Removing the Past as an Option

When William F. Buckley started his National Review in 1955, the Mission Statement included this about his new magazine – “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Someone has to stand athwart history and yell Stop, at least for a while:

In 1957, the magazine editorialized in favor of white leadership in the South, arguing that “the central question that emerges is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” By the 1970s the magazine had moved to demanding colorblind policies and the end of affirmative action. In the late 1960s, the magazine attacked segregationist George Wallace, who ran in Democratic primaries (1964 and 1972) and made an independent run for president in 1968.

Buckley deftly moved his magazine, which was the journal of a sort of new conservatism, away from the past. Conservatism has always been about the past, about tradition, about that which has always worked well enough and shouldn’t be changed based on some new enthusiasm – see Edmund Burke’s stirring defense of Marie Antoinette (and the glorious and noble way of life of the natural aristocracy) during the French Revolution – but Buckley gave in on the question of segregation and the rest of the racial issues. He didn’t want to be seen as a moral monster. He didn’t want conservatives to be seen as moral monsters. There were other battles to fight, with Gore Vidal:

In 1968, ABC News invited Vidal and conservative icon William F. Buckley to serve as analysts during the network’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention. After days of aggressive debate, the two began engaging in openly hostile personal attacks. During a discussion of the 1968 DNC anti-Vietnam protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag, Buckley compared the demonstrators to Nazi appeasers. In response, Vidal told Buckley to “shut up a minute,” and went on to say: “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is you.”

An increasingly agitated Buckley shot back: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

At least that wasn’t a discussion about race. That issue had been taken away from “thoughtful” conservatives by George Wallace and Bull Connor, and now, after Charleston, this has happened again. The skinny white kid, who shot those nine black people dead, in the most famous black church in Charleston, had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too – and now no one wants to be associated with that flag, or with the good and noble South of long-ago. Move on. No one but Donald Trump wants to be seen as moral monster. Find something else to yell about. If one cannot keep the North from finally winning the Civil War, at last, one can yell Stop about gay marriage, even if banning that is now a lost cause. Getting rid of Obamacare is a lost cause too – but one can yell about that. There are lots of things to yell about.

The only problem with that is that someone is always removing the past as a reasonable option to the present. Sometimes it’s a murderous jerk that wants the South the rise again and white folks to be in charge, once again. Sometimes the Supreme Court rules that the past was unfair, constitutionally unfair – in 1954 with school segregation and in 1967 with bans on interracial marriage and this year with bans on gay marriage. The way it had always been is quite relevant. The way it had always been had been stupid and cruel and unfair, and arbitrary. These things happen. Conservatives are always getting the past they love ripped away from them.

And now this has happened again:

In a milestone accord, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed Wednesday to swiftly reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, finally ending the half-century diplomatic freeze between the two Cold War adversaries. Standing in a sunny Rose Garden, Obama said many Americans and Cubans were making a “choice between the future and the past” and urged critics in Congress to do the same by lifting the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

“Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward,” he said. “I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.”

It has been fifty-four years. Our economic embargo on Cuba remains in effect, but now we’ll have the two embassies, and the unthinkable happened:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that he would join the opening ceremony in Havana and that he looked forward to “raising the Stars and Stripes” over the embassy, noting that no U.S. envoy of his rank has visited there since 1945.

“This step has been long overdue,” Kerry said in Vienna, where he is participating in nuclear talks with Iran. Aides said Obama also hopes to visit Cuba before he leaves office in 2017.

Cuban TV took the unusual step of broadcasting Obama’s Rose Garden remarks live. Local newspapers, which often wait for official government pronouncements, blasted front-page headlines about the embassy openings early Wednesday. …

“This is not merely symbolic,” Obama said. “With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”

It was simply a matter of working out the details:

After months of secret talks by their aides, Obama and Castro stunned much of the world in December when they simultaneously announced that they would move to normalize relations, including easing travel and trade restrictions.

The two sides held four rounds of closed-door talks and last month the State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a key Cuban demand to restore diplomatic ties.

The administration has rebuffed Cuba’s demand to close the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. military has occupied since 1903 and the Spanish-American War.

Analysts described the resumption of ties as the most substantive step since the diplomatic thaw began, but said sharp differences remain.

That doesn’t matter:

“This will be a normal relationship between governments, where we don’t necessarily see eye to eye, but where there is cooperation, that’s where it’s going,” said Philip Peters, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cuba Research Center in Alexandria, Va.

“We now begin the long and challenging process of normalization of relations far beyond just reopening embassies – building commercial, social, cultural and political ties,” said Fulton Armstrong, a professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

“If we do U.S.-Cuba relations right, it will set a new tone for U.S. ties throughout Latin America, to the benefit of the entire hemisphere,” Armstrong said. “Congress will have to do its part [and] unshackle the administration from legacy legislation.”

Yeah, sure:

For now, Congress appears unlikely to lift the economic embargo, which was first imposed in the 1960s and stiffened several times, and allow U.S. businesses to invest freely in Cuba. Critics in both parties lined up Wednesday to emphasize their opposition.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Congress may not approve money for the new embassy or confirm an ambassador after Obama nominates one.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also slammed the White House move. “Once again the regime is being rewarded while they jail dissidents, silence political opponents, and harbor American fugitives and cop killers,” he said in a statement.

And there are the Republicans running for president:

“As Americans prepare to celebrate the anniversary of our freedom from tyranny and commit anew to the democratic principles on which our nation was founded, it is no small irony that President Obama prepares to open an embassy in Havana, further legitimizing the brutal Castro regime,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican nomination, said in a statement.

Obama acknowledged those concerns in his Rose Garden remarks, noting “very real, profound differences between our governments.”

He said U.S. officials “will not hesitate to speak out” about the rights of Cubans to speak and assemble freely. But the best way to support U.S. values is “through engagement,” he argued.

“You can’t hold the future of Cuba hostage to what happened in the past,” he said.

Fine, but Rick Perry said the move is “the most recent example of this president’s foreign policy that ignores reality in exchange for surface level political ‘wins.'” And Jeb Bush added that Obama is most concerned with whether his “legacy is burnished with dubious diplomatic achievements and photo-ops” and not the substance of the agreement. And Chris Christie called the decision “dead wrong” while Marco Rubio said he wouldn’t support diplomatic relations with Cuba unless his human rights concerns were addressed and added this:

“I intend to oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed,” the Cuban-American lawmaker said in a statement Wednesday. “It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

What concessions? And there was this:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed Obama’s decision to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba, suggesting that it was a “slap in the face” to Israel.

Cruz seems to think that Jerusalem is a part of Israel – that has been in dispute since 1948 – and that our embassy in Tel Aviv is in the wrong place – but no country in the world except Israel has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – so Ted is being odd. He hopes no one looks these things up, and that Sheldon Adelson pays for his campaign.

As for Cuba, the history here is a mess. Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement against the government of Fulgencio Batista had started July 1953 and finally ousted that Batista guy on January 1, 1959 – which we thought was a fine thing. Batista was a jerk, a corrupt and sleazy dictator, and Castro had done what we had done in 1776 – so all was fine, until Castro gave his big speech at the UN and announced Cuba would now be a communist nation. No one saw that coming, and even if this was more about economic and social equality, enforced by the state, and not that much about a geopolitical alignment with the Soviet Union, this was a threat. We had a communist nation ninety miles south of Key West. We had to do something.

We did. In April 1961 it was that Bay of Pigs invasion – a CIA operation to land a small group of Cuban exiles there, to establish a beachhead and move out, inspiring all Cubans to rise up and take back Cuba from Castro. This had been planned by the Eisenhower administration and when Kennedy was told about it, he said fine – go ahead – and he was soon sorry for that. That was a disaster. Launched from Guatemala, our Cuban guys were defeated within three days, by Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Fidel Castro, no less. Castro was the hero of his nation, looking heroic, just like a leader should. President Kennedy said oops.

The next year it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at us. Kennedy did better this time – he forced the Soviets to back down and remove the missiles, and agreed we’d remove our nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviets. No one wanted global thermonuclear war. The CIA would stick to plots to kill Castro in sneaky ways – poison cigars and such – but that never did work.

The odd thing is that those were the last two major events. Cuba did turn out to be a nasty place – economic and social equality, enforced by the state, was enforced brutally. There would be no real elections, the state could take what it wanted from anyone, and there would be no free press and no dissent. Many went to jail, and many died there, and many more hopped onto anything that would float and headed in the general direction of Key West. Those who made it got special treatment – lots of aid to get them on their feet and a quick and easy path to citizenship.

That didn’t help matters. Cuban-Americans represent maybe three percent of all the Hispanics in America, and seem to think that they’re the chosen ones. The other ninety-seven percent of Hispanics here in America rather loathe them. They certainly resent them, and that’s a matter we gringos should remember. All conservative Hispanic Republican conservatives, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are Cuban-Americans. Such representatives are representative of a tiny would-be elite.

As for Cuba geopolitically, Cuba only mattered in the early sixties. The Soviets took their missiles and left and never thought much about Cuba again. Cuba had been useful once, but that was a long time ago, and these days everyone else, except for the aging Cuban exiles in Miami, has forgotten Cuba too. The place is quiet. They don’t harbor al-Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban. Those guys don’t think of them and the Cubans don’t seem to care one way or the other about the war on terror. They have no position on Israel and the Palestinians, or on who owns Ukraine. They have no position on much of anything, even if we were still designating them a State Sponsor of Terrorism. No one was sure why. Obama took them off the list.

But we won’t deal with them, damn it. No trade, no diplomatic relations, until they change their ways – and that will make them think twice! And the South will rise again.

After fifty-three years we haven’t thought twice. Obama thought we should. That’s what he was saying last December:

President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Those of us who were twelve when Castro swept to power resent that, but he had a point, and he had the Pope on his side, although Republicans do hate this new Pope, and they hate this change. What was wrong with the old tried-and-true ways, other than they didn’t work at all? But think about it. We talk to China and Vietnam after all, and the Saudis are pretty nasty to their own people, particularly women, but of course the Saudis have oil. China has the biggest potential customer base in the world. Vietnam is a useful thorn in the side of the Chinese, if the Chinese get too uppity. We talk to them all, and we have embassies there. Why is Cuba any different? Obama swapped a few prisoners with Raúl, to get things moving. Israel does that sort of thing all the time.

And this was the time to do this. Phillip Peters explained the politics:

As recently as 2000, Cuban Americans broke three-to-one for Republicans in Presidential elections, but no more. In 2012, exit polls showed them splitting 50-50 between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Considering that the president had mildly liberalized Cuba policies in his first term and Governor Romney was calling for a return to President Bush’s hardline policies, this was a shocking result.

But it was not a fluke: it reflects changing policy preferences in a Cuban-American community increasingly populated by younger generations and more recent immigrants. A 2014 Florida International University (FIU) poll showed that for the first time since its surveys began in 1991, a majority of Cuban Americans, 52 percent, wants to end the embargo. (During the 1990s, five FIU polls showed average 85 percent support for the embargo.) Among those under age 30, 62 percent want to end the embargo and 88 percent want to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana.

Things had already changed. It was too late to yell Stop last December, and last December, Daniel Larison had added this:

Normalizing relations with Cuba shouldn’t be seen as a “reward” for the regime. It is the removal of a barrier that has been senselessly maintained for more than five decades. If anyone is being punished by the embargo, it is the people in America and Cuba that would otherwise have productive commercial and cultural exchanges. The U.S. gains nothing by persisting in the embargo. On the contrary, it needlessly alienates Latin American governments and puts the U.S. in the absurd position of defending a Cold War relic. Normalization is twenty years overdue, and nothing will be gained by delaying it any longer.

That was the thinking, and now the two embassies are scheduled to open. Once again, for the fourth or fifth time in the last two weeks – it’s hard to keep count – conservatives, for whom everything has always been about the past, about tradition, about that which has always worked well enough and shouldn’t be changed based on some new enthusiasm – have found the past has been taken away from them. It’s no longer an option. Now if they would only stop yelling.

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The Shift to Common Decency

It’s still sinking in. After Charleston, all that Republican and Fox News talk about black “thugs” and black folks with no sense of personal responsibility had to stop, and they had to give up on the Confederate flag too. Then things got worse. The Supreme Court ruled that four misplaced words in the massive Affordable Care Act didn’t negate the whole thing. The Supreme Court also saved the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – Texas cannot use its tax subsidies for housing development to keep “those people” (blacks and Hispanics) out of the “good” parts of town, claiming they meant no harm. Intention doesn’t matter – and this was the same Supreme Court that gave them Citizens United and two years ago gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing them to make sure none of “those people” ever voted again. This didn’t seem fair, and all this was capped off with the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. That’s fine. Let them get married. What’s it to you, after all? Get over it.

That was hard to process. America had been listening to the conservatives, assuming they made some sort of sense, since the Reagan years. Then, in one short week, the whole nation woke up. Obama woke up too. He let it rip in Charleston. In that eulogy for the pastor, and state senator and by all accounts an all-round good guy, who was gunned down in his own church, Obama burst into song – and it was “Amazing Grace” no less. Our long national nightmare was over.

Gerald Ford said that on August 9, 1974 – Nixon was gone. Nixon had been the nightmare. Ford acknowledged that he himself hadn’t been elected – Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, had pled no contest to felony extortion charges and had resigned, Nixon had appointed Ford to replace him, and then Nixon had resigned. Ford knew he was somewhat of an accidental president, but that day he seemed to stress that at least he was fairly normal and eminently sensible. He smoked a pipe. That was somewhat comforting. Paranoid ideologues don’t smoke pipes. Ford was a decent man – boring, but decent.

Forty-one years later the same thing happened again. Common sense and common decency won out over impassioned rants that were mostly nonsense – or at least that was the narrative that those on the left side of things offered. The Republicans hadn’t come up with another Gerald Ford, but they would, sooner or later. They had no choice. Everything they had been yammering about for years had been rejected, by the courts and by the people.

Those on the left side of things would say that. Those on the other side of things weren’t so sure. Maybe the Supreme Court was out of touch with what Sarah Palin had once called Real Americans. On the gay marriage issue, Justice Scalia had said that:

“Today’s decree says that my ruler, and the ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact – and the furthest extension one can even imagine – of the court’s claimed power to create ‘liberties’ that the Constitution and its amendments neglect to mention.”

In what seems like an attack on the very institution of the court, Scalia derides its makeup, including where the justices studied, where they go to church, where they come from – all by way of saying they have no right to make social decisions for the population.

“Take, for example, this court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single south-westerner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California [where Kennedy hails from] does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges…” …

“To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation,” Scalia wrote.

Scalia might be onto something there or maybe not:

A majority of Americans support the Supreme Court’s decisions last week on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, according to a new CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday. But at the same time, nearly 4 in 10 say the nation’s highest court is too liberal.

That’s ambiguous, but predictably so:

More than 6 in 10 Americans – 63 percent – said they support the Court’s ruling that upheld government subsidies for Americans buying health insurance through federally-run exchanges in states where no such program would otherwise exist. Asked about same-sex marriage, 59 percent said they agreed with the decision to legalize it in all 50 states.

The results break down a predictably partisan line, with most self-identified Democrats and independents backing both rulings and Republicans opposed to both. Nearly 8 in 10 Democrats (79 percent) support the health-care ruling, while slightly fewer (70 percent) favor the gay-marriage decision.

Most self-identified Democrats and independents, and on gay marriage, most young Republicans under thirty, are on one side of things – they are sixty percent of everyone. The other forty percent are being left behind. Scalia’s rant about his fellow justices at the Supreme Court being out of touch with America seems to be pure applesauce. Common sense and common decency are, well, common.

This has left Republicans with a choice. They can say that they too are decent people, and prove it, or they can rant about how everyone else is indecent and only they are decent. Christian evangelicals have preferred the latter for the last several decades, but that’s not the only option. Maybe they can do both, and the New York Times’ David Brooks tries to thread that needle:

These conservatives are enmeshed in a decades-long culture war that has been fought over issues arising from the sexual revolution. Most of the conservative commentators I’ve read over the past few days are resolved to keep fighting that war.

I am to the left of the people I have been describing on almost all of these social issues. But I hope they regard me as a friend and admirer. And from that vantage point, I would just ask them to consider a change in course….

Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog counters with this:

I’d argue that the War on Sex not only makes religion look stifling and awful, it’s done the same thing to conservatism, which was going great guns in the 1980s, and might have won an overwhelming, decades-long victory if righties hadn’t been so obsessed with unwed mothers and gay people and porn.

What Brooks is trying to do is futile, because these folks aren’t going to listen to his recommendation for an alternative course.

That would be this from Brooks:

Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love….

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life. …

The sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.

Steve M is not impressed:

These social conservatives aren’t remotely interested in “selfless love.” They’re interested in God’s wrath. More specifically, they’re interested in being the broken-windows cops enforcing God’s wrath. They want to scold. They want to ban. They want to identify sinners and declare them unworthy unless they repent, while society, in unison, chants, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

And, failing that, they want to regard themselves as the culture’s most long-suffering martyrs. Here’s Rod Dreher, one of the conservatives Brooks mentions by name in his column, responding to what Brooks wrote- “I am recommending a strategy for resisting, enduring and thriving under the reality of occupation.”

Yeah, there’s a guy you want ministering to those in need, right?

Read the Dreher item here and then consider Steve M:

The sense of being under siege feeds Dreher’s sense of self-righteousness. He knows he stands for good. He knows that the society we live in is evil – and that those of us who share the values of this society are deranged destroyers of civilization…

“The point is, there is no way for Christians to undertake the task of nurturing stable families, as David correctly wishes for, without making the teaching of Christian chastity part of the mission. This is the one thing the world cannot accept…”

Stop trying to reason with these people, David. Stop trying to be one of these people – we’ve read the rumors and we know you can’t live according to their moral code. I’m sure most of these clowns can’t do it themselves, either. But that won’t stop them from lecturing us. David, please realize that what they want most for society is to be its morality cops. They don’t really give a crap about Christ’s love.

Everyone knows these people. If the choice is between asserting that they too are decent people, and proving it, or ranting about how everyone else is indecent and only they are decent, and then slapping the sinners around, they’ll do the latter. That’s why the news of the day was this:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie launched an uphill run for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday with his trademark brashness, offering up his blunt talk and willingness to tackle tough issues as the cure for Washington dysfunction.

Christie, once seen as a leading 2016 White House contender but now viewed as a long shot, said his dose of New Jersey straight talk could help span the partisan divide to solve difficult political problems.

“I mean what I say and I say what I mean, and that’s what America needs right now,” Christie told friends, family and supporters at the campaign launch at his old high school in suburban Livingston, New Jersey. “Truth and hard decisions today will lead to growth and opportunity tomorrow.”

The 52-year-old, two-term governor criticized the “bickering” leaders of both parties, and derided what he called Democratic President Barack Obama’s “hand-wringing and indecisiveness and weakness in the Oval Office.”

He’ll slap some people around, and that does appeal to the holier-than-though base, out to shame those who disagree with them, although this is an uphill battle:

He has seen his standing in national polls in the Republican race dip to the low single digits. His approval ratings in his home state have fallen to new lows amid a series of credit downgrades and weak job growth.

Conservatives, a key force in the early Republican primaries, have been suspicious of his record of working at times with Democrats in Democratic-leaning New Jersey. They still resent his hug and warm words for Obama after superstorm Sandy in the final days of the 2012 presidential race.

He has an answer to that:

As governor, Christie has cultivated an in-your-face image, once telling a heckler to “sit down and shut up” and getting into frequent shouting matches with New Jersey residents who challenge him.

“You’re going to get what I think whether you like it or not, or whether it makes you cringe every once in a while,” Christie said during his launch rally.

Christie promised to wage a spin-free race that “will not worry about what is popular but what is right, because what is right is what will fix America.”

He also took a verbal swing at Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, who was Obama’s first secretary of state.

“After seven years of a weak and feckless foreign policy run by Barack Obama, we better not turn it over to his second mate, Hillary Clinton,” he said.

This is going to be nasty and no fun for him:

New Jersey Democrats, however, have challenged Christie’s claims of bipartisanship, pointing to incidents like the “Bridgegate” scandal. In September 2013, aides orchestrated the closing of approach lanes for the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York City, the busiest bridge in the country. Critics said the closings were retribution against a Democratic New Jersey mayor who turned down a request that he endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. Christie has disavowed knowledge of the closures.

“His version of compromise is more combative than the word implies. It’s more of an assault. He assaults the other side in a compromise and calls it an agreement,” said John Wisniewski, the deputy speaker of the Democratic-led state assembly.

But that’s why the Republican base might turn to him. He doesn’t take shit from anyone. He shits on them. That’s what he’s selling, because he knows the base always buys that sort of thing.

Salon’s Simon Maloy understands that:

This message appeals to what has been Christie’s most enduring constituency up to this point: dull-witted pundits who believe that every political fight and policy snarl can be overcome by “leadership.” They see Christie bark insults and schoolteachers and tell hecklers to “sit down and shut up” and they confuse that theatrical excess with political competence. “Telling it like it is” is little different from the “Straight Talk Express” nonsense that John McCain charmed the political press corps with during his own presidential campaigns. But there are several reasons to suspect that Christie won’t achieve the same level of success that McCain did.

First off, running on his own tough-guy, no-nonsense personality is pretty much the only option available Christie, given that his policy record has left him wildly unpopular in his own state. In his announcement speech this morning, Christie promised to campaign “without spin or pandering” and immediately broke that promise as he danced carefully around the fact that the New Jersey economy is beset by high unemployment and slow growth. Over the past few months, his approval rating has skidded to a series of all-time lows. Christie is facing the same problem as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: his ambition extends far beyond his accomplishments, and so he’s reframing his unpopular and ineffective policies as “hard choices” that he had the “courage” to pursue.

That gets to another problem: the 2016 campaign is already stuffed with candidates who embody the “principled truth-teller” persona. Candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul present themselves as unflinchingly honest men who will publicly break with their party (or join with the opposition) when their beliefs demand it. Ben Carson’s campaign is based entirely around his oft-stated refusal to be “politically correct” and to say things that everyone else is supposedly afraid to. Really there’s nothing unique or special about a candidate who promises to be the One Honest Man on the campaign trail, but with so many candidates pitching that message, Christie will have to make the case that he can be trusted over everyone else.

Good luck with that:

There’s literally no reason to trust anything Chris Christie says. Tom Moran, the editorial page editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, greeted the Christie 2016 candidacy with a brutal column dissecting the governor’s distasteful habit of earnestly giving you his word, and then enthusiastically breaking his promise. It’s not just Christie lies, he writes, it’s the lengths that he goes to in trying to convince you that he’s not lying. There are a wealth of examples to cite demonstrating this character flaw, but my favorite is immigration.

Christie, in the early days of his governorship, was relatively liberal on immigration issues – he bullishly endorsed a path to citizenship and signed a state-level version of the DREAM Act into law. Then his party soured on immigration reform and Christie, when asked to comment on immigration, would dodge the issue entirely and refuse to say anything because “I’m not a candidate for president.” A few months later he announced that he’d changed his mind and no longer backed citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Look out, America: you’ve been told like it is.

Maloy is not impressed:

Wafting through all of this is the unmistakable scent of desperation. Christie clearly believes he can recapture the political magic that propelled him to the top of everyone’s 2016 list before the George Washington Bridge scandal tore apart his reputation for forthrightness and turned his tough-guy persona into a toxic liability. He so badly wants to be president but won’t allow that he missed his moment. And so Christie’s promising to tell us like it is as he busily deludes himself.

Yes, but this is marketable, and Christie is not alone:

Donald J. Trump has made himself few friends lately with his inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants, but he does have a defender in Senator Ted Cruz. The Republican from Texas told Fox and Friends on Tuesday that he had no problem with the billionaire businessman’s suggestion that those who cross the southern border illegally are “rapists” and “criminals.”

“I like Donald Trump. I think he’s terrific, I think he’s brash, I think he speaks the truth,” Mr. Cruz said.

NBC severed its relationship with Mr. Trump on Monday after criticism of his comments, canceling plans to air his Miss USA beauty pageant. Mr. Trump has threatened to sue for breach of contract.

Mr. Cruz said that Mr. Trump, who is a rival for the Republican nomination, should not have to apologize for speaking out about the problem of immigration. He suggested that NBC was being “silly” with its political correctness.

These three, and the rest of the Republican nominees, will speak the truth no one wants to hear. Good for them. Sixty percent of everyone in the country have already decided that’s not the truth at all – they’re now into that common sense and common dignity thing. Things did change at the end of June this year. It’s probably not wise to pretend they didn’t. This will not go well.

Posted in Chris Christie, Republicans in Disarray | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greece Hits the Wall

Let’s talk about debt. We’re all awash in it – credit cards, student loans, the mortgage and all the rest – and we can’t print our own money. We’re stuck with it. We’ll never pay it off. We live lives of low-level dread because that wall of debt is always there in the background. How did this happen? This shouldn’t have happened. And then we vote Republican, or some do, because government debt is the same thing – an awful mistake. Live within your means. If none of us can do that ourselves, at least the government should do that – debt is a killer. Maybe we’ll go bankrupt, the government shouldn’t.

That’s not how things work. As the British first figured out under Disraeli, any government with its own currency – like us, but not the Greeks – can give itself unlimited ability to create as much of its currency as it wants, and give that currency any value it chooses – and governments now and then have actually reduced the value of their currency to stimulate exports. The unlimited ability to create its own currency means a government with its own money, like the United States with our dollar, can never be forced into bankruptcy or run short of money. That government can just print some more, by selling Treasury Bonds as we do, which means that they can pay any debt of any size, so long as that debt is denominated in their own currency – and having the unlimited ability to give that currency any value, that government (we) have total control over inflation. That’s what the Federal Reserve is all about – controlling the money supply, to keep the economy humming along, no matter what Congress might do.

Yes, our government does “print money” and incur “debt” – but so what? That debt can always be paid off in the blink of an eye – unless Congress finally goes crazy and for the first time in our history decides to forbid that. Over the last six years, our Republicans have threatened to refuse to raise the debt limit when it bumps up against an arbitrary amount – we’re the only modern economy, besides Denmark, with a formal and statutory debt limit. We have too much debt! We cannot borrow any more, anymore! How will we pay it off?

The Republicans always cave. We’ll pay it off by selling more Treasury Bonds, which may devalue our currency a bit – one must be careful – but a weak dollar makes out exports cheaper. That gooses the economy. National debt, sovereign debt, is a useful tool – a useful mechanism for building and sustaining and growing a modern economy. It’s actually essential to a modern economy.

Republicans don’t agree. They have been saying for five or six years now that national debt, sovereign debt, is a very bad thing, and no one should have thought it up in the first place. The concept bothers them. We could end up like Greece – but debt, while it can pose problems, doesn’t make the nation poorer, because it’s money we owe to ourselves. Sometimes, when things are tough, the government needs to create some more money, to create jobs, to get money in people’s pockets, to get things going again. That’s what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was about – spending over seven hundred billion new dollars to goose the economy. The Republicans argued long and hard for the opposite – cutbacks in public spending, especially cuts in public investment, justified in the name of protecting the future from the threat of excessive debt. They argued for austerity.

They lost that one. That was when the Democrats held both houses of Congress, before the 2010 Tea Party midterms, the same two years that gave us the Affordable Care Act, and in this case we were told that Greece was an object lesson for us all. Greece had run up incredible debt they could never pay off at all. By insisting on providing infrastructure and basic social programs for their citizens they had just borrowed too much money, and now they could sell no more bonds to keep it all going – no one would buy those and the whole thing would come crashing down in a massive default and disaster, taking down all of Europe too. This is an awful scenario and the Republican line was that we would surely end up like Greece if we didn’t stop spending on infrastructure and basic social programs, and most everything else.

That spending must be the wrong thing. We are doing what the Greeks have been doing. So full austerity is the answer – we really should shut down all government spending, or as much as we can, and lay off all those government employees and deny them unemployment benefits, because we’d have to sell more treasury bonds to pay for that too. Yes, all those corporations that rely on government contracts to stay afloat, providing everything from paper clips to janitorial services, would go under, and of course the number of unemployed would then skyrocket. But we have to live within our means. That is the way to prosperity – cut and grow, as the Republicans liked to call it.

Almost all economists, or at least more and more of them, thought this was nonsense – shut down spending and collapse demand and you plunge the nation into a deep recession. But it sounded good politically. Yes, just stop spending money you don’t have and learn to live with the consequences – tough it out. Be responsible, damn it!

The alternative view was that it was fine to accept a bit of inflation and deficits for five or ten years and spend that money you don’t really have, as an investment in growth. Build roads and dams and schools and whatnot. In classic economic theory you actually grow your way out of such crises. The Republicans argued long and hard that this just wasn’t so. Austerity leads to prosperity. Britain tried it and it didn’t work – but it should have worked, so then they talked about Greece. They still talk about Greece. Debt is bad, very, very bad.

Now they’ll talk even more, because this was the day Greece hit the wall:

With the collapse of negotiations between Greece and international lenders, the Mediterranean country is in danger of a default that could plunge the 19-nation euro currency bloc and global markets into crisis.

Greece is close to bankruptcy, and the bailout packages it has received will expire Tuesday. Without a last-minute deal to keep the country afloat, it will almost certainly fail to make a $1.8-billion payment to the International Monetary Fund that is due the same day. …

Greece’s leftist government surprised its European partners Saturday by announcing that it would hold a referendum on their proposals next week and would urge voters to reject them. The other Eurozone nations closed ranks, warning that they would not extend Greece’s current bailout package past its expiration Tuesday.

To prevent another run on euro deposits in Greece’s crippled financial system, a weeklong bank closure began Monday, and residents were limited to about $66 in cash withdrawals from ATMs per day.

European officials are now openly discussing the possibility that Greece could be forced out of the Eurozone, a prospect that until recently they were not willing to entertain.

That’s the situation and here’s the background:

Greece was forced to seek loans from its European partners when its economy imploded during the recession in 2009. It could no longer borrow on international markets after it became known that the country had been understating its deficit for years.

With markets still reeling from the collapse of Wall Street in 2008, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission in 2010 issued the first of two international bailouts for Greece to avert another financial crisis.

In exchange for loans exceeding $270 billion at today’s exchange rate, Greece was required to impose deep budget cuts and steep tax increases along with other reforms aimed at reducing the government’s bloated payroll, curbing tax evasion and making the country an easier place to do business. However, Greek officials and many analysts contend that the painful austerity measures have also caused the economy to contract by 25% in the last five years.

Austerity didn’t restore prosperity:

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party won election in January on promises to scrap the bailout agreement unless Athens was given a significant reduction in its obligations and the latitude to invest in jobs in a country with an unemployment rate topping 25%. But creditors feared any bending of the rules would encourage other bailout recipients, such as Portugal and Ireland, to demand similar concessions.

The dispute is with the creditors, who still believe in austerity economics, the European version of “cut and grow” – even if this has never worked anywhere. It ought to work, so we are where we are:

With Greece already on the verge of bankruptcy, the government struck a deal with European officials in February to extend its repayment program for four months. But the two sides have failed to agree on what Greece must do to raise revenue and cut spending if it wants access to the $8.1 billion in remaining rescue loans.

Paul Krugman wonders how it came to this:

In 2007, Greece had public debt of slightly more than 100 percent of GDP – high, but not out of line with levels that many countries including, for example, the UK have carried for decades and even generations at a stretch. It had a budget deficit of about 7 percent of GDP. If we think that normal times involve 2 percent growth and 2 percent inflation, a deficit of 4 percent of GDP would be consistent with a stable debt/GDP ratio; so the fiscal gap was around 3 points, not trivial but hardly something that should have been impossible to close…

So yes, Greece was overspending, but not by all that much. It was over indebted, but again not by all that much. How did this turn into a catastrophe that among other things saw debt soar to 170 percent of GDP despite savage austerity?

The euro straitjacket plus inadequately expansionary monetary policy within the Eurozone are the obvious culprits. But that, surely, is the deep question here. If Europe as currently organized can turn medium-sized fiscal failings into this kind of nightmare, the system is fundamentally unworkable.

Krugman then identifies the fatal flaw here:

It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency – above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits.

Leaving a currency union is, however, a much harder and more frightening decision than never entering in the first place, and until now even the Continent’s most troubled economies have repeatedly stepped back from the brink. Again and again, governments have submitted to creditors’ demands for harsh austerity, while the European Central Bank has managed to contain market panic.

But the situation in Greece has now reached what looks like a point of no return. Banks are temporarily closed and the government has imposed capital controls – limits on the movement of funds out of the country. It seems highly likely that the government will soon have to start paying pensions and wages in scrip, in effect creating a parallel currency. And next week the country will hold a referendum on whether to accept the demands of the “troika” – the institutions representing creditor interests – for yet more austerity.

Krugman says Greece should vote “no” and be prepared to leave the euro folks:

To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most – not all, but most – of what you’ve heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions (which were indeed much too generous) have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.

So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it.

Austerity didn’t work – it never does – and they couldn’t print money, because the euro is not their currency:

This collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity, in which countries rein in deficits without bringing on a depression, typically involve large currency devaluations that make their exports more competitive. This is what happened, for example, in Canada in the 1990s, and to an important extent it’s what happened in Iceland more recently. But Greece, without its own currency, didn’t have that option.

So have I just made the case for “Grexit” — Greek exit from the euro? Not necessarily. The problem with Grexit has always been the risk of financial chaos, of a banking system disrupted by panicked withdrawals and of business hobbled both by banking troubles and by uncertainty over the legal status of debts. That’s why successive Greek governments have acceded to austerity demands, and why even Syriza, the ruling leftist coalition, was willing to accept the austerity that has already been imposed. All it asked for was, in effect, a standstill on further austerity.

They were never going to get that:

It’s easy to get lost in the details, but the essential point now is that Greece has been presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer that is effectively indistinguishable from the policies of the past five years. This is, and presumably was intended to be, an offer Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, can’t accept, because it would destroy his political reason for being. The purpose must therefore be to drive him from office, which will probably happen if Greek voters fear confrontation with the troika enough to vote yes next week.

But they shouldn’t, for three reasons. First, we now know that ever-harsher austerity is a dead end: after five years Greece is in worse shape than ever. Second, much and perhaps most of the feared chaos from Grexit has already happened. With banks closed and capital controls imposed, there’s not that much more damage to be done.

Finally, acceding to the troika’s ultimatum would represent the final abandonment of any pretense of Greek independence. Don’t be taken in by claims that troika officials are just technocrats explaining to the ignorant Greeks what must be done. These supposed technocrats are in fact fantasists who have disregarded everything we know about macroeconomics, and have been wrong every step of the way. This isn’t about analysis; it’s about power – the power of the creditors to pull the plug on the Greek economy, which persists as long as euro exit is considered unthinkable.

Greece should vote “no” and get prepared leave:

Otherwise Greece will face endless austerity, and a depression with no hint of an end.

That’s what our Republicans offered us, by the way.

Catherine Rampell offers a different twist on this:

Once upon a time, Europe had a dream. It would yoke neighbor to neighbor under a common economic system and thereby end a centuries-long tradition of the states destroying one another with bombs and bayonets, cannons and crossbows, machine guns and mustard gas. But instead the countries just gave themselves a new weapon to use against each other: debt.

That noble European economic experiment seemed to have promise. The “capitalist peace” theory – which can be traced back at least to Kant and Montesquieu – asserts that trade is a prophylactic for war. Commerce can both humanize the barbarians beyond the border and, more important, make taking a share of their booty substantially easier and less risky.

What better way, then, to broker a perpetual peace than to grease the wheels of commerce among Germany, France, Greece and more than a dozen other once-enmity-filled economies?

Enter the euro. Establishing a common currency was meant to facilitate the cross-border flow of goods, services, people and capital, and thus bond disparate countries through the mutual benefits of trade. But, unfortunately, such numismatic gymnastics made little sense given Europe’s fractured cultural and regulatory landscape. Milton Friedman, among other Cassandras, explained why nearly two decades ago in an essay detailing the best (the United States) and worst (Europe) conditions under which to create a currency union. In Europe, where countries are divided by language, customs, regulatory regimes and fiscal policies, a common currency would inevitably prove disastrous, he wrote. Shocks hitting one country would heave themselves across the continent if individual countries could not easily adjust prices through their exchange rates.

Rather than promoting political unity, Friedman argued, “The adoption of the Euro would have the opposite effect. It would exacerbate political tensions by converting divergent shocks that could have been readily accommodated by exchange rate changes into divisive political issues.”

This was doomed long ago:

When Greece adopted the euro in 2001 it benefited enormously by suddenly being able to borrow far more than it should have ever been allowed to. But this wild, boom-time overborrowing left it destitute when credit and demand dried up during the financial crisis. Thanks to the currency union, Greece no longer had the means – currency devaluation – to inflate away its debts and export its way out of a deepening recession. Instead, its euro-zone family members – particularly Germany, the effective patriarch – insisted on keeping inflation in the shared currency ultra-low, which was precisely the opposite of what Greece needed.

And so it goes, and Kevin Drum sees this alternative:

If Greeks vote no on the European proposal, it’s basically a vote to abandon the euro and recreate a new version of their old currency. Call it the New Drachma. They would then devalue the ND, making Greek exports more competitive in the international market. That would mean more tourists, more olive exports, and more fish exports. At least, that’s what it would mean in the long term.

In the short term it would mean chaos. Banks would close, and capital controls would be put in place until the new currency could be put in circulation. Imports would skyrocket in price, and this would effectively mean pay cuts for everyone. Savings would be lost, and pensions would be effectively slashed.

In other words, Greece would almost certainly suffer more short-term austerity by leaving the euro than by staying within in it. The payoff, hopefully, would be control of their own currency, which would allow them to rebalance their economy in the long run and begin a true economic recovery. In the meantime, however, I’d be skeptical of Krugman’s belief that leaving the euro would cause a bit of chaos, but not much more than Greece is already suffering.

He says one would expect bank runs and “losing access to not just their savings but also imported petrol, medicines and foodstuffs” and “attracting more tourists won’t be easy against a drumbeat of political unrest” and so on:

A lot of people think it’s a no-brainer for Greece to leave the euro at this point. This is why it’s not. Make no mistake: it will cause a lot of pain. Greek incomes will effectively be slashed, and it will take years to recover on the backs of improved exports. It’s quite possible that this is the only good long-term solution for Greece, which has been treated badly by its European creditors – for which you should mostly read “German creditors” – but it is no easy decision. There will be a lot of suffering for a lot of years if Greece goes down this road.

And there’s the other side of this:

For Europe, the problem is different. If Greece leaves the euro, it probably won’t affect them very much. The Greek economy is simply too small to matter, and most Greek debt is now held in public hands. However, the political implications are potentially huge: it means the currency union is not forever and ever, as promised. If the pain of using a currency whose value is basically dictated by the needs of Germany becomes too severe, countries will leave. Perhaps later they will be let back in. Instead of a currency union, it will become more of a currency board, with countries coming in and out as they need to. This will be especially true if observers like Krugman are right, and the short-term pain of Greece leaving is mild and long-term recovery is strong. That would send a strong lesson to any future country stuck in the web of German monetary policy and finding itself in a deep and long economic depression.

The whole Euro Experiment might have been a mistake. Angela Merkel is calling the shots, and she seems to believe that austerity creates prosperity, and now the euro is Germany’s currency, not Greece’s – but Greece needs some stimulus, some spending to goose its economy, not an order from Berlin to shut everything down and then somehow find new funds to pay everyone on time, in full. This is imposing Teutonic discipline on Zorba the Greek – it’s not going to work. But a word of caution – no matter what the Republicans say, we are not Greece. We have our own currency. We can print money. We can use what might seem like absurd levels of debt in building and sustaining and growing a modern economy – and we should.

You, on the other hand, can’t print your own money. Pay your bills.

Posted in Austerity Economics, Greek Debt Crisis | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Next Lost Cause

In classical music they call them the old warhorses – the pieces that please the crowds and bore the musicians to tears – the 1812 Overture, Ravel’s Bolero, Bizet’s Carmen Suite and that sort of thing. And in musical theater there’s The Sound of Music and Bye-Bye Birdie and that old chestnut, The Man from La Mancha. Musicals like these – and there are many of them – are hardly challenging, musically or dramatically, but they’re what keep many a dinner theater afloat and keep lots of high school kids busy each spring. They persist, as there’s always an audience for maudlin sentimentality and superficial conflict. But that last one pulls out all the stops, with its manipulatively heroic anthem To Dream the Impossible Dream. The nuns told Maria to climb every mountain, until you reach your dream, but in the Broadway-musical version of the Don Quixote tale, the idea is that no one ever really reaches their dream – face it, you are certain to fail, and that’s that. But you might as well do your best anyway. The only battles worth fighting are losing battles after all. That’s the key line in the spoken dialog, and that speaks to the secret martyr in all of us. Life always gets the best of even the best of us, so do what’s right, even if it’s hopeless, or maybe because it is hopeless. Like Don Quixote, you’ll lose everything – everyone always does – but you’ll save your soul. Total losers become the real winners. All you need is a good lost cause.

That has kept many in the South feeling good about themselves for a hundred and fifty years now. There’s something in the thick sweet air down there. Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious – but they want to be seen as noble losers in a good but righteous cause, in a tragic but romantically heroic way. The American South is filled with such people, flying their Confederate flags and weeping at the gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago. They haven’t the slightest idea why any local black person would be upset by any of that – gallantry is a wonderful thing. It’s that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing and they won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. It’s who they are, and it’s no coincidence that the Tea Party crowd is heavily white and Southern, even if they long for the white-bread world of Ozzie and Harriet America in the fifties. That’s just a slight adjustment in the lost cause, where the bad guys were Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the hippies of the sixties, not Union soldiers. The Republican Party itself has become the Party of the South – that’s where almost all of their electoral votes are, and they’ve lost the last two presidential elections, badly, which is fine. Don Quixote lost everything too. That’s a comfort – thinking of yourself as a loser, but a loser who should have won, if the world were as it should be.

That can lead to problems. A few years ago, Kim Messick suggested why:

The Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.

They have made the normal process of governance next to impossible, so this is a demographic issue, or a geographical one:

Persons who live in cities learn quickly that the world is full of different kinds of people; diversity – of race, religion, outlook, speech, etc. – is a fact of life. Because of this, they tend not to connect these personal attributes with one’s ability to be a trustworthy member of the community. If they think about the conditions of citizenship they are more likely to associate them with general qualities of character – honesty, integrity, loyalty – equally available to everyone, regardless of background.

Many rural areas, by contrast, lack this aboriginal experience of diversity; they may be characterized by high levels of uniformity in ideology, race and religion. Given this, it may be natural to assume that “everyone” believes what you believe, or worships as you worship, or looks and speaks as you look and speak.

That’s a fatal mistake. Not everyone thinks as you do. Things just changed with that Confederate flag. The skinny white kid, who shot those nine black people dead, in the most famous black church in Charleston, had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too. Oops. There was a sudden nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from just about everything – because the Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. That finally sunk in. The Republicans then collectively admitted, one after another, that the Civil War had been a bad idea in the first place. Go ahead. Dump the flag. Remove the statues. They are the de facto party of the South and they walked away from the South. The Lost Cause suddenly lost its aggrieved noble glow.

This is recounted, in detail, by Michael Barbaro and Jonathan Martin, in Five Days That Left a Rebel Flag Wavering and Likely to Fall – not that it matters now. The gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago, was stupid, at best. At worst it was a war to assure permanent white supremacy through massive violence. That was what finally sunk in. There have even been calls to have “Gone with the Wind” permanently shelved – the ultimate Lost Cause epic. The Lost Cause was lost. What do they say in the South? That dog won’t hunt.

That calls for a new Lost Cause. It’s a conservative thing. When William F. Buckley started his National Review in 1955, the Mission Statement included this about his new magazine – “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Someone has to say stop – and now, if no one can keep the North from finally winning the Civil War, at least they can yell Stop about gay marriage, even if banning that is now a lost cause. In a party where everyone is a Don Quixote, that’s the new Impossible Dream.

Sally Kohn explains how that’s going:

Now we enter the Republican temper tantrum phase. Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling, several prominent Republicans had pledged to disobey any high court ruling in favor of marriage equality – and had called on their fellow Republican leaders to do the same.

For instance, Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have both signed a pledge that reads, “We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.”

Huckabee also challenged the authority of our nation’s highest court when he said, “The Supreme Court can’t overrule God.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Steve King also called for Congress and any future Republican president to flagrantly ignore such a Supreme Court ruling.

There have been calls to impeach them all, and to get rid of the Supreme Court itself, but Kohn points out the obvious:

These are current and former officeholders, who have taken an oath to uphold the laws of our nation, literally pledging to violate those laws as interpreted by the Supreme Court. In any reasonable political environment, this should be a disqualifier for elected office. Certainly, measures should be considered to charge those of them who hold office with violating their oath.

That’s not likely, as they’re just upset, but there’s this:

Republicans in Congress recently filed suit against President Obama for using his lawful executive authority to de-prioritize certain deportations of immigrants. Said Republicans were outraged! Now here we have Republicans treading far beyond the legal gray area, actually pledging to violate their duties and break the law.

She is not impressed:

“If the court tries to do this it will be rampant judicial activism,” Cruz said before the ruling. “It will be lawlessness.”

No, actually, saying that as a senator or as president you will disobey the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States of America—that is the very definition of lawlessness.

“We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.”

Of course this attitude comes from the same party that after 60 failed votes to repeal Obamacare and two now failed legal challenges rising all the way up to the very same Supreme Court, still pledges to keep trying to undo the law.

Ah well, they are who they are, but they have their battle plan:

So far, in the aftermath of the decision, Republican candidates have offered statements affirming their opposition to the ruling and leaning on the new, more modest GOP chestnut that “religious freedom” must be protected. Governor Huckabee took to Twitter after the ruling, saying that the Supreme Court could no more overrule “God’s nature” than overrule gravity. …

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker issued one of the more curious formulations. “I call on the president and all governors to join me in reassuring millions of Americans that the government will not force them to participate in activities that violate their deeply held religious beliefs,” he said in a press release. “No one wants to live in a country where the government coerces people to act in opposition to their conscience.”

Juan Cole adds more:

Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have formally pledged: “We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.” Sen. Ted Cruz also called on Americans to ignore the SCOTUS ruling.

Does that mean the rest of us can repudiate the decision making W. president in 2000, and can refuse to recognize corporations as persons?

In any case, the Bible doesn’t actually say anything at all about homosexuality, since it is a form of identity that only came into being in modernity. (Same-sex intimacy has been there all along, but in most pre-modern societies it was not a subculture, though medieval male brotherhoods were common and in South Asia there were hijras).

But wackiest of all is the idea that the Bible sees marriage as between one man and one woman. I don’t personally get how you could, like, actually read the Bible and come to that conclusion. Even if you wanted to argue that the New Testament abrogates all the laws in the Hebrew Bible, there isn’t anything in the New Testament that clearly forbids polygamy, either, and it was sometimes practiced in the early church, including by priests:

That’s followed by a lot of biblical citations, but this will be the new Civil War, or something. It’s the new Lost Cause, but the blogger BooMan wonders why:

I have some degree of sympathy for their fear that their sincerely held religious beliefs will be infringed somehow, either legally or just through brutal cultural suppression.

But what I find more troubling is their total silence about why people have decided that it’s wrong to deny gay couples the right to get married, adopt kids, be parents, and otherwise to enjoy the same rights as other committed heterosexual couples. After all, there are still moral judgments about certain sexual behaviors – like destructive promiscuity and coercion – that are untouched by the Supreme Court’s decision. What people are doing is taking into consideration that people don’t control either same-sex or opposite-sex attraction. Kids these days simply don’t think that there is a moral failing involved in being attracted to people of your own gender, nor do they think there is any virtue in abstinence outside of the intent to reproduce children. In other words, there’s a biological understanding of human sexuality that doesn’t give license to people to act any way they want sexually, but does allow them to have same-sex relationships if that is what they want. And it doesn’t wrongly insist that it’s healthier to suppress and deny your feelings and impulses than to express them freely and then act responsibly about them.

The social conservatives act like the motivation here is to marginalize their beliefs or to destroy religion, but it is really so much simpler than that. This is really about accepting people for who they are and not stigmatizing them for being different.

Richard Posner, the famous judge of the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, says that another way:

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty drew an important distinction between what he called “self-regarding acts” and “other-regarding acts.” The former involves doing things to yourself that don’t harm other people, though they may be self-destructive. The latter involves doing things that do harm other people. He thought that government had no business with the former (and hence – his example – the English had no business concerning themselves with polygamy in Utah, though they hated it). Unless it can be shown that same-sex marriage harms people who are not gay (or who are gay but don’t want to marry), there is no compelling reason for state intervention, and specifically for banning same-sex marriage. …

I go further than Mill. I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry. The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits – in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is “degraded” by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.

Yelling STOP for no good reason isn’t very attractive, is it? But in the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa ask an interesting question – In a fast-changing culture, can the GOP get in step with modern America?

That may be the real problem here:

Across the cultural landscape, the national consensus is evolving rapidly, epitomized by this year’s convulsions of celebrity, social issues and politics – including the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender identity, Pope Francis’s climate-change decree and the widespread shunning of the Confederate flag.

Then came Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. As rainbow colors bathed the White House and other landmarks in celebration, the entire field of Republican presidential candidates condemned the ruling.

This uneven terrain is now a key battlefield in the 2016 campaign, unnerving red America and fueling intense debate within the Republican Party about how to navigate such changes – or whether to adapt to the mainstream at all.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog doesn’t accept the premise:

What I don’t accept about this is the notion that we’re in a culture so “fast-changing” that the GOP’s struggle to keep up is understandable. I don’t agree that, on most of these issues, we’re “evolving rapidly.” There’s been plenty of time to catch up. It’s just that the right refuses to join the rest of us.

Gay marriage? Yes, we’ve definitely come a long way in a short time. But state after state has legalized gay marriage in recent years and the Apocalypse never arrived. A president endorsed gay marriage three years ago and won reelection easily. Didn’t that give conservatives a pretty good heads-up? So why are they acting so gobsmacked after Friday’s Supreme Court ruling?

And how long have ordinary Americans been signaling that prejudices against gay people are disappearing? How long have been watching Will & Grace and Glee and Modern Family (which the wife of the last Republican presidential candidate called her favorite TV show)? Did conservatives really not get enough advance warning about the way cultural attitudes were evolving?

And let’s look at the other issues. Are we seriously arguing that the “national consensus is evolving rapidly” with regard to the Confederacy? Um, when did that war end exactly? And how many decades ago was the battle to overturn Jim Crow? We defeated the rebellious South and enacted civil rights legislation a long time ago – it’s just that conservatives in the South wouldn’t let go of this symbol. …

And climate change? How long have we been talking about that? It was an old story in 2001, when 61% of American in one survey said that the U.S. should ratify the Kyoto treaty. Al Gore had written “Earth in the Balance” nine years earlier, the year he ran for vice president and was denounced by the sitting president as “Ozone Man.” Gore won anyway. There’s been plenty of time to grasp the essence of this problem. The right has just been standing athwart climate history saying “No.”

And so it goes, but Jonathan Martin in the New York Times sees an opportunity for them here:

A cascade of events suggests that 2015 could be remembered as a Liberal Spring: the moment when deeply divisive and consuming questions of race, sexuality and broadened access to health care were settled in quick succession and social tolerance was cemented as a cornerstone of American public life.

Yet what appears, in headlines and celebrations across the country, to represent an unalloyed victory for Democrats, in which lawmakers and judges alike seemed to give in to the leftward shift of public opinion, may contain an opening for the Republican Party to move beyond losing battles and seemingly lost causes.

But this is good:

Even as conservatives appear under siege, some Republicans predict that this moment will be remembered as an effective wiping of the slate before the nation begins focusing in earnest on the presidential race.

As important as some of these issues may be to the most conservative elements of the party’s base and in the primaries ahead, few Republican leaders want to contest the 2016 elections on social or cultural grounds, where polls suggest that they are sharply out of step with the American public.

“Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era,” said David Frum, the conservative writer. “The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues. And Republicans can say, ‘Whether you’re gay, black or a recent migrant to our country, we are going to welcome you as a fully cherished member of our coalition.'”

The critical question is whether the Republican Party will embrace such a message in order to seize what many party officials see as an opening to turn the election toward economic and national security issues.

They could simply walk away from what’s already been lost:

Privately, some of the strategists advising Republican hopefuls believe the last week has been nothing short of a gift from above – a great unburdening on issues of race and sexuality, and on health care a disaster averted. Rhetorical opposition to the Affordable Care Act will still be de rigueur in the primaries, but litigating the issue in theory is wholly different from doing so with more than six million people deprived of their health insurance.

Collectively, as this optimistic thinking would have it, June will go down as the month that dulled some of the wedge issues Democrats were hoping to wield next year.

“Whether the presidential candidates agree or disagree with the results of all this, it allows them to say these issues have been settled and move on to things that offer more of a political home-field advantage,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota.

While acknowledging that the country has become more tolerant and, in some ways, culturally liberal, many Republicans contend that America is still receptive to a more conservative approach on economics and national security.

“There will always be side issues, but none of that will compete with people’s primary concerns, which are the economy and who is going to be able to keep the country safe,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster advising Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Cool, but don’t expect that pivot:

As the 2012 presidential race demonstrated, the immediate demands of a Republican primary can outweigh the eventual priorities of a general election. And, given last week’s events, conservative hard-liners in the coming Republican contest will be even hungrier for candidates to demonstrate that they are willing to employ all possible means to repel what they see as an assault on foundational values.

“We have been observing the deconstructing of America in the last six and a half years,” said Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council. “The tolerance level has been exceeded.”

What outrages social conservatives is not only the narrow issue of same-sex marriage rights, but also what they see as a violation of religious liberties that they believe are intrinsic to the country.

When Senator Cruz said the past week had featured “some of the darkest 24 hours in our history,” he spoke for those conservatives who believe the America they know is slipping away.

What is unclear about the wide Republican field is whether a candidate has yet surfaced who is deft enough to appeal to such devoted conservatives without going so far to mollify them as to scare away less dogmatic voters.

And then there’s the other side:

While a window may be open for Republicans to shift the race in a different direction, Democrats will do their best to keep the focus on subjects many Republican candidates want to avoid. Many of them, Hillary Rodham Clinton told Democrats on Friday night in Virginia, appear “determined to lead us right back into the past.”

Perhaps so, but then one of them will break into a chorus of that song:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go…

This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or cause
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause…

There won’t be a dry eye in the house. But one must not confuse public policy with dinner theater. And Don Quixote tilted at windmills. He was very confused.

Posted in Gay Marriage, Republicans Dig In on Gay Marriage | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Great Awakening

America has had one Great Awakening after another – a sudden wave of religious enthusiasm, usually with widespread revivals led by thundering evangelical ministers. Everyone starts talking about religion, and about conviction and redemption and whatnot. Evangelical church membership jumps up, and sometimes we get new religious movements and denominations. The Third Great Awakening gave us the YMCA – and we seem to have had five of these awakenings. Then we fall asleep again, or things get back to normal. These recurring waves of piety and denunciation – with their calls to transform the nation into a nation that would make Jesus proud – break on the rocks of everyday secular life. Go to work, pay the bills, wash the car, get the kids to their soccer game – and save the God stuff for Sunday. Salvation is an abstraction – and the only thing that will transform the nation is those fools in Washington finally doing something useful for a change, for the common good, not their own good.

Many of them say they’re Right with Jesus. Who cares? The problems are secular – the stalled economy, except for the rich, the crumbling infrastructure, college out of reach unless the kid is willing to take on a hundred-thousand-dollar debt, at a minimum, with no job after graduation. One fifth of the population is living in poverty. There seems to be a mass murder every other week. Cops seem to think they can shoot anyone they want, usually unarmed black kids. There are terrorists out there too. None of this has to do with religious conviction and sweet redemption. Talking about that is falling asleep, not awakening. What we need is a political Great Awakening of some sort.

We may have just had one of those. This was the week that America woke up from its long conservative slumber. Things went bad for the Republicans after the skinny white kid – high on dreams of starting a race war to rid America of those black folks who were taking over and raping our women – murdered nine folks in the most historic black church down in Charleston. This was racial resentment of the kind Nixon had stirred up with his Southern Strategy – that Lee Atwater stuff – that has won Republicans many an election since and is now a staple on Fox News. “Those people” are the reason that your lot in life is miserable. The skinny white kid had that whole argument down cold, and he took it to its logical end. There was no getting around this. That’s what Republicans had been saying too – so they shut up. Racial resentment suddenly lost its aggrieved noble glow. Folks woke up.

Then things got worse with the Confederate flag. The skinny white kid had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that that Cause of the Confederacy thing too. There was a sudden nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, internet shopping sites and retail stores – because the Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. That finally sunk in. The Republicans then collectively admitted, one after another, that the Civil War had been a bad idea in the first place. Go ahead. Dump the flag. Remove the statues. They are the de facto party of the South and they walked away from the South. They threw away the Bubba vote. Folks woke up and saw what they had been up to.

The Supreme Court then ruled that four misplaced words in the massive Affordable Care Act didn’t negate the whole thing. The final attempt to get rid of Obamacare failed, and it’s working just fine. The Supreme Court wasn’t asleep, and they also saved the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – Texas cannot use its tax subsidies for housing development to keep “those people” (blacks and Hispanics) out of the “good” parts of town, claiming they meant no harm – and this was the same Supreme Court that gave them Citizens United and two years ago gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing them to make sure none of “those people” ever voted again. They didn’t expect that – but there was an awakening, again from the nation’s long conservative slumber. It had all been a bad dream.

The week of America’s political Great Awakening finally ended with the biggest eye-opener of all:

A deeply divided Supreme Court on Friday delivered a historic victory for gay rights, ruling 5 to 4 that the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry no matter where they live. The court’s action rewarded years of legal work by same-sex marriage advocates and marked the culmination of an unprecedented upheaval in public opinion and the nation’s jurisprudence.

Marriages began Friday in states that had previously thwarted the efforts of same-sex couples to wed, while some states continued to resist what they said was a judicial order that changed the traditional definition of marriage and sent the country into uncharted territory.

Yeah, that may be so, but it was time to wake up:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has written all of the court’s decisions recognizing and expanding gay rights, said the decision was based on the fundamental right to marry and the equality that must be afforded gay Americans.

“Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right,” Kennedy wrote. He was joined in the ruling by the court’s liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

All four of the court’s most conservative members – Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. – dissented, and each wrote a separate opinion.

The common theme in their dissents was that judicial activism on the part of five members of the court had usurped a power that belongs to the people.

“If you are among the many Americans – of whatever sexual orientation – who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” wrote Roberts, who for the first time in his tenure marked his disagreement with a decision by reading part of his dissent from the bench.

“Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it,” he wrote.

Scalia called the decision a “threat to American democracy,” saying it robs citizens of “the freedom to govern themselves.”

They didn’t like the morning light, but someone else did:

In a statement in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama hailed the decision: “This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”

And Justice Kennedy was clear about that:

Kennedy did not respond directly to the court’s dissenters, but he addressed the argument that the court was creating a constitutional right. The right to marriage is fundamental, he said. The difference is society’s evolving view of gay people and their rights, he said.

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest” he wrote. “With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”

The Chief Justice went the other way:

Roberts rejected a comparison to Loving v. Virginia, in which the court struck down bans on interracial marriage. That did not change the age-old definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, he said. He raised concerns that the decision could lead to polygamous marriages – he mentioned a married threesome of lesbians called a “throuple.”

He noted that voters and legislators in only 11 states had authorized same-sex marriages, and said it was better for gay marriage to be adopted through the democratic process than by judicial order. He said religious leaders could take little comfort from the majority opinion that their beliefs would be respected.

That theme was picked up by Alito in his dissent. He said there could be “bitter and lasting wounds” from the decision and warned that the decision will be “exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

Jeffrey Toobin, the staff writer at the New Yorker and the senior legal analyst for CNN, suggests much of this has to do with conservatives and religion:

In the late nineteen-fifties, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter met and fell in love amid the sleepy small towns and picturesque horse farms of Virginia’s Caroline County. Loving was white and Jeter black (as well as Native American), which meant that the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 forbade them from marrying each other. So, in 1958, they stole off to Washington, D.C., to tie the knot, and then returned home to live as husband and wife. Soon after the couple moved back to Virginia, however, the local police, acting on an anonymous tip, raided their home and arrested them for violating the ban on what was called miscegenation. The Lovings challenged the basis for the prosecution, but the trial judge, Leon Bazile, explained why the case against them should stand. “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” he wrote. “And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” In light of this ruling, the Lovings decided to plead guilty and accept, in lieu of a prison sentence, banishment from Virginia for the next twenty-five years.

They took that to the Supreme Court and won, but Toobin is more interested in the underlying confusion:

The gritty business of passing laws is left to the people’s representatives, who answer, in the first instance, to their constituents, and defer, at least in theory, to the Constitution. The record of politicians who claim, in anything more than a general way, to be doing God’s will is dubious. Too often, assertions of divine guidance spoken in state capitols (as well as in the Capitol) have turned out to be little more than bigotry dressed in clerical garb. This is why, at least in theory, we have a Supreme Court. In their best moments, the Justices apply the careful scrutiny demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment – for equal protection of the laws – against any government official’s clairvoyance about God’s intent. That is what happened in 1967, when the Supreme Court finally heard Loving v. Virginia and ruled that all anti-miscegenation statutes must fall.

And that is what the Court did on Friday, in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that is, in every sense except ease of pronunciation, the modern analogue to the Loving case. In the current opinion, the Justices ruled five-to-four that states may no longer bar same-sex marriage, just as in Loving they said that states could no longer forbid interracial marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion features a good deal of the fulsome rhetoric for which he is known, but it also contains a core of decency that leads to the resolution. Ultimately, though, the case is pretty simple.

The government confers a bundle of rights on individuals who choose to marry. The constitution’s guarantee of equal protection forbids any state from withholding those rights from the class of people who happen to be gay. End of story.

Someone needs to wake up:

The four dissenters in the case work themselves up, in varying levels of frenzy, in disagreement, but their position is also fairly simple to understand. They say that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to voters, not to unelected judges. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote, in a seemingly Wikipedia-assisted dissent, “the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

We think we are judges, Kennedy replies, doing our job to make sure that the law treats everyone equally.

And that’s where this turns religious:

Supporters of marriage equality have won the political and legal argument by such an overwhelming margin that opponents have chosen to conduct a religiously themed retreat into victimology. Their theory is that, by living in a society where there is marriage equality, their right to practice their religion is being violated. After the Court’s decision, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected. No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.” Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor and Presidential candidate, asserted that the decision “will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious-freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.”

We should be clear about the “liberty” interest being asserted here. Abbott, Jindal, and their allies are positing a right to discriminate – for local officials to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings, for photographers and bakers to refuse to do business with gay people, for wedding planners to advertise that no gay couples need apply. Their actions are the linear descendants of the Virginia officials who claimed divine guidance for their prohibition on interracial marriage.

Toobin is not impressed:

The First Amendment allows individuals to believe anything they want, but it does not allow them to use their beliefs as a license to discriminate in ways that would otherwise be limited by law. No one, at this late date, would claim a religious inspiration for a florist to refuse to sell flowers to an interracial wedding or for a magistrate to perform one; they should not have the right to refuse to do business for a same-sex wedding, either.

In all likelihood, many of these rear-guard actions against marriage equality will soon fall of their own weight. Like so many of their fellow-Americans, wedding photographers and the like will make their peace with the new rules that guarantee their neighbors an equal chance at happiness. (Besides, they need the business.) The story of same-sex marriage is one of the great civil-rights successes in American history, and the protests of a few dead-enders shouldn’t dampen the celebration.

In short, the nation woke up. That was happening all week, but in this case Antonin Scalia was having none of it:

In the course of just nine pages, Scalia calls the opinion of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, with whom he has served on the court for 28 years, “a judicial Putsch,” “pretentious,” “egotistic,” “silly,” and filled with “straining-to-be-memorable passages.”

“This is a naked judicial claim to legislative – indeed, super-legislative – power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government,” Scalia wrote. “A system of government that makes the people subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

In unusually personal terms, even for Scalia, he mocked Kennedy’s opening sentence.

“If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag,” Scalia wrote in a footnote. “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of [legendary former Chief Justice] John Marshall and [former Justice] Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”

And there’s more:

“Today’s decree says that my ruler, and the ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact – and the furthest extension one can even imagine – of the court’s claimed power to create ‘liberties’ that the Constitution and its amendments neglect to mention.”

In what seems like an attack on the very institution of the court, Scalia derides its makeup, including where the justices studied, where they go to church, where they come from – all by way of saying they have no right to make social decisions for the population.

“Take, for example, this court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single south-westerner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California [where Kennedy hails from] does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges…” …

“To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation,” Scalia wrote.

“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic. It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent.”

And then his head exploded. Robin Abcarian saw that happening to another Justice:

Every civil rights victory seems to produce a new, imaginary class of victims.

You might have thought that today’s landmark Supreme Court decision represented the end of discrimination against gays who want to marry. But according to one dissenting justice, the decision instead represents a threat to another group of citizens.

Who might they be? People who oppose gay marriage.

Incredibly, Justice Samuel Alito fretted that it won’t be safe to knock gay marriage anymore.

“I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes,” he writes, “but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.”

She says that this is hardly an argument against gay marriage:

Instead, it’s an apt description of how social pressure works: If you worry about being labeled a bigot for expressing the view that certain people should not be entitled to their civil rights, then perhaps you should keep your views to yourself. Or rethink your position.

Alito also worries that “By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas.”

But gays who want to marry have exceedingly traditional ideas; otherwise they wouldn’t have fought so hard for the right to participate in one of society’s most common and revered rituals.

These guys are amazing:

Justice Scalia is getting a lot of attention today for his loopy dissent – implying that California is not part of the Western United States, invoking hippies as experts on intimacy and insulting his colleagues as “pretentious,” “egotistic” and “incoherent.”

But Alito veers dangerously close to Scalia-style hysteria when he worries that legalizing same-sex marriage will unleash an urge for retribution among gays and lesbians, who will – what? – raise their tasteful pitchforks against the conservatives who have thwarted them for so long?

“Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turn-about is fair play,” writes Alito. “But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds.”

How can he fail to grasp that the nation has already experienced bitter and lasting wounds from the despicable way it has treated its gay citizens? The affronts, insults and murders over the last half century are far too numerous to recount.

Someone needs to wake up, but at least President Obama did:

Wrapping his words in the cloak of a church sermon, deploying the inflections and oratorical rhythms of a pastor, Barack Obama delivered one of his most searing speeches on modern race relations in America at a funeral service in Charleston on Friday.

In the course of eulogizing Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Mother Emanuel African American church who was shot dead in his own sanctuary along with eight of his flock last week, Obama addressed several of the most contentious debates that have erupted since the shooting.

He referred to the gun rampage by an avowed white supremacist as an act of terrorism, linking it to America’s long history of racist church bombings and arsons.

He said the shooting was not a random act, “but a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress”. He said the alleged shooter, who he did not name, had imagined his deed would “incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion”, as “an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin”.

It was time to wake up:

In the course of a eulogy in which Obama had the audacity to sing Amazing Grace in front of a rapt audience of 5,500 mostly African Americans in the College of Charleston TD Arena, the president also made a robust case for the tearing down of the Confederate flag. As debate continues to rage over the enduring presence of the old secessionist symbol across much of the Deep South, Obama said bluntly that the flag was a “reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation”.

The flag did not cause the murder of nine churchgoers at a Bible-study meeting on 17 June, Obama said. “But as people from all walks of life – Republicans and Democrats – have acknowledged, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.”

He said taking down the flag from the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol in Columbia “would not be an act of political correctness, it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought – the cause of slavery – was wrong.”

And there was more:

He also touched on police brutality towards black communities, endemic poverty in many African American neighborhoods and Republican attempts to introduce new voting laws that would make it more difficult for people to cast their vote.

“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” Obama said, adding that whenever a tragedy happened such as the massacre at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston there were calls for a debate.

“We talk a lot about race,” he said. “There is no short cut, we don’t need more talk. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merit of various policies as our democracy requires. There are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again. To go back to business as usual as we so often do.”

We cannot ever go back to sleep:

He said that after a week of reflection on the Charleston shooting he had concluded that what was required now was “an open heart.”

“That, more than a particular policy or analysis, that’s what I think is needed.”

Then, after what must be one of the longest pauses he has ever held in the middle of a public speech, the president of the United States began to sing Amazing Grace. The arena burst into song alongside him.

That may or may not mark our sixth Great Awaking here in the United States, but it was the first Great Political Awakening we’ve had. We’ve been listening to the conservatives, assuming they made some sort of sense, since the Reagan years. Then all this happened. This was the week the whole nation woke up.

Posted in Gay Marriage, Supreme Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Republican Slump

Baseball is the American game, and it’s full of the inexplicable. Even the best players fall into a slump now and then. They can’t buy a hit and they don’t know why. The batting coach doesn’t know why. The manager doesn’t know why – and no adjustments help, and a different bat doesn’t help. Even if the star-in-a-slump connects with that perfect pitch and wallops the ball, it screams right at the shortstop, who grabs it and smiles. There’s that old advice – “Hit it where they ain’t.” What kind of advice is that? Sometimes a few days off helps, and sometimes it doesn’t. The fans’ sympathy turns to disgust and then the booing starts. That only makes things worse – but there are those times where it’s one strikeout after another, game after game, week after week. Nothing that worked before works now. Baseball is a cruel game.

Yeah, well, life is cruel. There are slumps, and the Republicans are in one. Not to belabor the point, things went bad for the Republicans after the skinny white kid – high on dreams of starting a race war to rid America of those black folks who were taking over and raping our women – murdered nine folks in the most historic black church down in Charleston. All the Republicans running for president, or about to, and the folks at Fox News, and conservative taking heads everywhere, tried to spin this. This wasn’t about race. The kid must have hated Christians, so this could have happened at a white church. It was chance, or it was inexplicable – no one knows why these things happen. And then the kid’s manifesto surfaced – he explained it well enough. This was racial resentment of the kind Nixon had stirred up with his Southern Strategy – that Lee Atwater stuff – that has won Republicans many an election since and is now a staple on Fox News. “Those people” are the reason that your lot in life is miserable. They take your money – welfare – and they’re living large and laughing at you. They have to be put in their place, or at least they have to learn some sense of personal responsibility – a white thing they just can’t seem to get. The skinny white kid had that whole argument down cold, and he took it to its logical end.

There was no getting around this. That’s what Republicans had been saying too. This was going to happen sooner or later. The chickens had come home to roost and now the squirming began. The 2016 election is at stake. Racial resentment just lost its aggrieved noble glow. So, what else have they got? They’re working on that.

That was the first strikeout, and then things got worse with the Confederate flag. The skinny white kid had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too. Southern nobility fought bravely and fairly, for a good cause. Is that so? What began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state capitol intensified with extraordinary speed and scope into a passionate, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, internet shopping sites and retail stores – because the Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy.

That finally sunk in. The Republicans then collectively admitted, one after another, that the Civil War had been a bad idea in the first place and the North had been right all along, and the North had won the thing anyway. Go ahead. Dump the flag. Remove the statues. They were okay with that, and with that they threw away a big chunk of their base. They are the de facto party of the South and they just walked away from the South. They threw away the Bubba vote. That was the second strikeout.

Could things get worse? Of course they could. They’re in a slump and it was time for the Supreme Court to hand down their end-of-term decisions, and that would be two more strikeouts with a third to come. The Supreme Court ruled that four misplaced words in the massive Affordable Care Act didn’t negate the whole thing. Now no one knows why they even decided to hear the case. That was another strikeout. The Supreme Court also saved the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – Texas cannot use its tax subsidies for housing development to keep “those people” (blacks and Hispanics) out of the “good” parts of town, claiming they meant no harm. Intention doesn’t matter. The net statistical effect of your decisions matters, whether your heart is pure or not – and this was the same Supreme Court that gave them Citizens United and two years ago gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing them to make sure none of “those people” ever voted again. They didn’t expect that. That was another strikeout. The ruling on gay marriage may be another, if, as expected, the nine rule that gay marriage seems to be constitutionally protected, as a right. Sometimes you can’t buy a hit.

The odd thing was that the Affordable Care Act ruling was fairly straightforward:

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that President Obama’s health care law allows the federal government to provide nationwide tax subsidies to help poor and middle-class people buy health insurance, a sweeping vindication that endorsed the larger purpose of Mr. Obama’s signature legislative achievement.

The 6-to-3 ruling means that it is all but certain that the Affordable Care Act will survive after Mr. Obama leaves office in 2017. For the second time in three years, the law survived an encounter with the Supreme Court. But the court’s tone was different this time. The first decision, in 2012, was fractured and grudging, while Thursday’s ruling was more assertive.

“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a united six-justice majority.

He knew bullshit when he saw it, but this was curious:

In dissent on Thursday, Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority’s reasoning “quite absurd” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery.”

He announced his dissent from the bench, a sign of bitter disagreement. His summary was laced with notes of incredulity and sarcasm, sometimes drawing amused murmurs in the courtroom as he described the “interpretive somersaults” he said the majority had performed to reach the decision.

“We really should start calling this law Scotus-care,” Justice Scalia said, to laughter from the audience.

That didn’t matter:

In a hastily arranged appearance in the Rose Garden on Thursday morning, a triumphant Mr. Obama praised the ruling. “After multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” he said, adding: “What we’re not going to do is unravel what has now been woven into the fabric of America.”

And the gist of it all was this:

The case concerned a central part of the Affordable Care Act that created marketplaces, known as exchanges, to allow people who lack insurance to shop for individual health plans. Some states set up their own exchanges, but about three dozen allowed the federal government to step in to run them. Across the nation, about 85 percent of customers using the exchanges qualify for subsidies to help pay for coverage, based on their income.

The question in the case, King v. Burwell, No. 14-114, was what to make of a phrase in the law that seems to say the subsidies are available only to people buying insurance on “an exchange established by the state.”

A legal victory for the plaintiffs, lawyers for the administration said, would have affected more than six million people and created havoc in the insurance markets and undermined the law.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the plaintiffs had strong arguments about the plain meaning of the contested words. But he wrote that the words must be understood as part of a larger statutory plan. “In this instance,” he wrote, “the context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.”

This is over now. There’s nothing more to say. The umpire called that third strike. You’re out. Roberts, in his confirmation hearing, had said this:

Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.

But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire. … And I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.

Barack Obama, a senator at the time, voted not to confirm him. Irony is fun, but so is arguing with the umpire:

After the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to reject an existential challenge to Obamacare on Thursday, conservatives took direct aim at the author of the decision: their one-time hero Chief Justice John Roberts. Their sentiments were channeled by several Republican presidential candidates, who lashed out at the Roberts Court for its purportedly activist pro-Obamacare ruling.

“Roberts told everybody he was just going to be an umpire and call strikes and balls, but now as justice he’s got two results-oriented decisions that go far beyond that role,” said Club For Growth President David McIntosh, suggesting his group will seek to avoid future nominations like Roberts. “What the Club does, in picking candidates, is look at their record, and look at not just what they have stood for on economic issues but what they’ll do in the future.” …

Elsewhere on the right, Roberts’s decision was being interpreted as a failure of Republicans to properly vet nominees – or worse. Phil Kerpen, whose group American Commitment had popularized videos of Obama administration consultant Jonathan Gruber appearing to make the plaintiffs’ case in King, directed followers to a 2005 column that decried Roberts as a “political” appointee who would not rely strictly on the Constitution. ….

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a former lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, came out swinging against the ruling as “judicial activism, plain and simple,” and swiped the majority as “robed Houdinis” who made a “nakedly political” move.

“These judges have joined with President Obama in harming millions of Americans,” he said. “Unelected judges have once again become legislators, and bad ones at that. They are lawless, and they hide their prevarication in legalese. Our government was designed to be one of laws, not of men, and this transparent distortion is disgraceful.”

Unelected judges have once again become legislators? Roberts wouldn’t strike down legislation that has passed, fair and square – he didn’t rewrite the law, he simply read it – but there was Mike Huckabee:

“Today’s King v. Burwell decision, which protects and expands Obamacare, is an out-of-control act of judicial tyranny,” he said. “Our Founding Fathers didn’t create a ‘do-over’ provision in our Constitution that allows unelected, Supreme Court justices the power to circumvent Congress and rewrite bad laws.”

Was anyone listening to Mike? No matter:

The anger at Roberts spanned generations, uniting all manner of conservatives in distrust aimed at the Republican establishment. David Limbaugh, the author and brother of radio host Limbaugh, asked why Republicans “end up with so many Trojan Horse Supreme Court appointments.” Sean Davis, a senior editor at the conservative web site The Federalist wrote bitterly that “every fancy conservative legal foundation said Roberts was the most amazing nomination ever.”

On the more conspiracy-minded end of the spectrum, libertarian author Wayne Root wondered in the website The Blaze: “Has Supreme Court Justice John Roberts been blackmailed or intimidated? I would put nothing by the Obama administration that lives and rules by the Chicago thug playbook.”

All the man did was call that third strike, and the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty wonders about the outrage:

Even as Republicans rose in a chorus of outrage Thursday over the Supreme Court’s refusal to gut the Affordable Care Act, party leaders were privately relieved. Republicans were spared the challenge of having to come up with a solution for the 6.4 million Americans – most of them in conservative states – who might have found their health insurance unaffordable had the court gone the other way. …

At the same time, the court’s second ruling in favor of the five-year-old law has increased the pressure on Republicans to tell the country how they would fix the health-care system.

That’s the problem:

“A Republican nominee for president will have to have a plan to replace the law,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who in his failed Senate campaign in Virginia last year was virtually the only nationally prominent member of his party to come up with one.

David Winston, a pollster who advises the GOP congressional leadership, said, “Ultimately, the challenge for Republicans is not just how to deal with this law, but where’s the direction? Where are the alternatives?”

Republicans do have some ideas. They support, for example, the law’s provision preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions and requiring them to allow parents to carry their young adult offspring on their policies. Most also argue for allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines.

Winston also pointed to a bipartisan proposal, advanced by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking committee Democrat Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), that aims to accelerate the pace of medical breakthroughs.

But none of the GOP proposals would go as far as the Affordable Care Act has in guaranteeing coverage, and many health experts say that a piecemeal approach would send health-care costs soaring.

They’ve got nothing, but oddly, that’s okay now:

The practical effect of taking government assistance from people who bought their coverage on the federal ­exchanges could have made the entire law unworkable because so many consumers would have found their new insurance policies unaffordable, many health-care experts said. Republicans would have been in a difficult spot if the court had struck down federal subsidies in the majority of states.

The decision was “a bad legal outcome but a good political outcome” for Republicans, Gillespie said.

“Today Democrats, and my guess is Republicans, are breathing one gigantic sigh of relief,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

They can talk and do nothing, and Chris Cillizza adds this:

Politically speaking, most Republican strategists and even most GOP politicians have privately acknowledged for quite some time that the chances of ripping the law from its roots legislatively was a nonstarter for two reasons. First, with Obama in the White House, he would veto any measure that would substantially change the law that bears his name. Second, the longer the law is, well, the law, the harder it becomes to drastically change it. Whether or not people initially liked Obamacare, they have begun to get used to it. Trashing the law in place of something else – that would, inevitably, have its own set of issues and problems – becomes a harder sell every day it remains law.

Given that, the only route to invalidation or major overhaul of Obamacare in the minds of savvy Republicans was through the courts. That first took the form of the case dealing with the individual mandate. When that was lost, most anti-ACA forces rallied to the Burwell case, which was decided today. Now, whether they want to admit it or not, a significant amount of the air has come out of their balloon. …

Already many Republicans are seeking to drive the remaining energy aimed at getting rid of the law toward next November – insisting that now, controlling the presidency is the only way to make fundamental changes to it.

But in a general election context, that will be a far harder sell. Why? Because Hillary Clinton will now be able to make the very strong case that the law has been fought judicially, legislatively and through campaigns and, in each instance, has survived those challenges. “This is old news,” you can hear Clinton saying. “The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. I know some Republicans might not like that, but the fight is over.”

That’s a compelling argument, especially to voters not closely affiliated with either party who are likely to be swayed by the sheer amount of validation Clinton can point to regarding the law.

This is over. Who wants to watch the guy who just struck out, again, argue with the umpire?

As for that other strikeout, the other ruling that was lost in the shuffle, the Los Angeles Times editorial board is all over that:

The decision involves a lawsuit by a nonprofit housing organization claiming that a state agency in Texas steered tax credits for the development of low-income housing to black inner city neighborhoods in Dallas. That policy, according to the plaintiffs, even if wasn’t designed to segregate the races, nevertheless had that effect and was therefore the “functional equivalent” of intentional racial segregation – and thus violated the Fair Housing Act. The state agency countered that the law didn’t authorize “disparate impact” lawsuits.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy placed the Fair Housing Act in the context of other civil rights laws that allow lawsuits based on disparate impact, a concept enunciated by the Supreme Court in a 1971 decision involving employment discrimination and later ratified by Congress (including in amendments to the Fair Housing Act).

Discrimination is discrimination even if it’s not intentional:

In employment cases once a job test or other requirement has been shown to have a disproportionate outcome on workers of a particular race, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that the requirement is job-related. Likewise, Kennedy wrote, a showing of a racial disparity in a housing program requires an agency or developer to show that a particular policy (such as steering low-income housing to a black inner city neighborhood) is necessary to serve a “valid interest.” Often, Kennedy suggested, that burden will be met. He left open the possibility that a lower court might conclude that the tax-credit program in Texas was reasonable.

The decision preserves a valuable tool for remedying segregation. Kennedy recognized that it’s naive to believe all housing segregation can be attributed to conscious bias. Rather, he said, the vestiges of legally mandated segregation remain “intertwined with the country’s economic and social life.”

Or not:

In his dissent in this case, Justice Clarence Thomas complained: “In their quest to eradicate what they view as institutionalized discrimination, disparate-impact proponents doggedly assume that a given racial disparity at an institution is a product of that institution rather than a reflection of disparities that exist outside of it.”

The Times’ board addresses that:

Institutionalized discrimination isn’t a figment of liberals’ imagination. It’s a reality that obstructs the achievement of the “color-blind” society conservatives profess to desire. Dismantling such discrimination is a legitimate purpose of civil rights laws, including the Fair Housing Act. The court was wise to recognize that fact.

And it wasn’t Scalia’s day, or the Republicans’ day:

The U.S. Supreme Court said people who file housing-discrimination suits don’t have to show they were victims of intentional bias, in a blow to lenders and insurers and a surprise legal victory for the Obama administration.

The 5-4 ruling upholds a category of U.S. Fair Housing Act lawsuits that civil rights groups said are especially important – and business groups consider particularly onerous. The court said plaintiffs can base their suits on statistical evidence that a disputed policy has a “disparate impact” on a minority group.

The Obama administration has relied on the disparate-impact approach to get hundreds of millions of dollars in fair-lending settlements with Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and other financial companies.

It seems there were other forces at play here – lenders and insurers, and the big banks, seeking relief from pesky consumers and those who whine about fairness – you know – the people. This Supreme Court suddenly sided with the people. Republicans must have felt betrayed, again. This was more surprising than the Obamacare ruling. They were caught looking at a curveball right over the plate – strike three. The Republican slump continues. These things happen.

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On the Possibility of Revolution

Something slipped by. Everyone was consumed with what happened after the skinny white kid, high on dreams of starting a race war to rid America of those black folks who were taking over and raping our women, murdered nine folks in the most historic black church down in Charleston. All the Republicans running for president, or about to, and the folks at Fox News, and conservative talking heads everywhere, tried to spin this. This wasn’t about race. The kid must have hated Christians, so this could have happened at a white church. It was chance, or it was inexplicable – no one knows why these things happen. And then the kid’s manifesto surfaced – he explained it well enough. This was racial resentment of the kind Nixon had stirred up with his Southern Strategy – that Lee Atwater stuff – that has won Republicans many an election since and is now a staple on Fox News. “Those people” are the reason that your lot in life is miserable. They take your money – welfare – and they’re living large and laughing at you. They have to be put in their place, or at least they have to learn some sense of personal responsibility – a white thing they just can’t seem to get. The skinny white kid had that whole argument down cold, and he took it to its logical end.

There was no getting around this. That’s what Republicans had been saying too. This was going to happen sooner or later. The chickens had come home to roost and now the squirming begins. The 2016 election is at stake. Racial resentment just lost its aggrieved noble glow. So, what else have they got? They’re working on that.

Then things got worse with the Confederate flag. The skinny white kid had that Confederate flag thing going and was into that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing too. Southern nobility fought bravely and fairly, and Northern generals were crude and vile and had no sense of fair play, as seen in Sherman’s March to the Sea – and Ulysses S. Grant was a damned alcoholic too. It just wasn’t fair. The South had a proud heritage.

Bullshit – what began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state capitol intensified with extraordinary speed and scope into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, internet shopping sites and retail stores – because the Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. That finally sunk in. The Republicans then collectively admitted, one after another, that the Civil War had been a bad idea in the first place and the North had been right all along, and the North won the thing anyway. Dump the flag. Remove the statues. And with that they threw away a big chunk of their base. They have just walked away from the South, the Bubba vote. This was the actual end of the Civil War – and a major shift in American thinking. The nation would no longer turn its lonely eyes to Bill O’Reilly and the rest.

That was the big news, but this slipped by:

Legislation vital to securing the largest U.S. trade deal in decades was passed by the Senate on Wednesday by a comfortable margin, advancing President Barack Obama’s efforts to strengthen U.S. economic ties around the Pacific Rim.

After a six-week congressional battle including two brushes with failure, some fancy legislative footwork and myriad backroom deals to keep the legislation alive, the Senate voted 60 to 38 to grant Obama “fast-track” power to negotiate trade deals and speed them through Congress.

The bill next goes to the president for his signature.

Done, but with some unhappiness:

That could propel the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a central element of Obama’s foreign policy pivot to Asia, over the finish line, while also boosting hopes for completing an ambitious trade deal with the European Union.

U.S. labor groups, which fought fast-track, said they will redouble their efforts. “We will vigorously oppose TPP if it continues on its current course,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

The TPP, potentially a legacy-defining achievement for Obama, would be the biggest free trade agreement in a generation and rank with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which liberalized trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico, while also serving as a counterweight to the rise of China.

That was the problem. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart had previously discussed this:

The concerns about the effect another trade deal will have on the American worker are real. The opposition roaring out of the House Democrats is understandable. After 21 years, the bitter aftertaste of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains. Shuttered factories and the lost jobs that ensued led many Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to turn inwards to protect their livelihoods. That’s why Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in a statement last month that past trade deals “put the American Dream out of reach for countless working families.” Even the president acknowledges that “past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise.”

But as I read and do my own reporting on TPP, I keep coming back to a reported conversation between Obama and the late Apple maestro Steve Jobs. According to the New York Times, at a 2011 dinner in Silicon Valley, the president asked Jobs why iPhones couldn’t be made in the United States.

Mr. Jobs’ reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

Free trade is good – we get to sell a whole lot more of our stuff around the world – but someone is going to get hurt. That’s just the way things are. Some people will get eaten alive, but not everyone. Obama will save who he can. He may be aligned now with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Paul Ryan on this trade agreement, against Elizabeth Warren and most of the Democrats, but is he the bad guy here? Do what must be done – but the most effective solution is going to hurt someone, or many. Net economic gain doesn’t do specific workers much good.

That was the news story of the day that wasn’t the big story of the day, because nothing changed. Everyone knows who will end up smelling like a rose – the multinational corporations and the millionaires who run them. The Walton family, importing even more, even more cheaply, for their Wal-Mart stores, will do quite well. Companies like Bain Capital will do well – the company that Mitt Romney founded, which produced no goods or services but made hundreds of millions a pop buying solid but underperforming companies, loading them up with debt and extracting all value, before selling off what was left at a big profit. If there was nothing left they shut the company down and made a ton of money stiffing the creditors in bankruptcy court. He said he had been a job creator but no one saw how that could be – not that it matters. A new free-trade agreement will shake up a lot of solid but underperforming companies, now in need of reconfiguration. Venture capitalists will make out like bandits, and wages will go down. That which can be made here can be made more cheaply overseas, and it’s on its way here. Match those labor costs or find something else to do.

In short, expect even more income inequality and a middle class shrinking to next to nothing, not that we have much of one any longer now. The new trade agreement, this Trans-Pacific Partnership, is now pretty much a done deal – save for assistance to displaced workers, which will be voted on later, if they get around to it. That assistance seems to be an afterthought – something thought up to sweeten the pot to get a few more Democratic votes for the main deal. Don’t expect much now. The news is the same old same old.

People won’t get upset. Paul Glastris in his editor’s note for the new issue of the Washington Monthly, points out that all the discussions of growing inequality and the shrinking middle class end up seeming pointless:

In the back of many people’s minds, certainly mine, is the fear that maybe there aren’t solutions to this problem. Maybe the great American middle class is just not coming back. We are now six years into an economic recovery that has seen next to zero wage growth. As Monica Potts shows in this issue’s cover story (The Post-Ownership Society), even highly educated Millennials in booming Washington, D.C., are having a hard time seeing a path to middle-class financial stability. Millennials generally are also finding it difficult to start businesses, despite their eagerness to do so (see The Lost Entrepreneurial Generation by Matt Connolly), or to buy homes, with some exceptions (see The Young and the Rentless by Jordan Fraade). The mass downward mobility Millennials are experiencing is not a new phenomenon, either. As Phillip Longman documents (Wealth and Generations), every generation born after 1953 has done less well than the one that preceded it.

Looking back at that record, and looking forward, to an economy where globalization and computer algorithms continue to eat away at middle-class jobs while Thomas Piketty’s famous equation “r > g” (returns on capital exceed economic growth) continues to favor the rich, it’s hard to be optimistic. Sure, generational upward mobility was a defining reality for most of American history. But all good things come to an end, right? Perhaps two centuries of egalitarian prosperity is about all a democracy can sustain.

Given those four articles, you may not want to pick up the new issue of the Washington Monthly, but Glastris suggests that all this is not without precedence. He cites Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece – and that seems to show that stable, democratic political institutions and a competitive-but-rules-based economic system produced gentle patterns of growth and wealth distribution for five hundred years or so:

According to calculations by Ober’s Stanford colleague Ian Morris, per capita consumption in ancient Greece grew somewhere between 50 percent and 95 percent from 800 to 300 BC. That works out to an annual per capita growth rate of between .07 and .14 percent. Ober makes the case that the upper range of that estimate is more likely. If so, Greece’s per capita growth rate exceeded Rome’s and would not be matched again until the rise of Holland in the sixteenth century AD.

Of course, lots of other civilizations during this period – Egypt, Persia, Carthage – were wealthy, too. The difference was in the distribution. Though we lack the kinds of detailed economic records for these societies that we have for Greece and Rome, everything we know about them suggests that their wealth was overwhelmingly controlled by a narrow elite who lived in splendor while the masses living meagerly.

Not so in the Greek world. Home sizes… give an indication. Greek settlements “were never characterized by a few mansions and many huts,” Ober writes, but instead were clustered tightly around a mean size, and over time their size grew in lockstep. By 300 BC, he writes, “houses in the 75th percentile of the distribution were only about one fifth again… as large as those in the 25th percentile.”

Greece was far from a classless society. Ober cites the work of Geoffrey Kron of the University of Victoria, who looked at census reports for Athens in 322 BC and other records and calculates that the richest 1 percent of that city’s population owned about 30 percent of all private wealth, with the top 10 percent owning 60 percent. From there, Kron derives a Gini index – the standard measure of inequality – for Athens of 0.708. That is roughly comparable to the United States in 1953-54. To the extent, then, that America was a middle-class society in the 1950s, so too, apparently, was ancient Greece.

There will be a quiz on this:

One lesson conservatives will like is that Greece achieved its amazing mass prosperity with no interference from some distant, centralized government. Each city-state set its own policies, often within voluntary alliances of other city-states.

A couple other lessons liberals will like. First, the most democratic and economically successful poleis kept taxes, on average citizens, low, and put heavy burdens on the rich, through both direct taxation and strong social pressure on the wealthy to make “gifts” to the commonweal, like building warships. Second, these poleis also had extensive social programs, from grain price stabilization to welfare for invalids to state support for the widows and orphans of those who died in war. These programs were crucial, Ober says, in incentivizing citizens to take calculated risks for their own and the community’s benefit.

Isn’t that special? Yes, and it’s quite literally ancient history. The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall points out our times:

“Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” asks the Economist. “Why don’t voters demand more redistribution?” wonders David Samuels, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The headline on an April 7 National Catholic Reporter article reads: “Why aren’t Americans doing more to protest inequality?”

Edsall is puzzled:

There are legitimate grounds for grievance. For those in the bottom quintile, household income in inflation-adjusted dollars has dropped sharply, from $13,787 in 2000 to $11,651 in 2013. According to the Census Bureau, 64 million Americans currently live in the bottom quintile.

Still, it’s possible that poverty is less grueling than in the past, for several reasons. First, although incomes have declined, the cost of many goods – televisions, computers, air-conditioners, household appliances, cellphones – has fallen, leaving the bottom quintile less deprived than simple income figures might reflect. Second, people nowadays marry and have children later in life than in the past, postponing some financial demands to better earning years. Third, some economists contend that commonly used inflation measures result in excessively high estimates of the real-world cost of goods for consumers, thus making living conditions less dire than they might otherwise be.

He’s not buying any of that:

Society has drastically changed since the high-water mark of the 1930s and 1960s when collective movements captured the public imagination. Now, there is an inexorable pressure on individuals to, in effect, fly solo. There is very little social support for class-based protest – what used to be called solidarity.

Describing a process that sociologists have termed “individualization,” Christopher Ray, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in England, makes the point that individualization is, on one hand, a positive, enabling and democratic phenomenon. On the other hand, the same dynamic generates the conditions of omnipresent and ever-changing risk, perceived as new obligations or burdens, and new forces bearing down on the individual and on local life.

People today, Ray continues, “are not only able to make choices in an ever-expanding range of situations, but they are also compelled to do so.”

In effect, individualization is a double-edged sword. In exchange for new personal freedoms and rights, beneficiaries are agreeing to, if not being forced to, assume new risks and responsibilities.

We can’t protest now, as we’re fighting for our lives, one against the other:

Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who died earlier this year, noted the obstructions to collective social action. In 2002, in his book “Individualization,” Beck wrote that those who in the past saw co-workers as colleagues and allies now face competitive pressures such that when “a shared background still exists, community is dissolved in the acid bath of competition.” The result is “the isolation of individuals within homogeneous social groups.”

Beck goes on to contend that in advanced nations people have been released “from traditional class ties and family supports.” That has forced people to use their own resources to determine their “fate in the labor market, with all its attendant risks, opportunities and contradictions.”

In a 2007 paper, Beck argues that in the new social order, traditional classes – and traditional bonds of community – are disappearing. In their place, an alternative social hierarchy has emerged with comparable inequities:

“Risk and social inequality – indeed, risk and power – are two sides of the same coin. Risk presumes a decision, therefore a decision maker, and produces a radical asymmetry between those who take, define the risks and profit from them, and those who are assigned to them, who have to suffer the ‘unforeseen side effects’ of the decisions of others, perhaps even pay for them with their lives, without having had the chance to be involved in the decision-making process.”


Insofar as individualization has taken hold in the United States, the prospects for collective action on behalf of the poor are dim, at best.

Collective action on behalf of the poor requires a shared belief in the obligation of the state to secure the well-being of the citizenry. That belief has been undermined by what Beck calls the “insourcing” of risk, transferring obligations from the state to the individual. This reallocation of responsibility has been studied from various angles.

In his book “The Great Risk Shift,” Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, joins the argument by documenting the economic pressures on individuals resulting from the widespread erosion of social insurance. “For decades, Americans and their government upheld a powerful set of ideals that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity,” Hacker writes. “Today that message is starkly different: You are on your own.”

Collective social action, in turn, has been supplanted by a different kind of revolt. David A. Snow, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, noted that the top priorities of the specific movements associated with individualization – “the feminist movement, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movements, the black power movement, the disability rights movement, and, most recently, the fat-acceptance movement” – do not lend themselves to broad economic demands on behalf of the less well off.

There will be no populist revolution:

The cultural pressures driving inequality are, in addition, reinforced by heightened competition that has accelerated the decline of unions, served to justify the Republican refusal to raise minimum wages and undermined the workplace stature of employees. The result has been not only surging incomes at the top and little or no growth for the rest, but a withdrawal of community from those who need it most.

All of which brings us back to the question of why there is so little rebellion against entrenched social and economic injustice.

The answer is that those bearing the most severe costs of inequality are irrelevant to the agenda-setters in both parties. They are political orphans in the new order. They may have a voice in urban politics, but on the national scene they no longer fit into the schema of the left or the right. They are pushed to the periphery except for a brief moment on Election Day when one party wants their votes counted, and the other doesn’t.

That’s why the news of the agreement on new Trans-Pacific Partnership wasn’t the big news of the day. It was only more of the same. We have fallen into a socioeconomic dog-eat-dog structure that guarantees more of the same, while precluding any sort of populist revolution. Collective social action is now structurally impossible. The Republicans’ generations of race-baiting and their politics of resentment finally blew up in their faces – that was news. Only nine people had to die. Seeing the decisive end of the Civil War, one hundred and fifty years after Appomattox – that was news. There was no noble cause. Cool. But the slow end of how we thought America was supposed to work, for all of us, isn’t cool at all. That may not even be news.

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