of John Adams’ skepticism of Montesquieu, who inspired many revolutionary ideas. Adams, ever practical, thought Montesquieu’s thought too theoretical and idealized. Bailyn also offers insights into the debates over when rebellion was a legitimate course of action (Locke was not the only inspiration); the rejection of rigid European-style social hierarchy and titled nobility; slavery; freedom of religion; and more.

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Realistic, subjective, and humble—probably a reflection of Simon’s time at the University of Chicago. Rather than the typical snake-oil management guru who pretends to know everything, Simon that there is no perfect structure for an organization. Every possibility has at least some drawbacks. Simon instead emphasizes the need to treat organizational structure as an ongoing process, rather than a finished product. Often personnel will dictate what structures work best, and personnel change over time. Technology has its own impacts, and Simon even in 1947 saw that computers would have significant effects on the workplace. Part of trial is error, and wise managers will accept this as part of the process. The trick is being humble enough to admit mistakes and being flexible enough to try different approaches with more promise.