American Politics – a follow-up from 2017

I recently received a question on a post published back in 2017 that used Thucydides’ description of the Oligarchy of 411 to reflect on the protests then going on. In short, this post drew together a couple of threads, including how we remember protest in Ancient Greece given the limits of our evidence and the my concerns about the consolidation of power in the executive branch. The reader asked: how do I feel about the consolidation of power in the executive post 2020?

By way of preamble, two caveats:

First, the original post was, as much as anything, a reflection on the limits of our evidence for the ancient world. I have a hard time believing that the weight of the protests of the past few years would fail to leave a trace simply given how much material has been produced. Perhaps some sort of digital apocalypse could render that evidence unsalvageable, but I find that unlikely.

Second, what follows stems from my opinion. I consider myself a reasonably astute political watcher, both as a function of how I interpret civic duty and as a relic of the time when I thought I was going to work in politics—and one of my favorite courses in college was on the American presidency, but my areas of expertise have developed in rather different directions. As such, I am speaking here as a citizen rather than as an expert.

As to the actual question about the growth of the executive, not much has changed.

To his credit, President Biden has also made a conspicuous effort to work through Congress rather than through executive orders. The enormous caveat here is that this has been made possible by slim majorities in both chambers. I don’t want to speculate on what Biden would do if this were not the case, but there hasn’t been a move to substantively curb the power of the executive. To give a couple of examples, President Trump faced a historic second impeachment, but in neither investigation was he convicted by the Senate and most of his worst precedents like eternally-interim appointments were allowed to expire without either being regulated or held to account. Biden may be not actively flexing the executive in ways that expand it further, but that is not the same thing as rolling it back.

For my part, I would like to see regular, transparent processes to hold politicians accountable for their actions.

However, too narrow a focus on the state of the executive in American political life also misses the forest for the trees. That is, a more serious anti-democratic movement developed parallel to, but not directly in-step with the growing power of the executive. Dark money political interest groups have gerrymandered states in ways that force Democrats to win a super majority of the votes to have a slim majority in state legislatures that, in turn, allow Republican state legislators to simply ignore ballot measures approved by the voters. The other priority for these dark money groups has often been to install a favorable judiciary, which was Mitch McConnell’s legislative priority during the Trump administration. These groups would obviously like to have the presidency — there would be less reason for so many states to install voting restrictions after the 2021 election and lay the groundwork to reject an unfavorable electoral outcome in 2024 otherwise — but it is not their singular focus.

When the two came together, as in the obstructionism spearheaded by McConnell that prompted President Obama to work through the executive and thereby gather ever more power or how congressional Republicans enabled President Trump to circumvent Congress to an even greater extent, the result was the expansion of executive power under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

(Reading over the original post, I noticed that I characterized the process as the legislature “acquiescing” to the consolidation of power. This isn’t quite right, as I’ve noted here, but I do still think that the legislature has been complicit in the process.)

Recent events are revealing just how much the American constitutional system relies on a consensus belief in the founding myths of this country and institutional norms. At the same time as the shallowness of the former have been revealed, the latter have been under attack in an increasingly polarized country. The Constitution was never a perfect document, but it has been calcified by originalism, rendering whatever flexibility it contained impossible.

Here in 2021, the consolidation of executive power can’t be untangled from these other threads that are more aggressively eroding the political system. That is what concerns me as a citizen of this country right now, more than the growth of the executive. The first is an existential threat, the second has concrete consequences but I see it as an academic exercise if the first isn’t addressed first.

What We Choose to Remember

President Joe Biden gave an address Monday night to memorialize the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, according to the official tally. I am not saying anything novel when I say the event played to Biden’s strength as a politician. His ten-minute address was filled with empathy as he spoke about how lost loved ones remain with the living, about how we have to remember lost loved ones rather than becoming numb to the pain, and about how we should carry their memories forward into in our actions.

Biden’s first month in office has been spent activating the government bureaucracy that had been allowed to atrophy in the past four years, so while there are many people understandably angry about the vaccine rollout, distribution is heading in the right direction. This was a somber moment marking a systemic failure, but the address also worked to model best practices and encourage people to turn their grief into action.

It was a good speech, for what it was.

Several times in the address, Biden reiterated a line from the ceremony the night before his inauguration to remember 400,000 deaths, that “to heal we must remember.”

In Biden’s role as Mourner-in-Chief, this was a powerful line that tries to use collective trauma as a catalyst to unify the country. It asks people to think about their loved ones and turn that memory into thoughtful, considerate behavior where individuals take responsibility for the safety of everyone. Certainly, this is a believable sentiment coming from someone who has lived with loss almost his entire political career.

Nowhere in the speech did Biden ask his audience to remember anything but their lost loved ones.

On the one hand, this specific event was not the place for a discussion about accountability. Merrick Garland as much as said that an investigation into the events of January 6 where a lynch mob stormed the Capitol would be his first priority as Attorney General and other inquiries into the events of the past year will unfold over the coming months.

On the other hand, remembering the loss without also remembering why they died is cold comfort. I understand the impulse to not stoke what talking heads on any number of cable news channels might decry as partisan anger, but transparency and accountability are very different from partisanship. The one seeks to rebuild the infrastructure and trust in institutions by applying rules equally, irrespective of party; the other sees the world only in terms of friends and enemies.

I have a lot of sympathy for President Biden right now. He is attempting to walk a fine line and live up to his casting as a man who could unify a deeply-divided country. The result is events like this one where he can strike an empathetic note and talk about healing while trying to restore the government bureaucracy into something that actually works for the citizens of the country. However, may of the forces dividing the country are outside of his control and have been building for years to the point where anything he does, however centrist, is going to be labelled socialist. A Newsmax host even attacked Biden’s dog compared to past presidential pets.

Cultural memory always entails a push and pull between remembering and forgetting. These memories are malleable and open to manipulation. While working on an article about Ancient Greece in the pre-pandemic times, for instance, I read a lot about the historical memory genocide in Rwanda, where the ruling party led by President Paul Kagame has consciously shaped the memory of its role in ending the genocide in order to secure political legitimacy. By contrast, after a particularly brutal civil war in Athens in 402/1 BCE, the Athenians swore an oath of reconciliation that required both sides to “not remember” what had happened, formally renouncing reprisals.

But I also fear that the emphasis on remembering framed in terms of the personal grief and loss risks forgetting that these deaths weren’t just something that happened. These people did not die because of some avoidable happenstance. We only reached this mind-numbing number because of specific actions and inactions.

President Biden is right: we cannot forget those who died, and already people are beginning to discuss what form COVID memorials ought to take. But we ought to also take stock of what we are choosing to remember. For my part, I would love to see a Vietnam War-style memorial to commemorate the dead and also agree with the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith that local memorials dedicated to both COVID and the surrounding events of the past year would be appropriate. But I also believe that any memorial on its own would be inadequate. Remember the dead, yes, but also remember how we got here.

1984 Is Here

#1984ishere is trending on Twitter this morning, started by a group of people operating under the delusion that Twitter and its decision to permanently ban Donald Trump’s account constitute the arrival of the totalitarian state imagined in George Orwell’s classic novel. A cursory glance at the tag shows users who superimpose the Twitter logo with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union or one image of the names of social media companies on the arms of the swastika on the Nazi flag. More frequently, people bemoan that this is yet another sign of “censorship” from those who can’t tolerate divergent opinions. However, even setting aside the various incitement and imminent danger tests for first amendment protections that the events of this week make a reasonable case for, these claims ignore that these are private companies who now deem the banned accounts in violation of their terms of service.

(See also: Simon and Schuster deciding that Josh Hawley’s role in the attempted coup merited cancelling his book contract. This is not cancel culture; actions have consequences.)

1984 does have some commentary about speech, both in the Sapir-Whorf-esque effects of Newspeak and the fear of retaliation and reeducation. After all, Big Brother is watching you. But there’s the rub. Private social media companies like Twitter and Facebook and prominent publishers like Simon and Schuster may seem like they control the marketplace of ideas, but this is not the same thing as absolute state control of the sort that Orwell described. If anything, the former group show the need for more government regulation given their data collection and lack of accountability, and conflating this with totalitarianism demonstrates a facile reading of the book.

(I know, I’m giving people too much credit: most likely know about these things as buzzwords magnified through the very media echo chambers that they’re using the terms to attack.)

Private companies making business decisions about their platforms is not Orwellian, particularly when the social media companies seem to be acting at least in part to lay the groundwork for arguing in front of congress against regulation. Nor is any government regulation you object to automatically Orwellian—at any time, let alone during a pandemic.

1984 is a harrowing book. Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police sound sinister and are easy topics to latch onto, but they are also easy to misappropriate. More relevant to the present moment are other aspects of the book. Its setting is Oceania, a nation locked in a forever war with one or the other of the global powers (Eurasia and Eastasia) and with the power to absolutely revise history as to who is the enemy. In fact, Winston Smith getting an indication that Big Brother has been deceiving people serves as the inciting incident of the novel. Big Brother himself is a present-yet-distant charismatic leader who serves as a focal point for adoration. It is at his direction that reality is disseminated to his people: only Big Brother can protect you.

Sound familiar? Try this, excerpted from a scene in 1984 about the ritual Two Minutes of Hate:

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he was standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out, “Swine! Swine! Swine!” and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one subject to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs were too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

Now try Five Years of Hate.

To Make Men Free

2020 is a curious time to be thinking about the history of the Republican Party. For the past few years this has been the party of Donald Trump, with all of the baggage that comes with that label. This year, the party’s machinations have gone to ever greater lengths to overturn election results and line the pockets of the wealthy few.

This was not always the case.

In To Make Men Free, Heather Cox Richardson, argues that the soul of the Republican Party has swung on a pendulum between the two extremes.

One vertex was the ideal of economic opportunity that lay behind the formation of the Republican Party. This was the party of Lincoln, in her telling, which opposed the institution of slavery because it had created an oligarchy. The men who owned the most slaves also usually owned the most land, squeezing out people like Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, and they pulled on the levers of power to protect their position in society. Thus opposing slavery was synonymous with ensuring economic opportunity for all people. Moreover, they maintained, it was the place of government to step in and level the playing field.

The other vertex also existed almost from the start, with Republican supporters becoming very wealthy from government contracts during the Civil War. For those who espoused this position, economic opportunity was of secondary importance to the constitutional protections of property. They might not have endorsed slavery—and certainly they would be the first to point out that Democrats were the party of traitors—but neither would they support handouts to the “mudsills” of society since that way lay socialism.

Richardson takes readers into the smokey back rooms where the deals were made to trace the oscillation between these two extremes. Lincoln and the so-called “radical” Republicans gave way to business-oriented Republicans in the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Teddy Roosevelt briefly wrenched control of the party again with a platform that demanded government regulation of big business, only to see those gains given back by the Republican administrations of the 1920s where Coolidge maintained that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Many Republicans might have opposed the New Deal, but it also functionally established a new political norm that informed the policies of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s that expanded educational opportunity, the interstate highway system, and a high marginal tax rate. However, it was also the 1950s that saw the birth of so-called “Movement Conservatism”: hard-line, activist conservatism of William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater that captured the Republican party in the 1970s and has not let go.

Before I became a historian, I thought I might want to work in politics. One of my favorite books a professor assigned in college was Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make, which looked at how presidents were able to realign political coalitions in ways that shaped the political trajectory of the United States. Broadly speaking, To Make Men Free offers a comparable look at just the Republican Party. I am sure that there are people who would quibble with some of the specific characterizations of figures in this book, but as an evaluation of the larger trends and currents, this book rang true and had receipts to show each of the changes.

Richardson neatly (sometimes almost too neatly) sketches how the outward policies of the Republican Party were the result of long-standing intra-party fights. This was a compelling read, filled with fascinating anecdotes like how early Republican legislators were issuing dire warning about socialism and moments like how “In 1938, in a speech the New York Times reprinted, Luccock warned that when fascism came to America it would be called ‘Americanism'” (207).

But there were two particular facets of this book that stood out to me reading it in the age of Trump. The first was how deeply many current Republican talking points have a deep history in the party’s consciousness. When Republican legislators railed that it was impossible for some Democrat to have won an election in the late 1800s on the grounds that their party was composed of illegitimate traitors who were also determined to bring socialist values to America, one could almost hear the same words coming out of any number of present-day Republican commentators. That position was more understandable coming from a Republican who had fought in the Civil War, but it was also a bitter echo given the current political climate.

The second facet was Richardson’s treatment of Movement conservatism, of which she declares: “Buckley might have called his ideas conservative, but they were actually the very radicalism true conservatives opposed” (249). Ultimately, this is the Republican party we have today, and unyielding and uncompromising political ideology that ironically, as Richardson points out, built its membership through small group meetings rather like the Communists they despised. Much like the rest of the book, Richardson doesn’t linger, but offers a sweeping overview of Movement Conservatism summarizing it as:

In the years after Reagan, Movement Conservatives lashed the Republican Party to an ideology that was based on image rather than reality … [They] claimed to be trying to cut government down to an acceptable size. But in truth they were destroying the New Deal government, which they saw as socialism, and replacing it with an even bigger government that served the ideals of Movement Conservatism: promoting big business, religion, and the military.

Naturally, this last section would be the hardest part of the book to write since it takes the reader roughly through the present. Richardson ends To Make Men Free with a conclusion that aptly identifies Barack Obama as the embodiment of the values of Lincoln’s Republican party and a figure so anathema to Movement Conservatives who latched onto the rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic political James Henry Hammond that they “could no longer engage with the reality of actual governance” (341). To Make Men Free came out in a time before the presidency of Donald Trump, but I suspect that the intervening years would not change this specific conclusion. What it might change are the two pages after that where Richardson speculates that the changing demographics and distance from the Cold War might allow for leaders in the Republican Party to “stay committed to the ideals of its founders.” And yet, after the past four years of further polarization it is hard to imagine who it is in the Republican Party who is actually willing—let alone able—to make that push.

What is Making Me Happy: Bagman

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Bagman

My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.

I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.

The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.

Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.

I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.

Evidence, Please

I have said and written a number of dumb things over the years, but the worst statement of mine to appear in print came after the 2016 primary. I vote early in the morning and, if I remember correctly, voted on my way home from the gym at maybe 7 AM. On the way out, a journalist stopped me to ask for a comment. I growled something about my frustration with the “dangerous rhetoric” on both sides.

This milquetoast comment appeared in the paper the next day.

I stand by the first part of the statement, but regret qualifying it with “both sides.” The tenor of political advertising has reached the point that some of the races in Missouri feature virtually identical attack ads against each candidate, but in the aggregate there is no comparing the political rhetoric being put out by the two major political parties. Both sides use rhetoric; one side is actively undermining the legitimacy of the US government and stoking fear and hatred. And yet, in that moment, I contracted a case of bothsiderism that is rampant in political journalism.

Already as I drove away from the polling location I regretted what I had said. I had been thinking about Trump et al. when I said it and yet I not only softened my specific opinion but also suggested that this was a pervasive problem across the aisle. So why did I equivocate even though I have strong, clear political opinions?

It was early and I was asked for an opinion on the spot, but the explanation goes deeper.

In part, I don’t like painting with too broad a brush. I am not a fan of the Democratic Party as an institution and the nature of regional politics has sometimes resulted in Republican candidates in other parts of the country holding political opinions closer to my own than the Democratic candidates I have on my ballot. Similarly, I am seriously alarmed at the amount and types of money that gets spent in US politics, regardless of party, and am happy to give credit to the handful of Republican office holders more committed to taking the necessary steps during the pandemic than they are to playing partisan politics with it, even if I also think they are elsewhere complicit in enabling an administration run amock.

Just this weekend I read an article about how one of those Republican governors, Mike DeWine, was the target of a conspiracy to effect a citizen’s arrest because he listened to the scientists about public safety measures, making this at least the second plot after the conspiracy against Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.

Another part, I think, was conditioned behavior. I was talking to a complete stranger who was looking for quotes that he could publish and I didn’t want to give him the sense that I had a bias. Is this not also the opinion I, a normal person, am supposed to have with the political elite—that is, sullen disenchantment with a system that largely doesn’t work for me? Certainly, that is what all of the political advertising around here is telling me.

The third part of this triptych is a learned behavior through years of teaching. It has been a right-wing talking point at least since the 1950s that higher education is filled with liberal professors determined to indoctrinate young people into whatever is the cause of the day. Professors often clap back that they need the students to do the reading before they can make any headway on the indoctrination program.

Jokes aside, a several of things seem to generally hold true:

Teaching is a political act. I make political decisions when determining what content we cover, what order we cover them, and what readings we use in class. In my classes we talk about issues like slavery, colonization, and wealth inequality (to name a few), but I usually moderate my political opinions order to focus on the evidence.

Some of this is practical. I’d rather not end up in a position where students send video of my class to a right-wing Facebook group, particularly while I’m working as a contingent faculty member on semester-by-semester contracts.

But some of this is also philosophical. I see my job as a professor as teaching students how to think historically and critically about the world around them. There are things I will not tolerate in my classroom: ad hominem attacks, for instance, or bigotry of any stripe, but these have nothing to do with whether the opinion being expressed is liberal or conservative (which, note, is not equivalent of Republican or Democratic).

“What is the evidence for this?” is one of the most common comments I make on papers, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the politics of the opinion being expressed. In discussion when I ask questions, students often act like they’re repeating the rote answer they’re supposed to have learned at some point in their lives or that they’re looking for the answer that will please me and end the debate. Those answers get much more difficult when I follow up their statement with “why do you say that?” or “what evidence leads you to that conclusion?”

As I tell my students who often seem like they’re fishing for the specific answer that will please me, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that opinion must be grounded in evidence.

These days this isn’t easy. People are increasingly living in two different media ecosystems, neither of which offers a whole lot in the way of evidence, even if media typically decried as “liberal” does a somewhat better job. When opinion and anecdote substitute for substance, evidence loses out and the result is the sort of gulf in a recent poll between 92% of Democrats believing that African Americans face a lot of discrimination compared to 52% of Republicans who agree with the statement—when asked about whether white people face a lot of discrimination, 13% of Democrats agreed, while 57% of Republicans did. The gulf was similarly striking when asked questions about protests in the abstract versus when the question specifically mentioned African Americans.

Of course, opinion polls are exactly that: opinion. They do not require the respondent to offer evidence or reflect on where that opinion comes from. No one likes to be wrong and having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable; there is comfort in media that confirms what you think you know about the world. (Un)fortunately, there is a whole smorgasbord of options with authoritative-sounding voices or names that will offer you talking points for whatever political position is! Some of them might even be based on evidence after a sort! Consuming these neatly-packaged bites is easy; learning to verify, confirm, and evaluate them is harder because it requires both effort and time.

Four years after I made my original comment, I remain concerned about tone of political rhetoric, but I now see that tone as inseparable from these other issues. This is a country where one imperfect party seems interest in governing for all Americans while the other seems largely interested in ruling for a few with many of their candidates denying science, trading in conspiracy theories, and interpreting the Constitution to suit their purposes regardless of what it actually says. Evidence exists only insofar as they are advantageous.

I recently characterized this political cycle as insulting to my intelligence exactly because of its aversion to evidence. Take Missouri’s Amendment 3. This measure marginally changes the rules about lobbyists, but is primarily an underhanded attempt to hand districting power back to the party in power and un-do a non-partisan measure that passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. Naturally, the advertising in favor of Amendment 3 is mostly scare-mongering about how the (new) regulations handed power to groups outside Missouri.

This past week I encouraged all of my students to vote. I still don’t see it as my place to preach a particular candidate or platform, but suggested that they look beyond the advertising, consider their own values, and learn about the candidates before deciding who to vote for. The most political statement I made was to suggest that they should be deeply suspicious of anyone who wants to make it harder for them to participate.

Encouraging people to vote is one thing; endorsing particular political platforms is another. Maybe I’m naive, and certainly I have some privileges that other professors don’t have, but I can’t do my job if I directly engage in politics in the classroom. I am just also keenly aware that I don’t want to repeat my mistake of four years ago of being so carefully moderated that I slip into the sort of misleading talking points not supported by the evidence.

Bring Back Dokimasia

I didn’t watch last night’s presidential debate. But while I chose to spare myself the rage, anxiety, and dread of watching live, I was not above rubber-necking the proceedings on Twitter. Even vicariously, the debate was a mess and one would be forgiven for seeing this as the death pangs of a superpower being televised.

Nevertheless, a tweet from from PFTCommenter, made me think once again about the which practices from Ancient Athens might be of value. The tweet made a flippant comment about how the particulars of the debate made a strong case for the Athenian practice of sortition. He describes sortition as drawing a name out of a hat, though, naturally the process was a little more complicated . According the Constitution of the Athenians, the ten tribes of Athens nominated eligible candidates for archon and then the sortition process chose from among those candidates. This is not a bad suggestion, but since final authority at least in theory resting with the Assembly (ἐκκλεσία) rather than with the magistrates so real power lay in the hands of individuals capable of convincing a crowd.

The real virtue of the sortition process is that it does not merely apply to who becomes the chief executive. Instead, almost every magistracy—from the wardens overseeing prisoners, to the clerks, auditors, and chief magistrates—were appointed by lot. Combined with these other mechanisms of government like the courts and the Assembly, sortition was designed to encourage wide widespread participation in democracy.

What sortition gains in civic participation, though, it loses in expertise and this year of all years should teach us the value of that. As a result, my first instinct actually went to a practice of “straightening” (εὐθύνη):

εὐθύνη amounted to an end-of-term accounting for their conduct in office. Any official who handled money was required to submit his accounts for public audit that could lead to criminal charges against him. The United States budget is bit more complicated than Athenian public finance, but the spirit of public accountability is spot on.

Equally useful, therefore, would be the Athenian process dokimasia (δοκιμασία) where appointed and elected officials underwent formal review before taking office. The candidate for office had to answer a series of questions before presenting their references (witnesses) and faced potential charges from the general public before the jury gave a thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, the official entered office by swearing an oath to uphold the laws and not take presents (bribes) on account of the office.

Some of the questions are not particularly relevant today. Despite the racist allegations made about President Obama’s eligibility, we don’t need to ask who someone’s father is and what deme he belongs to, for instance, and I think we’re okay not asking about their devotion to Zeus or Apollo. But οther questions are still worth asking. According to the Constitution of Athenians, the next set of questions were (55.3):

Whether he treats his parents well, and whether he paid the taxes he owes, and whether he served his military service.

ἔπειτα γονέας εἰ εὖ ποιεῖ , καὶ τὰ τέλη εἰ τελεῖ, καὶ τὰς στρατείας εἰ ἐστράτευται.

What about ostracism, perhaps of a particular individual?

In fifth-century Athens, there was an annual question brought before the Ekklesia, asking whether there should be an ostracism vote. If they answered in the affirmative, then a second vote was set at which time every voter received an ostrakon (a pot sherd) on which they wrote a name. If the votes reached a certain quorum, the leading vote-getter was required to leave Athens for ten years.

Sounds great, right?

In practice, this process was much messier and less suited for today’s situation. For one, recent research into the surviving pottery sherds has revealed numerous votes to ostracize “hunger,” so one might imagine many Americans voting to send away COVID. For another, ostracism fell out of practice in Athens after the vote of 416/15 when two political opponents in an extremely polarized Athens, Nikias and Alkibiades, decided against to minimize the risk of losing a vote by turning their supporters against a third candidate, Hyperbolus. The 2020 election is an extreme example, but this would be the equivalent of Jill Stein “winning” the ostracism vote held in 2016. Some people would have wanted that to happen and others could argue it would be for the best, but neither was she the reason an ostracism was called.

(I jest. Somehow Ted Cruz probably would have gotten ostracized.)

My bigger issue with ostracism is another aspect of the practice. In Athens, ostracism was meant to mitigate the risk of any one politician becoming too powerful. Thus the ten-year exile was designed to remove them from their base of political support but did not strip the person of their property. In a modern globally interconnected world the former is impossible unless they’re somehow banished to a moon of Jupiter while the latter rather misses the point given the reporting about how much money has been leeched from the American taxpayers.

Fantasizing about ostracism is fantasizing for a quick fix, but it is too toothless and fickle an institution to resolve any of the problems facing the United States. The debate stage last night might have had on it a face and a name who has come to embody every one of those issues, but slipping into the wishful thinking of ostracism buys into his cult of personality as though what was on display were not the product of long-developing processes. If we’re going to be learning lessons from the Athenian democracy—and I’m not saying that we should—I think it would be better to look to the mundane procedures of accountability and oversight.

In short, let’s bring back the dokimasia. Who’s with me?

One More Parade

Like any form of exhibition, parades are an expression of identity and agenda on the part of the people putting them on.

The political and religious calendar in ancient Athens, for instance, was full of processions and parades. The Panathenaia, a multi-day festival in honor of the patron deity of the city, was the crowning event. Its schedule was constrained by tradition, meaning of course that it changed over time: athletic games, poetic competitions, and a procession that invited the goddess back into the city.

Four citizen girls led the procession, carrying the peplos, the ceremonial garment for the goddess. Behind them came the priestesses and women, then the sacrificial animals, musicians, soldiers and finally ordinary citizens.

At another festival in fifth-century Athens, the Dionysia, part of the festivities included a pompe, that is a parade of the actors and sponsors of the festival and a proagon (a pre-festival procession) that included war orphans, the children of men killed in battle during the war.

Each procession differed in form and composition, but they all served to construct community by delineating who was allowed to participate and who could only watch.

Each procession also projected a martial undercurrent.

Such an inspiration it would have been see, Agesilaus in the lead and then the other soldiers coming from the gymnasium, garlanded, and the garlands having been dedicated to Artemis.

ἐπερρώσθη δ᾽ ἄν κἀκεῖνο ἰδῶν, Ἀγησίλαον μὲν πρῶτον, ἔπειτα δὲ καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους στρατιώτας ἐστεφανωμένους τε ὅπου ἀπὸ γυμνασίων ἴοιεν, καὶ ἀνατιθέντας τοὺς στεφάνους τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι.

Xenophon, Agesilaus 1.27

Although the Athenian processions are the most famous in the ancient world, they are the norm rather than the exception in the Greek world. The fourth-century took spectacles to a new level. During his campaign in Asia Minor, the Spartan king Agesilaus leading his soldiers in a garlanded procession to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus––a procession emulated by Alexander the Great some sixty years later. Both displays came in moments of nominal liberations, so both kings used them to demonstrate that it was through their force of arms that the Greeks would defeat the Persians.

[Alexander] himself remained in Ephesus where he made offerings to Artemis and ordered a pompe with his soldiers fully armed and arrayed for battle.

αὐτὸς δὲ ὑπομείνας ἐν Ἐφέσῳ θυσίαν τε ἔθυσε τῇ Ἀρτέμιδι καὶ πομπῆν ἔπεμψε ξὺν τῆ στρατιᾷ πάσῃ ὡπλισμένῃ τε καὶ ὡς ἐς μάχην ξυντεταγμένῃ.

Arrian, Anabasis 1.18.2

Kings such as Ptolemy II expanded the spectacle still further in the Hellenistic period. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (Learned Banqueteers) preserves a lengthy description of Ptolemy’s pompe written by the contemporary historian Callixenus of Rhodes. The procession included a menagerie of animals and what we might call floats, with personifications of imperial territories and divinities designed to demonstrate the king’s wealth, power, and largesse. Much like subsequent pompes, this procession also included soldiers.

After all of that a units of cavalry and infantry paraded by, all fully and spectacularly equipped. The foot numbered 57,200, the horse 23,200. All of these marched in formation, each draped with a stole and carrying their appropriate weapons and armor.

ἐπὶ δὲ πᾶσιν ἐπόμπευσαν αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἱππικαὶ καὶ πεζικαὶ, πᾶσαι καθωπλισμέναι θαυμασίως. πεζοὶ μὲν πέντε μυριάδας καὶ ἑπτακισχιλίους καὶ ἑξακοσίους, ἱππεῖς δὲ δισμύριοι τρισχίλιοι διακίσιοι. πάντες δ᾽ οὗτοι ἐπόμπευσαν τὴν ἁρμόζουσαν ἑκάστῳ ἠμφιεσμένοι στολὴν καὶ τὰς προσηκούσας ἔχοντες πανοπλίας.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 5.35

Then there were victory parades. The Roman Senate awarded generals Triumphs for military victories. This was the only time generals could legally bring their soldiers into the city, where they marched through Rome displaying captives and booty. Josephus, a captive witness to the triumph that followed end of the Jewish revolt of the 60s CE, wrote that he was without device (ἀμήχανον) to adequately describe the spectacle.

Then [Vespasian] returned to the gates out of which they always dispatch the Triumphs, from which it gets its name. From there…they launched the triumph, marching it through the theaters so that they might be more easily seen by the masses.

πρὸς δὲ τὴν πύλην αὐτὸς ἀνεχώρει τὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ πέμπεσθαι δι᾽ αὐτῆς αἰεὶ τοὺς θριάμβους τῆς προσηγορίας ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν τετυχυῖαν. ἐνταῦθα…ἔπεμπον τὸν θρίαμβον διὰ τῶν θεάτρων διεξελαύνοντες, ὅπως εἴη τοῖς πλήθεσιν ἡ θέα ῥᾴων.

Josephus, BJ 7.129–32

Compared to the Athenian festivals, the Hellenistic pompe and Roman Triumph were more explicitly military celebrations, but they too were expressions of identity. Hellenistic monarchies legitimized themselves as rulers of spear-won territory in the shadow of Alexander the Great and by the time of Vespasian triumphs marked the restoration of the Roman peace as much as they did new conquests.

The same is true of American victory parades, from the one marking the end of the Civil War and the reunification of the country through force of arms to the ones at the close of both World War One and World War Two, a war to end all wars and a war for global freedom, respectively.

President Trump has wanted a military revue since he took office. On July 4, 2019 he got one in “Salute to America,” an event inspired by the military parade he attended for Bastille Day in France.

The French Bastille Day (fête nationale) commemorates the storming of the Bastille by revolutionary militias on July 14, 1789, a symbolic triumph of the people over royal oppression. The history of both the storming of the Bastille and of the national festival is, of course, more complicated than the memory; the Bastille only held seven prisoners at the time and there was a temporary reconciliation with the king in the immediate aftermath. Preliminary plans for a national festival in honor of the republic were formed that same year. In memory, though the storming of the Bastille is a military victory and since the passage of a law in 1880, the celebration has included a triumph on behalf of the French citizens in remembrance of those who shed blood for French unity.

American independence day, by contrast, is neither a triumph nor a pompe. The United States does not measure its freedom from Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 or the first blood at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775, but from July 4, 1776 when delegates from the thirteen colonies signed a document declaring that they held “these truths to be self evident, that all Men are endowed by their creator to be equal.”

Defenders of “Salute to America” call it harmless or imply that the only way to be patriotic is to celebrate the military. It may be true that young people will be interested in the military technology––I know I am drawn to collections of weapons in museums and remain fascinated by military history––but I am also uncomfortable with overt martial displays masquerading as patriotism.

Modern America has altogether too many of these displays already.

For a lot of Americans the July 4 holiday is an opportunity to wear star spangled bathing suits, grill out, and shoot off fireworks. Others ask whether the United States is a country that ought to be celebrated. In truth, it is sometimes hard to point out individual things past or present (other than the US National Soccer Team, which just won the Women’s World Cup) that warrant celebration because anything positive is subsumed by a wave of individual, institutional, and cultural sins.

But for all that, I like July 4. Not the ambient American jingoism that can accompany the holiday or the fireworks that fill the streets this time of year (give me functional fires, thanks), but because of the aspirational enlightenment ideals it nominally commemorates.

Beyond the obvious parallels between “Salute to America” and military parades in North Korea or Russia, this is why holding it on July 4 is particularly toxic. At a time when individual rights are being rolled back across the country and thousands of people are being detained in camps, “Salute to America” reduced the celebration to warlike display, as if to say that this defines what America is and aspires to be.

Cold hard stares on faces so proud
Kisses from the girls and cheers from the crowd
And the widows from the last war cry into their shrouds
Here comes the big parade
Don’t be afraid, price is paid

Phil Ochs, “One More Parade”

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

The evolution, or, as some would call it, the metastatic mutation, of the Republican party is one of the most unescapable facts of US politics in recent memory. The normalization of over-the-top spending in political elections has gone hand-in-hand with the changes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. In fact, thanks to the reporting of Jane Mayer, among others, acknowledging PACs and other forms of Dark Money in the political discourse has become accepted practically to the point of banality.

But, as Mayer makes clear, the explosion of Dark Money after Citizens United was the culmination of a process, not a new innovation. Published in 2016, Dark Money examines the deep roots that sprouted the present political environment.

Mayer identifies the earliest ferment of “the second gilded age” during a time when there was relative economic equality. The first signs, as she identifies them, took place during the 1930s when some wealthy families took umbrage at being accused of causing the financial panic and conservative groups chanted against the Roosevelts in an eerie foreshadow of the 2016 election rallies.

Men such as Fred Koch made fortunes in this period on government contracts (Koch also made money building building oil refineries for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) and, at the same time, were adamant that the government never get any of it back in taxes.

The solution lay in a provision of US tax code that encouraged philanthropy. Ordinarily the government taxed generational wealth through the estate tax, but trusts that dedicated their returns to charitable endeavors for a period of years passed virtually tax-free, while other donations were tax-deductible. Fred Koch, like many others, took to philanthropy as an inheritance scheme.

It was Koch’s sons––Charles, most notoriously––who realized the potential in weaponizing the donations to advance their libertarian political agenda. David Koch made an abortive bid for the Vice Presidency on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, funding it with his estate, but already by that time they had a history of backing conservative groups such as the John Birch Society.

In the years to come, they founded a network of ultra-wealthy conservative donors that funneled enormous amounts money into educational institutes and activist non-profit organizations. As Mayer describes it, the this network took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an ominous portent and redoubled their political spending in each successive election.

Dark Money has entered into the public conversation around American politics, but Mayer makes what is now a simple thesis into an illuminating and infuriating piece of reportage. Time and again she paints a portrait of greed and corruption, from the cutthroat fraternal Koch wars to workplace fatalities of the Cignas corporation, to the extreme control over the workers in the Menard corporation, to the heir to the Gore (of Goretex) fortune who attempted to adopt her ex-husband for a larger cut of the inheritance.

Despite the fact that this story has become ubiquitous, there are two outstanding features of Dark Money. One, as laid out in brief above, is the long genesis of this movement. The other speaks to the current political moment.

Mayer explains at length the processes by which Dark Money reshaped the electoral maps after the 2010 census, swinging state and local elections that oversaw redistricting where every dollar went further. But for me the most enlightening passages were where she examined the methods that the non-profit organizations used to shape political discourse, including “astroturf” campaigns (i.e. artificial grassroots movements) that give the appearance of popular support and using the speed of media to set the terms of debate by issuing reports and studies based on false information, only to offer retractions after the fact. In Mayer’s view, these attacks on everything from climate change proposals to the ACA caught the Obama administration off guard and effectively thwarted his presidency.

Although Dark Money predates the 2016 election, it remains relevant for the Trump presidency. In part this is because a number of prominent individuals in the current administration, most notably Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appear in the book. But it is also because the techniques of the Trump administration parallel the ongoing efforts of the various non-profits, albeit from an institutional platform. In other words, 2016 was a triumph for Dark Money, but, far from declaring victory and going home, it opened up new avenues of attack.

A few weeks ago I read Winners Take All, a look at philanthropic help-you-help-me do-gooderism and said that it marked a more generous look at similar processes. In retrospect, I would have liked to read Dark Money first. Mayer does a better job of examining the origins of the philanthropy, but these are two sides of the same coin. In one, what is good for the donor is good for the country; in the other, what is good for the country could also be good for the donor. Both Dark Money and a Winners Take All identify a core flaw at the center of the Second Gilded Age, while simultaneously examining all the ways in which these monied interests short-circuit the political will to institute effective change.

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I have since finished Archer Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt, which I will be writing up with his Three Can Keep a Secret, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. This morning I began a history of the Greek War of Independence.

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists.

People hate complaining because they do not like to list. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognize that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

Sarah Kendzior an expert on totalitarian regimes, particularly in central Asia, and a journalist based in St. Louis who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time. The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays penned between 2012 and 2014 on issues that range from media to race to higher education. I read the entire collection in about three sittings last weekend, only setting it down when some of the essays hit a little too close to home.

The fact that The View From Flyover Country is a collection of essays published for Al Jazeera leads to a certain amount of repetition one would expect to find in a series of articles published on their own, but also offers scathing critiques of the present economic and social order in easily approachable chunks that cause her call to action to swell like a flood. Kendzior laces her criticism of the status quo with a deep humanism, making the case that the economic systems that have already shattered at least one generation and are hard at work on a second one deprive many Americans of not just economic opportunity, but basic dignity.

In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?

The foundations of the system as Kendzior identifies it are rising inequality paired with increasingly expensive barriers to entry into lucrative careers that create pay-to-play environment. Simultaneously, she articulates that we are living in a post-employment economy in many sectors, where corporations aim to stay profitable by reducing wages and offloading costs onto the workers. These conditions, combined with the toxic potential of the new media landscape create totalitarian echoes.

Kendzior penned these essays well before the 2016 presidential election, but that campaign season and the events that have unfolded since have done nothing invalidate her words. If anything, the curtain was stripped back to reveal systemic and ideological weaknesses in the American system. Where people had previously brushed these off with wave toward a black president, long strides that have been made by women, or a general sense of American achievement—some of which is warranted—has been shown to also be gilding atop gross and growing inequality.

There are no easy solutions and Kendzior doesn’t pretend that there are. But to the extent that the first step to making things better is to acknowledge that a problem exists, The View From Flyover Country should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States.

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I was under the weather this week, which managed to consume most of my energy left for reading, but I did start The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a fablistic novel by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It is too soon to judge the book, but I enjoyed the first few pages.