What is the future for “once and future liberals”?

Democrats have to come to terms with populism.

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Somewhere in northern Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?

Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.

Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.

Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.

Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.

Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.

Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,

Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.

He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”

As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.

But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.

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The most important question for Neil Gorsuch

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Phoenix, Arizona

Resisting President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is bound to be a losing game. The seat will be filled at some point, and Trump is not going to appoint a liberal justice.

But there are different strands of conservatism. George Will brings up an interesting question that should be asked of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Quoting Lincoln, Will describes the Constitution as a frame of silver for a golden apple, which is the Declaration of Independence. That is, the Constitution details how we protect the Declaration’s ideal that everyone has equal natural rights.

Will criticizes President Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Bork disparaged the ninth amendment, which says that there may be more rights than are explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Will also criticizes late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia‘s claim that democracy means majority rule with protection for “minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection.”

Scalia’s ideology seems to disparage natural rights. And certainly it ignores James Madison‘s statement that one purpose of the Constitution is that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

Scalia’s disregard for individual rights when the majority see fit not to grant these rights represents a powerful strand of conservatism – particularly social conservatism. And President Trump appears to be in this camp.

But other conservatives emphasize the word “unalienable” in the Declaration’s statement that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And considering Madison’s remarks in Federalist #51, the only way that Scalia-style conservatives can truly claim to be originalists is by denying that the Declaration of Independence is all that important to the Constitution which followed.

Will hopes that Gorsuch’s originalism will differ from Bork and Scalia’s by recognizing that natural rights are unalienable, meaning the majority can’t take them away. But note that is is about protecting natural rights, not the judiciary usurping Congress. This is Will’s conservatism.
We don’t yet know what kind of conservative Gorsuch is. I hope Congress asks him.

Are progressives reversing the sexual revolution?

In Armistead Maupin’s 1978 soap opera novel Tales of the City, almost every character (gay and straight) is busy having one night stands in San Francisco. At one point, Brian and Mouse wonder if the next generation of young people will rebel by reverting to Victorianism. But it wasn’t a serious question. It was a silly question they could laugh about.

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But on second thought…

The sexual revolution, consent, and objectification

Raja Halwani, writing for Aeon.co, says that “sexual desire is objectifying – and hence morally wrong.” But he’s not a conservative Christian longing for a return to traditional values.

The left embraced sexual freedom in the 1960s. Today, only a minority of people think premarital sex is wrong, and a slight majority support same sex marriage.

Our grandparents had clarity: if you’re not married heterosexuals then sex is wrong. But as the clearly defined boundaries of the 1950s blurred, sexual assault and rape increased (though these crimes have decreased since the 1990s). And men seemed to benefit more from the sexual revolution because women still had to worry about being labeled a slut.

No means no and increasing awareness about the objectification of women were two responses. But no means no has a loophole. Some claimed that if she didn’t say yes but didn’t no then it’s not rape.

This problem lead to yes means yes. The lack of no is insufficient for consent. But what if the yes is nonverbal? Is that really yes? What if she said yes but later says she felt pressured?

It was decided that the yes must be enthusiastic. But even this is problematic. How enthusiastic? And how do you measure adequate enthusiasm?

There are more gray areas. Do these guidelines apply equally for women to seek men’s consent? If both are equally drunk (but not incapacitated) and agree to have sex, but both regret it the next morning, is only the man at fault? What if the woman initiated? What if the couple is lesbian or gay? Who’s at fault then?

The simple solution: sex is bad

We’re not achieving the clarity our grandparents had. Halwani, however, takes progressive thought to a new level: sex is wrong because sex almost always involves objectification. And, “not even love can fix it.”

So, we’ve come full circle. Sorry, Brian and Mouse, but you may have been more right than you thought.

This line of progressive thought converges with some conservative ideologies. I was raised Catholic. The Church teaches that sex is for procreation and must only happen within the bonds of sacramental marriage.

How did the Catholic Church come to that conclusion? Was it misogyny? Were the Church fathers obsessed with controlling others? These are common progressive beliefs.

But maybe, 2,000 years ago the Church came to a similar conclusion as Halwani is coming to today. Sexuality is such a delicate subject that nothing but firm and clear boundaries will minimize human suffering. Of course, we know that’s not true either, but that’s tangential.

Instead of objectification, the Church spoke about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the potential for sex to profane that temple. Both notions are concerned that sex can be dehumanizing. So the Church, like Halwani, decided that sex necessarily means compromising one’s purity, or in modern terms being objectified.

Celibacy, or voluntary asexuality today (in contrast to asexuals who actually have no sex drive), is the only way to avoid this compromise. Of course, we need babies for the human species to continue, so Catholic celibacy is for the elite. But the compromise of allowing sex for common folks must be small. Sex must only happen within a Church sanctioned marriage, and it must be about procreation (or at least not artificially close off that possibility). Homosexuality, then, is an obvious abuse of sex because it can serve no other purpose than using someone for your own pleasure.

Will Neo-Victorianism become a thing?

Will progressives latch on to Halwani’s conclusion that sex is inherently wrong? If so, what specific  sexual mores will they advocate? Only time will tell.

But I have my doubts. People like sex. The Catholic Church’s strict standards failed – sometimes with horrific consequences like the recent sex abuse scandal. Nineteenth century Victorianism  didn’t succeed either.

Instead, there might be a fringe group of voluntary asexual progressives who hold themselves up as an elite, similar to vegan’s dietary strictness. But they won’t gain mass appeal. And certainly pop culture won’t embrace Neo-Victorianism – sex sells, after all.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

Go ahead & vote for a third party if you want to. Well, maybe.

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Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

People say that a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is really a vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and/or Trump, depending on which poll you believe, respectively.

Well, no one I know has actually said that. They say a third party vote is really a vote for someone else. But that logic is flawed, as my parody illustrates.

A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, and a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Jill Stein. It really is that simple.

Of course, what people mean is that a vote for a third party candidate has the effect of electing the ideologically opposite major party candidate.

But they’re forgetting about the Electoral College. I noted before that the United States has always been a two party system because the president is elected by the Electoral College and not by popular vote.

This winner take all system means a third candidate could thwart a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the vote to the House of Representatives where it’s sure to become a cluster fuck.

A third party vote in swing states like Ohio or Florida could affect the national election, if there’s critical mass in that state and if the Electoral College math nationally is close. That did happen in 1992 when Bill Clinton got elected with a minority of the popular vote.

But most states clearly lean Democratic or Republican. Hillary Clinton will not win Texas, and Donald Trump will not win Massachusetts.

There probably aren’t enough Gary Johnson supporters in Texas to give Hillary a victory there. And Massachusetts Green Party voters are unlikely to hand Trump a victory in that state.

So vote the way you want. But with this point of caution: My personal metric (which I’m pulling out of my hat) is that if the major party candidates are less than 10 percentage points apart in your state, and if a third party candidate seems to be getting a lot of attention, then you should think about the possibility that a split vote could elect the worst of two evils.

#BlackLivesMatter Comes to Maine

…and everyone’s talking about it. Eighteen people were arrested on July 15, 2016 for blocking Commercial Street in Portland, Maine. Responses have ranged from support to condemnation.

Chris Dixon blogs for the Bangor Daily News. He offered advice to the protesters: Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t block traffic.

I don’t know. I don’t feel comfortable speaking for the dead. And too often people think the dead would agree with them. But the dead aren’t around to clarify that opinion.

Besides, non-violent protest (including protests led by Dr. King) is all about being disruptive in a way that harms no one. Of course, if you need to get to the ER then backed up traffic could cause harm.

Even some progressives say they support #BlackLivesMatter, just not the tactics. And conservatives, of course, passive-aggressively say all lives matter. Which misses the point that no one is saying anything to the contrary.

But let’s step back emotionally and look at this from a practical point of view. Portland sees protesters all the time. It’s so common I often take no notice. And rarely does a protest get media coverage.

But #BlackLivesMatter made the front page of the Portland Press Herald. Everyone’s talking about it. And that’s what the protesters want. In that sense, their strategy was a success.

All I can say is that I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable blocking traffic.

I’m no rightwinger. But I don’t identify as a progressive either. I don’t feel the need to pander to a political perspective that views me negatively because of my demographic profile. I call myself a fiscal moderate (pro-capitalism but with regulations for externalities and a modest social safety net), and a civil libertarian.

I’m just watching the conversation and trying to take it all in.

I don’t know much about #BlackLivesMatter. And I don’t what it’s like to be black. I haven’t been to Canada since 9-11, but before that (when I lived on the Ontario border) I went often. We used to joke about border officers. They were friendly. They’d ask if we had any guns or drugs. Even as a young man who hadn’t had a haircut in a year they never questioned my response, “No, sir.”

One day my neighbor asked me to take her to Canada. She promised her daughter they’d do the Christmas hayride in Hamilton, Ontario. But her car wouldn’t start.

At least by then I had gotten a haircut. But still, the border officer asked no questions. He just barked, “Get out of the car!”

We did. I asked my friend what was going on. Why would they suspect a man, a woman, and a child when they never suspected a car full of young men?

“Driving while black,” she said. “It’ll be okay. They’ll make a mess of your car and tell us to be on our way.”

And they did. And the kid enjoyed her hayride.

Something’s Missing From the 2016 Democratic Platform

It’s great to see strong support for women’s rights in the Democracy Party’s platform. Similar support for men’s issues is essential to achieve gender equality.

By Dave DuBay. Read more at the Good Men Project