An Election Where Neither Party Can Be Happy

The media and the punditocracy like to weave neat narratives after every election, but I am not sure there is a neat narrative following this election, other than that neither party should be crowing about the results.

Contra President Trump, the Democrats winning a House majority is no victory for him and the GOP. It wasn’t a wave, but the entire wave terminology is only a narrative spinning device anyway. The Democratic win was probably big enough to ensure that Nancy Pelosi will become Speaker of the House once again, though that may wind up being a net negative for the Democrats in the end.

I’d note that Donald Trump is the first Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower to lose a House majority in his first term, except he’s only the second Republican president since Eisenhower to even have a House majority, and GWB’s first mid-term was the post-9/11 midterm, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison. It is also completely absurd to paint this is as being on par with Obama’s first midterm, especially considering the Senate and state results – but more on that in a moment. The net Democratic pickup is about half of what the GOP achieved in 2010, and many of those pickups could be easy GOP take backs depending on how 2020 goes.

That being said, the Democrats managed a fairly nice haul in the midst of dynamic economic growth. We’re practically at the point of what is essentially negative unemployment (more jobs open than people seeking them), and despite some blips in the market, the economy keeps generally humming along. There was also no massively unpopular GOP legislative measure for Democrats to run on. Sure they demagogued the tax cuts and it was unpopular in many quarters, but it hardly garnered as much negative heat as Obamacare. Speaking of which, though the GOP also created some heartaches by its efforts to reform Obamacare, it didn’t actually succeed. So if the Democrats could have as much success as they did in this environment, what happens if the economy takes a turn for the worse?

Republicans should also be very concerned about the suburban vote. It is the suburban vote that has carried them for the better part of a century, and it continues to slip away, and the Trump presidency may be hastening the turnover.

Yet Democrats can hardly be reassured themselves. Winning the House will give them more oversight power, but it’s absolutely possible, if not likely, that they will massively overreach. And did I mention Nancy Pelosi is probably going to be Speaker again? And while they can claim they have stalled the Trump legislative agenda, the obvious retort is: what Trump legislative agenda? Who really thinks anything of substance was going to pass in the next two years if Republicans had retained the majority? And even if the Democrats might be able to work with Trump to advance their own agenda, it doesn’t mean much because they got absolutely thumped in the Senate.

Yes, the Democrats always had a very challenging map, as they say, but if last night was going to be a massive repudiation of Trump, they should have been able to staunch the bleeding and at least keep the Senate close. Instead, the Republicans flipped Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and quite possibly Montana. Meanwhile, the Democrats achieved a pickup in Nevada, but that’s likely it. Arizona is still close, but it looks like McSally has the edge there.

And let’s face it: it was more important for the Senate to remain in Republican hands than the House. Cocaine Mitch is no doubt giddy that he has a comfortable margin to get judges confirmed, and will no longer have to sweat how Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins will vote (not to mention Jeff Flake, who is gone and replaced by a presumably more iron-willed individual). That these were all comfortable Trump states should not mask the significance of these results, especially considering that some of these races were not as close as predicted, and it is always difficult to knock off incumbents, as Republicans have done it at least four and likely five states.

And of course there’s Beto. Sweet Beto. So many hopeful people cried tears last night, but most of those tears fell outside of the state of Texas, where once again Democrats looked something like this last night:

Lucy

There’s already a ton of talk about how this was a moral victory, and Beto is already a shining star who is a front-runner for the Democrats in 2020. And you know what: he probably is. But what does it say about the state of the Democrat party that one of its stars is a guy who lost a statewide race by three points after spending $70 million? That’s an awful lot of money to get a handful more votes than Ted Cruz’s last opponent. I’m not sure John Tester, Ben Nelson, and Claire McCaskill are sharing in this enthusiasm this morning.

Then again, perhaps progressives should feel good about Beto’s loss. After all, many of them have spilled a lot of digital ink crying about the pernicious influence of money in politics, so Cruz’s victory should be a reassuring sign that money isn’t everything in politics. Huzzah for the outspent underdog!

The state races are a mixed bag. Democrats did win a few governorships, including Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was finally narrowly defeated. But in three substantial states, the Republicans retained control, and in two cases by a wider margin than anticipated. Georgia, like Texas, is supposed to be a red state where the demographics are trending blue, but once again, the statewide results show otherwise. Georgia may get there, but it’s got a ways to go.

The Ohio and Florida elections are the most important results. Not only did Republicans narrowly carry both the Senate and governor’s races in Florida, but Mike Dewine had a fairly comfortable win in Ohio. This matters quite a lot for 2020, and I’ll get to that in a moment. What’s more, even Sherrod Brown had a much closer race than anticipated. Ohio is looking less and less like a swing state, and more like a fairly solid Republican state at this point. It is the flipside of Virginia, which is only a purple state if there is a shade of purple that lacks any red.

As for the portents for 2020, I’ve already alluded to some of them. A Democratic win actually gives Donald Trump a more effective foil. How the Democrats act in the majority will go a long way in determining Trump’s path to re-election. And while much was made of the rough night Republicans had in the rust belt, particularly in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, I’m not so sure that the results were that ominous for the GOP. Pennsylvania was indeed a wipeout for the Republicans, and that is likely going to be the toughest state for Trump to defend in 2020. But Michigan and Wisconsin are different stories. The House results were not as tumultuous there for Republicans, and as I mentioned, Walker narrowly lost. Debbie Stabenow also had a closer than anticipated call against John James (who had 1/1000 the media attention of Beto and about 1/100 the money). Minnesota, meanwhile, feels a bit like the GOP version of Texas and Georgia: so many expectations, but not so many wins. And I already mentioned Ohio, which I’m not even sure can be considered a true battleground state.

Long story short, reading tea leaves off of election results is always a risky venture, but perhaps never more so than after last night. Either way, no partisan should be feeling completely great after last night.

Well, feel good about Ted Cruz and Larry Hogan, but that’s about it.

Cato and the Origins of Government

Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, aka Cato, covered a lot of ground in three years, but several themes kept-emerging, and would sound familiar to students of early American political thought. This post will cover Cato’s musings on the origins of civil society, and the purposes for which man consents to be governed by others.

There are certainly echoes of John Locke in Cato’s writings, though neither Gordon or Trenchard delve as deeply into the concept of the state of nature as does Locke or even Hobbes. But Cato sees the origins of government in Lockean terms. In the 11th letter, Cato (here Gordon) writes*:

Salus populi suprema lex esto: That the benefit and safety of the people constitutes the supreme law, is an universal and everlasting maxim in government; It can never be altered by municipal statutes: No customs can change, no positive institutions can abrogate, no time can efface, this primary law of nature and nations. The sole end of men entering into political societies, was mutual protection and defence; and whatever power does not contribute to those purposes, is not government, but usurpation.

This minimalist interpretation of the origins of political society is certainly in accord with a Lockean conception of government. Yet Cato concedes that governments may retain the power to punish transgressions which are not statutorily unlawful. Rogues may devise ways to violate “the laws of God and nature” that nations do not have the foresight to prevent. Nations should not be powerless to punish these transgressions, as England’s legislature has done, though only in extraordinary circumstances. “Jove’s thunderbolts were only launched against such as provoked the thunderbolts of Jove.”

Nonetheless, punishing transgressors of the law is the primary purpose for which governments are instituted, a sentiment repeated in the 20th letter: “Parcere subjectis & debellare superbos; to pay well, and hang well, to protect the innocent, and punish the oppressors, are the hinges and ligaments of government, the chief ends why men enter into societies.”

Considering the limited aims of government, personal liberty is at a maximum in Cato’s conception of civil society. In future posts we’ll look more closely at Cato’s views on freedom of speech and religion, but for now we’ll just look at the principles Cato lays down, best expressed in letter 62:

By Liberty, I understand the Power which every Man has over his own Actions, and his Right to enjoy the Fruit of his Labour, Art, and Industry, as far as by it he hurts not the Society, or any Members of it, by taking from any Member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys. The Fruits of a Man’s honest Industry are the just Rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal Equity, as is his Title to use them in the Manner which he thinks fit: And thus, with the above Limitations, every Man is sole Lord and Arbiter of his own private Actions and Property.–A Character of which no Man living can divest him but by Usurpation, or his own Consent.

The entering into political Society, is so far from a Departure from his natural Right, that to preserve it was the sole Reason why Men did so; and mutual Protection and Assistance is the only reasonable Purpose of all reasonable Societies. To make such Protection practicable, Magistracy was formed, with Power to defend the Innocent from Violence, and to punish those that offered it; nor can there be any other Pretence for Magistracy in the world. In order to this good End, the Magistrate is intrusted with conducting and applying the united Force of the Community; and with exacting such a Share of every Man’s Property, as is necessary to preserve the Whole, and to defend every Man and his Property from foreign and domestick Injuries. These are the Boundaries of the Power of the Magistrate, who deserts his Function whenever he breaks them. By the Laws of Society, he is more limited and restrained than any Man amongst them; since, while they are absolutely free in all their Actions, which purely concern themselves; all his Actions, as a publick Person, being for the Sake of Society, must refer to it, and answer the Ends of it.

This is perhaps an even more libertarian conception of government than Locke’s. Indeed, later on this letter Cato develops a very narrow view of permissible governmental action.

And it is as foolish to say, that Government is concerned to meddle with the private Thoughts and Actions of Men, while they injure neither the Society, nor any of its Members. Every Man is, in Nature and Reason, the Judge and Disposer of his own domestick Affairs; and, according to the Rules of Religion and Equity, every Man must carry his own Conscience. So that neither has the Magistrate a Right to direct the private Behaviour of men; nor has the Magistrate, or any body else, any manner of Power to model People’s Speculations, no more than their Dreams. Government being intended to protect Men from the Injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own Affairs, in which no one is interested but themselves; it is plain, that their Thoughts and domestick Concerns are exempted intirely from its Jurisdiction: In Truth, Mens Thoughts are not subject to their own Jurisdiction.

Idiots and Lunaticks indeed, who cannot take Care of themselves, must be taken Care of by others: But whilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tie up every Man’s Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People, by a proper Confinement, from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices; Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets? Every Man, Woman, or Child, though ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.

It’s easy to see why the Cato Institute may have chosen its name. Essentially, according to Cato, as long as a man is not harming anyone else, government should not interfere in his actions. Considering this narrow prescription, governments that step outside of their lawful authority become illegitimate. Circling back to the 59th letter, Cato writes:

All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpation. This being the end of all government, even the most despotick have this limitation to their authority: In this respect, the only difference between the most absolute princes and limited magistrates, is, that in free governments there are checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself: In despotick governments, the people submit themselves to the prudence and discretion of the prince alone: But there is still this tacit condition annexed to his power, that he must act by the unwritten laws of discretion and prudence, and employ it for the sole interest of the people, who give it to him, or suffer him to enjoy it, which they ever do for their own sakes.

Man is naturally born in a state of liberty, and he cannot alienate this freedom by consent. The magistrate has a narrow scope under which he can punish.

The right of the magistrate arises only from the right of private men to defend themselves, to repel injuries, and to punish those who commit them: That right being conveyed by the society to their publick representative, he can execute the same no further than the benefit and security of that society requires he should. When he exceeds his commission, his acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private officer usurping an unlawful authority, that is, they are void; and every man is answerable for the wrong which he does. A power to do good can never become a warrant for doing evil.

This is, once again, a fairly Lockean conception of government. We enter into civil society and convey to the magistrate the right to punish transgressors of the law – those who violate the property and personal rights of others. Beyond this, the magistrate’s power is quite constrained.

This brings us to the precipice of a central question: what recourse do citizens have if the magistrate exceeds his rightful authority? Cato’s answer to this question is one which would reverberate decades later in colonial America, and we’ll address that in the future as well. In the meantime, observe what Cato has to say on restraining the natural impulse of magistrates to exceed their authority in letter 60:

The only Secret therefore in forming a Free Government, is to make the Interests of the Governors and of the Governed the same, as far as human Policy can contrive. Liberty cannot be preserved any other Way. Men have long found, from the Weakness and Depravity of themselves and one another, that most Men will act for Interest against Duty, as often as they dare. So that to engage them to their Duty, Interest must be linked to the Observance of it, and Danger to the Breach of it. Personal Advantages and Security, must be the rewards of Duty and Obedience; and Disgrace, Torture, and Death, the Punishment of Treachery and Corruption.

Cato will repeat this theme frequently in his letters. If rulers govern for their own sake, and care only for their own gain, then they will be prone to abusing their authority. As long as magistrates are concerned primarily with the common good, then the governed will have less to fear.

What’s notable about these letters and their conceptions of the origin of government is how much they presage the Framers. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Publius in these words, or in the words quoted further up above regarding “checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself.”

These are radical words: perhaps more radical than Locke, and certainly more radical than Hobbes. This is a libertarian vision of government in which the sovereign authority is extremely constrained, and where checks and limits of said authority are ingrained in the constitution. Hobbes would not have countenanced such a limit on the sovereign’s authority, whereas Cato has made clear that abuses of the sovereign authority justify revolution. But more on that next time.

* The text I am using has kept much of Cato’s original grammatical structure.

Origin Story

It’s time explain the man behind my blogging name, as well the inspiration for the blog’s title.

Cato the Younger’s full name was Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis – but his friends just called him Cato. He was a Roman citizen born in the final century before Christ. He was a well-educated stoic who fought in the war against Spartacus, and who later served as a tribune. His fame, though, stems from his opposition to Julius Caesar. He was one of the leading voices calling for Caesar’s removal as preconsul, and unsuccessfully commanded forces in the civil war to beat back Caesar. Cato wound up in Utica, and in 46 BC committed suicide.

Cato’s name has passed through history as symbol of republicanism and opposition to tyranny. Several founding fathers used his name as a pseudonym writing political tracts in the pre-revolutionary era, and by anti-Federalists opposing the constitution.

The “letters” from Cato that inspired the name of this blog, however, were written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. The two men were “country” Whigs who wrote about corruption, the dangers of tyranny, freedom of religion, and other “libertarian” values.

Gordon and Trenchard wrote a series of 144 letters published in The Independent Whig from 1720-1723 under the name “Cato.” The original impetus for their letters was the bursting of the South Sea bubble and the financial crisis it precipitated. Thus their first few letters focused on the corruption of the English government, and attacked the speculators and financiers who imperiled the country’s finances through their backroom bargaining.

But the letters move beyond this subject into fierce polemics concerning basic premises of political philosophy. They delve into Lockean natural rights theory, but move beyond Locke into hearty defenses of civic republicanism. As I will discuss in later posts, they are both very concerned about civic virtue, thus contra Patrick Deneen, they promoted a brand of liberalism that was not at all indifferent to public morality. They were also low Church Protestants who wrote savagely of the Catholic Church – or rather the Papist sect, and I will also delve into that in later posts as well.

So why should we care? Many who have studied the foundations of American political thought, including Forrest McDonald, have written of the influence Cato’s Letters had on the founding generation. While the influence of this or that thinker on early American political thought is often overstated – never more so than with John Locke – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans were indeed widely influenced by Cato, aka Gordon and Trenchard. Even though Gordon and Trenchard were themselves influenced by Locke, as already alluded to, they go beyond Locke and establish what I would term a brand of liberal civic republicanism, emphasizing the importance of property rights, freedom of speech, the right of revolution – and even the limits thereof.

Therefore, I think examining Cato’s Letters provides a clear distillation of both English and American republican thought in the 18th century. The next several posts will summarize the key elements in these letters, and what their influence on American thought means for our country’s origins.

Against the Filibuster

There’s a meme that goes around Twitter every now and again: express your unpopular opinion. Based on conversations I’ve had through the years, my views on the filibuster might be unpopular with large swathes of the right and probably even the left.

I’ve never been comfortable with the filibuster. The 60-vote threshold seemed like an especially onerous and unfair threshold when it came to judicial appointments, and I advocated nuking the filibuster long before Harry Reid helpfully did so a few years ago. Therefore, I was happy when Harry Reid and the Democrats abandoned the judicial filibuster, and not just because I knew then it would eventually come back to bite them on the ass.

But the filibuster’s artificial 60-vote threshold seemed unfair even when it came to ordinary legislation. While it is not unconstitutional, it is certainly an extra-constitutional mechanism. Sure, the Senate is free to set its own rules, and the constitution’s language doesn’t prohibit a higher floor either in the context of the Senate’s advice and consent role or for legislation to be deemed as passed by the Senate. Yet it seemed then, and still seems now an extra barrier to getting things done.

Conservatives in particular view the filibuster as a device that works in the interests of limited government. And whichever party happens to be the minority at the moment values the filibuster as a mechanism to help preserve their interests. But the constitution itself is already a document designed to slow the machinery of government. The filibuster is a cheat, and arguably does more to diminish reliance on these other constitutional designs. For instance, the higher threshold to get legislation through the Senate could lead (and has lead) presidents to make end-runs around Congress. In these cases, the filibuster not only doesn’t prevent whatever ill-considered action from going through, it promotes other unconstitutional behavior from the president. It also eliminates the opportunity for compromise that would minimize the potential deleterious effects of ill-advised action.

The filibuster is also unevenly applied. Depending on the specific type of legislation under consideration, it may not even be applicable. Now it no longer is available in the context of judicial nominations. This just leads to more parliamentary maneuvering that further undermines faith in the legislative process.

As alluded to above, reliance on the filibuster draws attention away from other constitutional mechanisms designed to restrain the government. The concentration of power in the executive and judicial branches is a much more serious threat to our constitutional order. If anything, the filibuster might prevent reforms from being enacted to address those concerns. The filibuster, especially if a conservative majority ever emerged in the Senate (I won’t hold my breath), actually would become a tool of the very administrative state we’re supposed to be fighting.

The filibuster is really designed to ensure debate takes place on contentious issues. I would have no problem with a system in which failure to invoke cloture simply meant debate would continue for some amount of time. But real debate would have to take place. Then, after the pre-determined period elapsed, a vote would occur regardless of whether the 60-vote threshold is met.

I thus have no problem with the filibuster as a means of slowing down the process to allow for more debate and potential compromise. It should not be an artificially high upper threshold meaning nothing gets by the Senate without a super-majority.

On the Death of Liberalism

Last week I finally had the opportunity to read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a book that had been on my “to read” list for several months now.

Understand that Deneen’s critique includes classical liberalism – the liberalism of our Framers and which has influenced many on the right today.

I’m not going to write a critique of the book. National Review has published several reviews of and rebuttals to the book, and Jonah Goldberg wrote a comprehensive G-File on the subject (and was also on a panel with Deneen a couple of weeks back debating the topic). I agree with most of the critical takes on Deneen, and would add only a few sparing thoughts.

The book is a bit disappointing, frankly. I expected to disagree with much of Deneen’s argument, but expected, based on the hype, a more thorough and systematic argument than Deneen presented. Deneen’s treatment of the subject was shockingly shallow. He seemed content to make sweeping generalizations about the thinkers he cited, as though he assumed that those generalizations were self-evidently true. For instance he writes of the “utopianism” of the liberal enlightenment tradition. He makes no distinction between French and Scottish/British enlightenment writers. But has anyone who has seriously studied the works of, say, David Hume, ever considered him a utopian?

Furthermore, Deneen makes the same mistake other critics of the Framers make: assuming theirs is a sort of value-less liberalism unconcerned with virtue. Thomas West’s Theory of the American Founding is a good rebuttal to this theory (not to Deneen directly), as is the David French review I linked above.

As I said, though, this is not a critique of the book per se. Rather, I’d like to focus on a couple of aspects of the book that fascinate me. First of all, Deneen’s critique of liberalism, root and branch, is a common one in both left-wing and right-wing Catholic circles. Anthony Annett, who used to blog under the handle Morning’s Minion, routinely disparaged the pernicious influence of liberal thought (or what he perceived liberal thought to be) on modern Catholic political thinking. R.R. Reno indirectly attacked the liberal tradition in his (really wide of the mark) critique of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West.

Michael Brendan Dougherty also notices this trend:

Why have we come to this point? Some Catholic political thinkers — Patrick Deneen comes to mind — have energetically argued that this is the inevitable outcome of liberalism itself. That political liberalism makes false promises, holding out the possibility of liberty and pluralism but ultimately demanding conformism. Predictably enough, a subset of younger Catholics are re-evaluating the work of their co-religionist elders who made various terms of peace with liberalism, men such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. Like the English thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, the younger, more-radical thinkers turn to Catholic social teaching or to the popes for guidance on political and economic matters. Some, calling themselves integralists, say that it’s past time to give up arguing for our claims under the guise of natural law. Instead, we should make our claims unabashedly for the social kingship of Christ.

MBD urges that instead of liberalism being at fault, these Catholics need to take a closer look inside the Church.

Catholics operate a massive portion of the U.S. health-care industry, a significant part of the nation’s university system, and a vital part of its charitable foundations. But Catholic citizens have socially conformed themselves to the American norms set by Protestant faiths. Catholic birth and divorce rates have, respectively, moved toward Protestant norms. In their catechisms, many Protestant denominations have accepted abortion and homosexuality as moral goods. And many prominent Catholic personalities — even those with imprimaturs of Catholic bishops — are urging Catholics to do likewise. This phenomenon practically invites the public authority to test the commitment of Catholics to their distinct set of doctrines.

And here then is another modest suggestion. The more urgent need for the Church’s liberty in the United States may not demand an attempt to transcend 500 years of a mistaken political philosophy. Instead it may be a matter of looking at a decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy. The Church also suffers from a massive scandal of immorality and criminality among its prelates. These crimes, so long unaddressed by higher authorities in the Church, manifestly call into question not just the Church’s commitment to its doctrines but its fitness to lead so many civic institutions and to control so many resources. Are America’s Catholic bishops conducting themselves “as worthy members of the community?” And if not, can we expect their religious liberty to remain sacrosanct?

If the Church recovered its vigor and its authority internally, then the neighbors with whom it lives peaceably, and among whom we do so many good works, would be less inclined to test our commitments, or our patience. The social Kingship of Christ may proceed to impose duties upon all nations, but it begins with the words: Physician, heal thyself.

I think MBD is largely correct, but I would also emphasize the almost strawman-like mischaracterization of what classical liberalism is as being a detriment to serious Catholic engagement with the philosophy. As long as Catholic writers of both the left and right treat this sort of liberalism as a kind of hedonistic, amoral philosophy unconcerned with civic virtue, then I don’t think we can have a meaningful conversation about topic.

I’m also intrigued by Deneen’s argument that individualism can lead to statism/authoritatrianism, because I think he has a much stronger case here (although he never quite develops it as much as he could have). I’ve posited that Jeffersonian style individualism naturally progresses to statism. Though Jefferson had an appreciation for civic virtue, his basic philosophy eschewed many of the traditional components of society, including the concept of abiding by perpetual constitutions. When Jefferson’s radical conception of perpetual revolution is married to his extreme libertarian ethos, it’s no surprise when a rootless society emerges in which individuals are left isolated, dependent primarily on the government as a source of moral guidance.

The problem, again, is that Deneen takes his axe and swings it wildly against all forms of classical liberalism. He takes no notice of the significant differences in the liberalism of Jefferson on one hand, and Madison and Hamilton on the other. This inability to distinguish between the fine contours of different strands of liberalism mars what could have otherwise been a valuable contribution to political dialogue. Alas.

China Disappears Interpol ex-Chief

As if to confirm what I said in my previous post about disparate treatments of Saudi Arabia and China, you’ll note how this news is greeted by radio silence.

The wife of Meng Hongwei, incumbent president of Interpol who has been detained in secret by China, says she is not sure her husband is alive after he disappeared mysteriously last month, to turn up under investigation in China.

In an emotional interview with the BBC, Grace Meng said she and her children have been waiting for news of Meng Hongwei, who has not been seen or heard from since 25 September when he flew from France to China. “I tell them Daddy is on a long business trip … We want to hear his voice,” she said in an interview published on Friday.

In September she reported her husband missing after he sent her a cryptic message on WhatsApp saying: “Wait for my call,” followed by an emoji of a knife. After French police opened an investigation and Interpol appealed to Beijing for answers, Interpol received his resignation and Chinese authorities announced on 7 October that he was in their custody and under investigation for bribery.

Meng Hongwei was the first Chinese national to become president of the international law enforcement agency, and had been living in France with his wife and two children. He appears to be the latest victim of a years-long anti-corruption crackdown that most observers say is a thinly veiled political purge to root out rivals and officials disloyal to President Xi Jinping.

If you hear about this incident beyond this blog post, it will be a minor miracle.

The WWE’s Conundrum

I don’t usually get to talk about wrestling in the context of politics, but the WWE is in a bit of a bind. The biggest wrestling organization on the planet is scheduled to have a major show in Saudi Arabia on November 2. This is the second network spectacular to be held in Saudi Arabia this year, as the WWE held a show there in April. The WWE evidently has a ten-year deal with Saudi Arabia worth on the order of $40 million per year.

Because of the money being lavished upon the WWE, and the influence of the prince. these are fairly loaded cards. Brock Lesnar, who has become a bit of a special attraction, is scheduled, and Shawn Michaels will be wrestling his first match in over eight years. There have also been rumors that the prince has put pressure to ensure certain wrestlers appear at both shows.

Some fans had already expressed displeasure with the idea of WWE getting into bed with the Saudi government. No women wrestled in April and none are scheduled for next month, nor will the WWE be bringing along its female commentator, Renee Young. And the show next month occurs only a few days after the WWE’s first ever all-female pay-per view, errr, network special.

If there was already some unease with the idea of WWE going to Saudi Arabia, things have only gotten worse in the wake of the disappearance and possible assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Many media outlets and even some Congressmen are pressuring the WWE to cancel or postpone. Dave Meltzer, a noted wrestling journalist, has reported that many wrestlers, if not most, have indicated they don’t want to go.

So what is WWE to do? This really does seem to be a no-win situation. Though WWE is making money hand over first, including having signed a pair of billion dollar television deals, and with it stocks seemingly in a state of perpetual ascent, pulling out of this show will nonetheless mean effectively nullifying a multi-million dollar deal, which in turn may put downward pressure on stocks. On the other hand, carrying on with the show could be a p.r. nightmare.

Personally, I think WWE should be at least slightly concerned about the safety of its wrestlers and employees. Who knows what other developments are around the corner, and it’s not unthinkable that relations between our nation and the Sauds could get a little tense. Now might not be the right time to go.

Why this interests me is WWE has also traveled to China each of the past three years. While you might hear the occasional murmuring about these shows, there’s nowhere near the same level of protest. Yet China’s record of political repression, especially of religious practitioners and hostile media, is arguably just as bad as Saudi Arabia’s. We’ve managed to somehow take China’s opening of its markets as a sign that it is no longer an authoritarian state, but the political climate in China is still horrendous. Yet we yawn as businesses continue to deal with the Chinese without hearing much of a peep about it.

Realists will argue that our friends are not always squeaky clean, and we have to deal with evil regimes, especially when there are worse, even more repressive nation states. Furthermore, businesses dealing with these regimes are in a sense helping to open up these nations, and may actually be part of a wider liberalization. That’s certainly a valid argument. Others will argue that the WWE is propping up a wicked regime, and is essentially providing fodder for its propaganda purposes, while also countenancing  some its wrestlers being given second class status.

That argument certainly has merit as well. I just wish we could establish how much repression we’re willing to tolerate before we pretend to care.

Wuerl’s Resignation Accepted

That sound you heard this morning were millions of Roman Catholics saying “about time.”

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl on Friday, while asking the cardinal to continue leading the Archdiocese of Washington on an interim basis until a permanent successor is appointed.

In a letter to Wuerl obtained by CNA Oct. 12, Pope Francis told the cardinal: “Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.”

The good news is that Cardinal Wuerl is moving on. The bad news: Pope Francis selects his replacement. As documented by Michael Brendan Dougherty, we shouldn’t feel confident that the pope will choose wisely. I am not sure if the article is available to non-NRO subscribers, so here’s a snippet:

There is a type of churchman that Francis seems to favor: the morally compromised and the doctrinally suspect. The archbishop of Bruges, Jozef De Kesel, was known to promote the ordination of women and the making voluntary of priestly celibacy, and was credibly accused of knowingly appointing a pastor who had molested a child. Francis made him a cardinal. There was the archbishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, who ignored calls to investigate a pedophile priest for years. The victim was told to go see a therapist instead. Arborelius is sympathetic to the idea of creating a female version of the College of Cardinals. Francis made him a cardinal, and Arborelius speculated that his elevation was a way for the pope to honor Sweden’s commitment to refugees. There’s also Giovanni Becciu, who was working for the pope’s secretary of state. When the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers began uncovering financial fraud in the Church, Becciu suspended its audit. The auditor general from PwC later said he was forced out on trumped-up accusations; Becciu accused that accountant of being a spy. Francis then made Becciu a cardinal. Another cleric, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, is set to stand trial in France for his role in covering up a child-sex-abuse scandal in Lyon. Francis made him the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which adjudicates abuse cases.

Or consider Monsignor Battista Ricca, reportedly Francis’s “eyes and ears at the Vatican Bank.” Ricca was widely known for engaging in affairs with men at different posts during his clerical career. He was attacked in an area of Montevideo known for cruising, and he had to be rescued from an elevator in which he was trapped with a rent boy. (It was a question about Ricca that Francis made the occasion of his headline-grabbing statement “Who am I to judge?”) And finally there is the man known as the “vice pope,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, the one being charged by seminarians in Honduras with allowing a culture of predation to flourish. Rodríguez Maradiaga first became famous across the Catholic world for saying that the Church scandals in Boston in 2002 were the invention of Jewish-controlled media who were avenging themselves on the Catholic Church for “confirm[ing] the necessity of the creation of a Palestinian state.”

The pontiff has a vision for transforming the Church, and he has appointed men who share that vision, even if it means appointing men who are morally compromised and sticking by them. Indeed, Pope Francis’s comments in accepting Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation reveal how tone deaf the pontiff remains:

“This request rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: to seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care,” Pope Francis wrote.

In the Oct. 12 letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, Francis defended the cardinal from the widespread criticism he has faced in recent months.

“You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes.”

“However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.”

“Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church,” he added.

Cardinal Wuerl may not have chosen to justify his actions, but if you read between the lines, Francis is happy to do it for him. Perhaps it’s too much to expect Pope Francis to not be so laudatory in his remarks, but I’d certainly have been happier with a slightly less “attaboy!” tone.

There is some truth in the defense of Wuerl, such as it is, that his inaction in Pittsburgh was far less damning than what occurred elsewhere in Pennsylvania, and the prosecutors in the state decided to focus their ire on a more high profile target. But that doesn’t get Wuerl off the hook, and it certainly does not justify his turning a blind eye towards his predecessor’s actions.

What has happened in the Archdiocese is especially tragic when one considers that Cardinal Hickey was one of the few American prelates to take early decisive action and implement procedures to safeguard children. Because of Cardinal Hickey’s actions, the Washington DC Archdiocese was relatively (though of course not wholly) untouched by the clerical abuse scandal. Unfortunately his work was undone by his two successors.

Wuerl’s departure may mend some wounds. Forgive my pessimism in not having high expectations for his successor.

The Left’s Ill-Gotten Gains

I’m short on time for the next couple of days, so I won’t be able to post anything of substance. In the meantime, here’s a Kevin Williamson post which, as almost always, cuts to the heart of a matter. The left has been far more reliant on the Court to uphold rights it views as intrinsic, and that’s what scares them so much about the future of the Court.

And that is what terrifies the Left about the current direction of the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wadere presents ill-gotten political gains. While the NRA got a big win in the courts a few years back — one entirely in keeping with the actual text of the Constitution as it exists, not as progressives wish it were — it mainly has advanced its agenda and defended its agenda and defended its gains through ordinary democratic politics. It is not, contrary to the myth, a particularly big political donor or spender (not even in the top 100 last I checked) that gets things done by throwing money around. Until its recent (and, in my view, ill-advised) metamorphosis into a full-spectrum culture-war outfit, the NRA was a very disciplined and narrowly focused single-issue outfit, which made it truly bipartisan: Harry Reid may have been a train wreck on 99.99 percent of the issues, but he was solid on guns, and the NRA credited him for that.

NARAL and Planned Parenthood, who together form what we might understand as the NRA of abortion rights, are above all things terrified that they might be reduced to ordinary democratic political activism in a post-Roe world. They want to defend those ill-gotten gains, and they understand that the American consensus on abortion is a lot closer to the thinking of, say, George W. Bush than it is to that of the butchers’ guild. There is volatility in the polling, but by and large Americans take a pretty liberal view of abortion in the first trimester and in cases involving rape, incest, or serious threats to the health of the mother; they are open to many kinds of restriction and take a much more restrictive view as the pregnancy advances. If democratic preferences prevail, it is likely that U.S. abortion regulation will end up looking something more like what prevails in much of Europe. Not as restrictive as pro-lifers would like, but more restrictive than what we have.

Read the rest at the link I provided.

Understanding Differences in Never Trumpism

A common lament in leftist (and some right-wing) circles is that #NeverTrump conservatives mouth criticisms of Trump, but by their actions demonstrate they are no better than Trumpists. For instance, Senator Ben Sasse, a very vocal critic of Trump since day one, still votes “with” Trump over 90 percent of the time, thus showing himself to be a hypocrite.

The nub of the argument seems to be that conservatives ought to vote against their ideological interests to demonstrate their solidarity with the anti-Trump cause, otherwise they will be lumped in as enemies to the people. This attitude reflects a deep misunderstanding of Trump critics and the distinctions of flavors among his detractors on the right.

To understand better, we need to step back to the primaries. This piece does a pretty good job in explaining where Trump’s support came from. It also helps explain where it did not come from. The most consistent and vociferous opposition to Trump within the Republican party came from those who labelled themselves “strongly conservative.” These were principally Cruz voters, though some preferred Rubio and some of the other candidates. In exit polls, particularly in the early stages of the primary, they were the category showing the weakest support for Trump. Support for Trump increased through each step away from strong conservatives, to mild conservatives, to moderates, and then even Democrats. As the article shows, moderate is perhaps not the best descriptor of a typical Trump supporter, though these individuals were definitely not traditional conservatives – being far less concerned with issues related to government spending, economic freedom, or opposition to abortion.

For those who opposed Trump, opposition can be labeled in one of two categories: ideology and personality. Ideological opponents of Trump deemed him to be a RINO in the truest sense of the term. He was literally a Democrat who called himself a Republican, but who still clung to many of his “big government” principles. He may have mouthed certain conservative pieties, but in his heart he remained something of an authoritarian. Conservative opposition to Trump was built largely, though not solely, on these grounds.

More moderate voters also had some ideological grounds for disagreement, but their concerns were centered more around personality: Trump was an uncouth, half-witted blabbermouth who catered to the worst instincts of his supporters. To be sure most conservative critics of Trump also felt the same way, but the points of emphasis were different. These types of voters tended to cluster around Kasich and Rubio. They are also why some of us never referred to ourselves as NeverTrumpers, because those who were most fervent in that designation were #AndNotCruzEither.

If you understand this gap in reasoning, you can understand why certain parts of the right have been more comfortable in praising and supporting Trump on policy, or have become outright supporters. The more one’s suspicion of Trump was based on ideology, the easier it is to support him to one degree or another. I am not going to get into an in-depth analysis of whether or not Trump’s presidency is truly conservative, or whether he has delivered as many conservative policy victories as his supporters claim. But he has certainly not governed against conservative principles as much as his detractors feared. (Trump’s tariff policies have been the one area where has most governed against conservative ideology, but the results of those actions have not been as severe as feared, even if not as successful as pretended they are).

Conservatives who put a good deal of emphasis on the personality side (raises hand) are not as positive about Trump as those who don’t care as much about those concerns. But they are much more sanguine about him than those whose primary concerns were attitudinal. Not only has Trump affirmed their worst fears, he has governed relatively conservatively. Because here’s the rub: while moderate Republicans distrusted Trump due to personal considerations, the most hostile of this group have moved away for more ideological reasons. Maybe it’s better put this way: moderate NeverTrumpers were barely tethered to the Republican party to begin with. Trump has pushed them over the edge because now they feel completely alienated.

I’m going to use the most recent defection as an example. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, and a very vocal critic of both Trump and the populist base of support (Nichols makes me look like a rabid man of the people democrat in comparison), announced he is finally leaving the Republican party. Frankly I didn’t know he was in it. Let’s go over some of the reasons he provides:

Small things sometimes matter, and Collins is among the smallest of things in the political world. And yet, she helped me finally to accept what I had been denying. Her speech on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh convinced me that the Republican Party now exists for one reason, and one reason only: for the exercise of raw political power, and not even for ends I would otherwise applaud or even support.

I have written on social media and elsewhere how I feel about Kavanaugh’s nomination. I initially viewed his nomination positively, as a standard GOP judicial appointment; then grew concerned about whether he should continue on as a nominee with the accusations against him; and finally, was appalled by his behavior in front of the Senate.

It was Collins, however, who made me realize that there would be no moderates to lead conservatives out of the rubble of the Trump era. Senator Jeff Flake is retiring and took a pass, and with all due respect to Senator Lisa Murkowski—who at least admitted that her “no” vote on cloture meant “no” rather than drag out the drama—she will not be the focus of a rejuvenated party.

When Collins spoke, she took the floor of the Senate to calm an anxious and divided nation by giving us all an extended soliloquy on… the severability of a clause.

The severability of a clause? Seriously?

It took almost half an hour before Collins got to the accusations against Kavanaugh, but the rest of what she said was irrelevant. She had clearly made up her mind weeks earlier, and she completely ignored Kavanaugh’s volcanic and bizarre performance in front of the Senate.

Nichols claims Susan Collins’s speech was the final straw for him. Let’s do to Nichols what is unable to do for Collins: take him at face value. He thinks he has been abandoned because one of the last true moderates has shown she is a true Trumpian, interested in only raw political power. Her speech, he says, was a sham because she had already made her mind up and was now just making an excuse to justify her vote.

I’ve discussed Collins’s speech, and had a much different takeaway. I can understand Nichols’s cynicism, but I don’t think he has made a convincing case in his favor. Nichols argues that Collins was biased in favor of Kavanaugh, but here he glosses over his own bias. Nichols had already expressed his opposition to Kavanaugh, and thus he dismisses Collins through his own biased prism. Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate was “volcanic and bizarre” only if you were already predisposed towards opposing him. For those unconvinced that Dr. Ford had adequately proven her allegations, and who thought the other allegations against him were outrageous fabrications, Kavanaugh’s performance was completely understandable. It’s okay to come to a different conclusion, but Nichols seems incapable of contemplating that Collins – and most other Kavanaugh defenders – are acting in good faith.

Nichols then says he cannot join the Democrats because of their execrable behavior, but says the Republicans were worse.

The Republicans, however, have now eclipsed the Democrats as a threat to the rule of law and to the constitutional norms of American society. They have become all about winning. Winning means not losing, and so instead of acting like a co-equal branch of government responsible for advice and consent, congressional Republicans now act like a parliamentary party facing the constant threat of a vote of no-confidence.

He’s not entirely wrong about the shift in Republican attitudes, but it is strange to make this argument in light of the Kavanaugh proceedings. The Democrats were the ones who threw every manner of hyperbolic, unreasonable argument against Kavanaugh, and that was before the Ford allegation. The Democrats never gave him a fair shot, and tried every maneuver to win by smearing him at every turn. Moreover, it’s difficult to claim Republicans were acting like authoritarians (as Nichols believes the GOP has become) when they were not the ones who seemed to abandon the concept of innocent until proven guilty during this process.

Nichols further claims Republicans have abandoned principle in pursuit of pure power politics.

Politics is about the exercise of power. But the new Trumpist GOP is not exercising power in the pursuit of anything resembling principle, and certainly not for conservative or Republican principles.

Free trade? Republicans are suddenly in love with tariffs, and now sound like bad imitations of early 1980s protectionist Democrats. A robust foreign policy? Not only have Republicans abandoned their claim to being the national-security party, they have managed to convince the party faithful that Russia—an avowed enemy that directly attacked our political institutions—is less of a threat than their neighbors who might be voting for Democrats. Respect for law enforcement? The GOP is backing Trump in attacks on the FBI and the entire intelligence community as Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the web of lies, financial arrangements, and Russian entanglements known collectively as the Trump campaign.

Again, he’s not totally wrong, but he’s also not completely right. I’ve already mentioned tariffs, where Nichols has a much stronger argument. But how much has the GOP gone wobbly on national security? I, too, weep when some Trumpists shrug their shoulders at Putin’s malevolence, and Trump’s verbal sucking up to dictators is sickening. But has this actually impacted policy? When it comes to real world actions, Trump has not been a shrinking violet with regards to Russia. As for the Mueller investigation – I’ll just say it’s not as simplistic as Nichols is making it out to be.

He continues:

And most important, on the rule of law, congressional Republicans have utterly collapsed. They have sold their souls, purely at Trump’s behest, living in fear of the dreaded primary challenges that would take them away from the Forbidden City and send them back home to the provinces. Yes, an anti-constitutional senator like Hirono is unnerving, but she’s a piker next to her Republican colleagues, who have completely reversed themselves on everything from the limits of executive power to the independence of the judiciary, all to serve their leader in a way that would make the most devoted cult follower of Kim Jong Un blush.

Have they? This is a nice rant, but is it actually true? Again, presumption of innocence is an aspect of demonstrating respect for the rule of law, and I think the Democrats have been woefully worse. Nichols may be right about individual Republican Congressmen being afraid to take on Trump, but where has it manifested in disrespect for the rule of law? I’m less than convinced by this particular argument.

Nichols says its other conservatives who have abandoned their principles, not he.

Maybe it’s me. I’m not a Republican anymore, but am I still a conservative? Limited government: check. Strong national defense: check. Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change: check. Belief that people spend their money more wisely than government? That America is an exceptional nation with a global mission? That we are, in fact, a shining city on a hill and an example to others? Check, check, check.

This will hopefully be the subject of future posts, but “limited government” is a meaningless bit of shorthand offered by people trying to prove their conservative bona fides, but which proves nothing. “Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change” is the only point of substance, and it is a very good one.

So Nichols is bit more credible as a somewhat conservative Trump critic than others who have publicly said they were leaving the Republican party. But then he continues:

But I can’t deny that I’ve strayed from the party. I believe abortion should remain legal. I am against the death penalty in all its forms outside of killing in war. I don’t think what’s good for massive corporations is always good for America. In foreign affairs, I am an institutionalist, a supporter of working through international bodies and agreements. I think our defense budget is too big, too centered on expensive toys, and that we are still too entranced by nuclear weapons.

 

Not every Republican who has left the party in the age of Trump is pro abortion (I left and am most definitely not pro abortion), but it does seem like every public figure who has made a public break is. Can someone who believes abortion should remain legal really call themselves a traditional conservative? Again, this could be the subject of an entirely different post or twenty, so I don’t want to dive too deeply on this. But no. The answer is no.

As for the rest of this, I actually am on the same page with Nichols with the possible exception of being an institutionalist, but I don’t think many conservatives would have a problem with any of these points, at least in the abstract. But how does one concretely reflect these principles in the real world? Aye, there’s the rub, and I suspect Nichols might be underplaying his differences.

I’ve run longer than I intended, and perhaps more dismissive of Nichols than I meant to be. As a registered Independent I am in no position to critique someone who no longer feels they can remain in the current GOP. But I do think Nichols is indicative of a larger break within right-wing circles. One begins to wonder if Trump is the real reason for moderates to leave the Republican party, or is he simply the excuse?