Some Thoughts on Kennedy v. Bremerton

The conservative majority Supreme Court of the United States is right now in the midst of flexing its power. Today’s release of the 6–3 decision in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case struck a nerve with me, even though it is hardly the most destructive in this sequence of rulings—Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Vega v. Tekoh, and the likely outcome in West Virginia v. EPA are orders of magnitude worse.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton, a high school football coach lost his job for holding post-game prayers at the 50-yard line. What began as a quiet, private prayer gradually became something where he was joined by his players, which prompted the district to step in. Eventually, the school placed the coach on administrative leave and declined to renew his contract for the following year. The coach sued the school district, claiming that they violated his right to religious expression by punishing him for saying these prayers.

I am neither a lawyer nor an expert court watcher, but I wanted to write this post as both a teacher and a former high school athlete.

The coach is of course allowed to say a private prayer, and in this case I am willing to believe the coach that the two students who, he says, ever expressed discomfort with the prayers were not punished for having done so.

(The number of students who we uncomfortable even voicing their concern is the larger problem, but it is hard to prove in the absence of evidence.)

And yet, the details of this case blurred the lines between the behavior of the coach as coach and his behavior as a private citizen. The defense alleged, reasonably, that his conspicuous prayers that took place on the 50-yard line of the field while surrounded by players constituted a space where he was regarded first and foremost as “coach.” Further, he alleges these were voluntary prayers that he did nothing to lead, but there is pictorial evidence where he appears to be doing more than engaging in a private prayer while most of the students were otherwise occupied (as claimed in the case).

I dislike how the coach performatively challenged the school’s instructions to refrain from these activities, but my problem with this ruling is less about specific allegations and protestations about what this coach did and did not do and more about the broad implications of the ruling.

I played baseball and basketball through high school and, at no point that I can recall did my coaches offer a prayer. It is possible that I simply tuned some things out, but I remember awkwardly jumping up and down and barking like a dog before home basketball games. These circles, at least at my high school, were comical imitations of macho pump-up videos organized by players rather than prayer, but I can certainly attest to peer pressure to at least make a show of going along when these activities that have nothing to do with playing the sport seem to become compulsory parts of being part of the team.

Most people did not grow up in small town Vermont—when I happened to be in Texas on July 4 a few years ago and sat through a Christian prayer that led into the fireworks display accompanied by patriotic music. I will admit to laughing a few minutes into the songs when I heard the opening bars to “God Blessed Texas”—and there are a lot of people who feel more pressure from the ambient Christianity around them, whether because it is more aggressively oppressive whether they live, or because their non-Christian religion is a more central part of their identity, or because they are a more identifiably minoritized person.

That is, there are a lot of people with stories about how activities like an optional prayer in team or classroom settings alienates anyone who refuses to participate in that activity, and potentially singles them out for proselytizing, retaliation, or harassment. Whether or not the coach directly participated in those activities, their actions created an environment that enabled them.

The majority opinion in this case, written by Neil Gorsuch, emphasizes that the school infringed upon the coach’s private religious belief in its demands, suspension, and decision not to renew his contract.

(In terms of the outcome, rather than the substance, of the decision, I am particularly struck by the last point—non-renewal might have the same effect as a firing, but the mechanics are not quite the same.)

Gorsuch wrote the opinion to be religiously neutral. (He also seems to misrepresents basic facts about the case, but I digress.) Ostensibly, a Jewish or Muslim coach would have the same freedom to offer a prayer, but the situations are not comparable. The practice in question is explicitly Christian. Even if every religion prayed in the same way—and they do not—it is hard to imagine large numbers of players joining their coach in these moments in this wildly-unlikely hypothetical situation, while it is comparatively easy to imagine their parents asking that such a coach be removed.

But this is also the problem.

Basically every study shows that roughly 70% of people in the United States are some flavor of Christian, with Protestant denominations making up the overwhelming majority of those. The numbers of religiously unaffiliated are on the rise, but some number of those remain broadly Protestant, just without being affiliated with a particular church. Under these circumstances, I think it is all the more important to ensure that people in positions of authority in public institutions—whether coaches or teachers or principals—are not implicitly creating a situation where students feel pressured to either join a religious activity or be singled out by choosing not to join. To do otherwise tacitly puts the state in a position where it is endorsing the dominant religion, whether or not it deliberately chooses to do so. I fear that is the point of this ruling.

As Sonia Sotomayor points out in her dissent, such entanglements are hardly a win for religious freedom:

[This ruling] elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all. Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this Court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection. In doing so, the Court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing States to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance. As much as the Court protests otherwise, today’s decision is no victory for religious liberty.

N.B. The discussion here is usually pretty light, but I’ve disabled comments on this post anyway because I don’t have the energy to field comments on this topic right now.

Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

ΔΔΔ

I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

Tenure, contingency, and academic speech, a maunder

A collection of thoughts from my friend Ellie Mackin Roberts caught my attention this morning scrolling through Twitter (not linked because she mentioned she might delete the thread). The higher ed union in the UK is currently on strike over pensions and EMR was reflecting on why she was having a hard time engaging with this strike despite being pro-union. The thrust of the thread was that her position as an hourly employee meant a) that she couldn’t afford to strike; b) that this employment and caring responsibilities largely cuts her off from full time positions, despite being an accomplished and published researcher; and c) that the full time faculty who benefit most from an improved pension scheme have, historically, not shown the same enthusiasm in fighting for pay equity for contingent faculty.

There is a vast gulf between the United Kingdom and United States on issues of organized labor, but the thread nevertheless struck a chord in terms of my evolving attitude toward tenure.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a tenured professor.

In fact, this year, my fifth out from receiving my PhD is the first that I had a full-year, full-time contract at one institution. I like my current job and would like to keep it as long as possible, but, frankly, I have all-but given up on hoping that I will ever win a tenure-track position based simply on how few of these positions come open each year. I will apply when I see good opportunities, of course, I’m just not holding my breath.

Perhaps because of this background, I am of two minds when it comes to the discourse around tenure. On the one hand, I have friends and colleagues who are tenured or tenure-track professors and attacks on tenure in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere materially affect their jobs. On the other, the tenure system perpetuates a bifurcated system of compensation even though people at different ranks are largely doing the same job, particularly in the humanities.

(This is not just a matter of research expectations, either. People are different ranks will receive different per-course rates.)

The standard line about tenure is that it is an essential protection for free academic discourse. There is a kernel of truth here: tenure makes it more difficult to fire someone for teaching or publishing on potentially controversial issues. But I also find that defense rings hollow in a world where an ever-increasing percentage of the teaching is being done by people on annual, or even semester-by-semester, contracts. In a perfect world the solution would be to dramatically increase the number of tenured and tenure-track positions, but I have been hearing the same thing since I entered graduate school more than a decade ago and those positions only continued to disappear, even before Scott Walker kicked off the current wave of attacks on public institutions in 2015.

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and contingent contracts impose challenges to sustaining departments and disciplines, for all sorts of reasons. Students can’t expect to develop relationships with their teachers, contingent faculty spend more time applying for jobs which cuts into the available time for teaching and research, and the looming threat of non-renewal shapes how faculty teach in all sorts of ways, from how to tackle controversial issues to what risks they take in offering creative and innovative pedagogy.

This is why I get frustrated when I see outlets like Lawyers, Guns, and Money respond to a speech where Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proposes ending tenure in public universities by commenting that tenure will cease to exist in Red States in the coming years. This observation is clearly true and has been for a while, but Patrick’s proposal is a means to an end, part of a sustained attack on education and academic discourse divorced from the reality of what happens in a classroom and designed to teach a carefully curated vision of the world. While tenured faculty have long been a target of these efforts, they also represent a declining percentage of the overall faculty population.

My point is not to that we should strip anyone of tenure or the protections it affords, but that treating tenure as synonymous with free academic discourse seems to be asking a lot of people doing this work to defend a system that does not afford them the same protections. Should this not be reason fight for improved conditions of employment for contingent faculty and to insulate them the pressures of this current culture war? If nothing else, it might cushion the landing when politicians like Patrick succeed in destroying the current system.

It took Peisistratos three tries to become tyrant

This past week was the first anniversary of January 6, a day on which a crowd of people stormed the capitol building to disrupt the peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. Increasingly, evidence is revealing that this was not the spontaneous action of an enthusiastic mob, but the result of coordinated action on the part of people who wanted to undermine American institutions.

I let the anniversary pass without much attention. For one thing, I have been attending a virtual conference while also trying to get my syllabuses together for classes that start on Monday. For another, there have been more incisive reflections than anything that has come to me.

But also, for as terrible as that one day was, I am having trouble balancing in my mind remembrances of January 6 for the events of that day and that the events of that day are a particularly violent reflection of an ongoing crisis. This is not to say that people aren’t talking about the latter. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos profiled the right-wing radio host Dan Bongino who frames his show in terms of information warfare and there is a congressional committee looking into the events of that day—to say nothing of the talk about a so-called “national divorce.” The division also manifested in the contrasting comments made by politicians, including from John Cornyn who thinks that the day shouldn’t be memorialized at all.

My thoughts are complex, perhaps because this is my first time living through an attempt to overthrow the government, constitutionally or otherwise.

The events of this week, combined with the salient reminder in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything that premodern people were, well, people, and my preparations to teach Greek history for the first time in a few years has had me reflecting on coups and coup attempts in ancient Greece.

There are a lot.

Perhaps the most poignant from Classical Athens occurred in 411 BCE when conspirators established a new government and dissolved the democratic institutions (Thucydides 8.65–73), which temporarily created two Athenian power centers when they failed to sway the fleet then at Samos. In fact, a parallel attempt at Samos resulted in the execution of thirty conspirators and the exile of three others (Thucydides 8.73). Seven years later, another coup established the notorious Thirty Tyrants in Athens when the men chosen to revise the constitution unsurprisingly just empowered themselves (Xenophon Hellenica 2.3). Attempts like these allegedly led to the creation of an ancestral law at Athens to disenfranchise those who attempt insurrection. However important these coups are, though, I keep coming back to events from an earlier epoch of Athenian history.

At the risk of making a banal observation, it took Peisistratos three tries to secure his tyranny in Athens.

Peisistratos was born in Athens in the late seventh century BCE, a time when Athens was divided by deep, regional divisions (despite the reforms of Solon). He was prominent enough to become strategos and won popularity in a war with Megara before carving out his own faction, the Diacrioi, from the people who lived in the Northeast of Attica. He hailed from this region and claimed to speak to their grievances, the core of which were that their isolation from the political processes taking place in Athens itself (1.59). Of course, Herodotus says, his real ambition was absolute power.

In 561, Peisistratos made his first attempt at power. The story Herodotus provides is that rushed into the Athenian agora covered with self-inflicted wounds and with a story that he had survived an attack. The Athenians decided he deserved a bodyguard. Peisistratos armed his guards with clubs and proceeded to capture the Acropolis, the easily-defensible ritual precinct that also served as the symbolic center of the city.

Other than Herodotus’ dramatic retelling of the story, the details of this plot are not that unusual. Less than a century earlier, the Olympic victor Cylon had attempted something similar at the urging of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (Thucydides 1.126). Cylon’s followers seized the Acropolis where they were besieged by the other Athenians and killed. The people responsible for killing them in the sacred precinct, the powerful Alcmeonid family, were forced into exile on the grounds that they had committed sacrilege. They were allowed to return during the period of the Solonian reforms a generation later and members of this lineage would provide some of the most famous names in the Athenian democracy. For my part, I am more interested in how Peisistratos initially lost the tyranny, which happened four or five years after he first claimed it (Herodotus 1.60):

Not long thereafter, the partisans of Megacles and Lycurgus collaborated to drive him out. Thus Peisistratos first had Athens and, because his tyranny did not have strong roots, lost it.

μετὰ δὲ οὐ πολλὸν χρόνον τὠυτὸ φρονήσαντες οἵ τε τοῦ Μεγακλέος στασιῶται καὶ οἱ τοῦ Λυκούργου ἐξελαύνουσί μιν. οὕτω μὲν Πεισίστρατος ἔσχε τὸ πρῶτον Ἀθήνας, καὶ τὴν τυραννίδα οὔκω κάρτα ἐρριζωμένην ἔχων ἐπέβαλε.

Herodotus adds a note to say that Peisistratos ruled well during his first stint as tyrant, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure had done nothing to blunt the grievances that had brought him to power in the first place. Thus, it was not much later that the same Megacles who had driven him from power offer him a daughter in marriage and political power again. Peisistratos again turned to political theater to gain entry to the city. This time, Herodotus reports, he had a tall woman, Phya by name, dressed as Athena carried toward the city in a chariot with heralds declaring that Athena herself was carrying Peisistratos back to power.

Once again, things broke down. Peisistratos married Megacles’ daughter, but refused to have children with her, and when the stories of their “irregular intercourse” (whatever that means, ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον) got back to Megacles, he patched things up with Lycurgus and drove Peisistratos from the city (Herodotus 1.61). Not to be denied, Peisistratos spent a decade building support from his friends around the Aegean before returning to Athens in 546. This final attempt culminated in a battle between his supporters and opponents at Pallene, but when his enemies broke, Peisistratos ordered his sons to chase the fleeing Athenians and tell them to return to their homes. The ensuing tyranny only ended in c.510 when the Spartan king Cleomenes I invaded Attica and forced Peisistratos’ son Hippias into exile, prompting another round of political upheaval before the Cleisthenic constitution established a new status quo.

Political theater cosplay notwithstanding, the rise of Peisistratos and the contemporary moment are not directly analogous. That is not the way of history. But there are two broad points worth considering.

First, Peisistratos did not go quietly into retirement when one attempt at a coup failed. He regrouped and returned, finding new friends and adapting whatever systems he could to his advantage.

Second, in that final coup, Peisistratos took pains to convince people that it was in their interest not to cause a stir. To his credit, Peisistratos allowed the Athenian constitution to continue to function, so much so that Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians describes it as “more constitutional than tyrannical” (πολιτικῶς μᾶλλον ἢ τυραννικῶς, 14.3). (Tyrannos in Greek refers to an extra-constitutional ruler, which may or may not entail suspension of the constitution, though Aristotle seems to suggest that suspension was the norm.) The virtue of a democracy, at least in theory, is transparency and accountability, both of which are lost under a tyranny. Peisistratos’ moderation might have made it more tolerable to many among the landed classes of Athens, particularly because he consciously eschewed the violence that often accompanied these ancient coups. But neither did that make his rule less tyrannical.

The Anatomy of Fascism

The cover of Robert. O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

In the introduction The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that most scholarship on fascism remains narrowly focused on individual fascist movements. But where these studies offer excellent insight into Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, they don’t offer a better understanding of fascism as a particularly 20th century political phenomenon. This book, he says, is an attempt to bring those insights together in one comprehensive examination of fascism — the movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler, yes, since those were the two most successful examples, but also those in Hungary, Spain, and, yes, the United States.

So what is fascism? Paxton organizes the book roughly following the life-cycle of a fascist movement from how they begin and take root to exercising power and collapsing, but defers a succinct definition until the final chapter.

It is not the particular themes of Nazism or Italian Fascism that define the nature of the fascist phenomenon, but their function. Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, direct against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.

“Fascism” has its roots in Italian “fascio” (bundle or sheaf) and can be traced to the latin “fasces,” an axe bound by a bundle of rods carried by Roman lictors (guards who accompanied magistrates) that represented both the violence and restrained violence of the Roman republic. In fact, Paxton notes, the republicanism was so important to the symbolism that leftists movements who wanted to restrain the oppression of the aristocracy and the church, in which context “fascio” was used to refer to militant bands. However, in 1919, a new movement in Milan led (at least in part) by a journalist and former soldier named Benito Mussolini adopted the name “Fasci di Combattimento” and declared war on socialists on whom they blamed the problems of the country. Thus was born first named fascist movement in the modern sense.

Paxton frequently reminds his readers that each fascist movement conforms to its native conditions, but there are nevertheless repeated characteristics and preconditions. In each case, fascist organizations were right-wing movements born at times when the country was (or was a thought to be) in decline. These movements, like the two most famous in Germany and Italy, took advantage of the apparent crisis to stoke popular outrage with appeals to nationalism and former glory, thereby further destabilizing the country and presenting themselves as the only path to stability and prosperity.

Where they succeeded, it was because mainstream conservative elites bestowed political legitimacy on them in the name of thwarting their socialist and leftist opponents during times of economic crisis. Thus, Mussolini’s fabled march on Rome might have been a fatal mistake except that the King Victor Emmanuel III refused to empower the Prime Minister to stop him. (Victor Emmanuel would ultimately also depose Mussolini toward the end of World War 2.) The German example is somewhat more commonly known, where Hitler won just enough political support that he had leverage in his negotiations with the Weimar elite, ultimately getting appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen, a prominent Weimar politician, as vice-Chancellor—only for the combination of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death and the crisis of the Reichstag Fire removing the restrictors from Hitler’s authority.

Although fascist states often get a reputation for being efficient systems — Mussolini made the trains run on time; Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist utopia, etc — Paxton shows that this is a mirage. In fact, fascist states amounted to an amalgam of power struggles, between the leader whose personal charisma was essential for the party’s rise to power and the rest of the party, between the party and the civil service (which they largely defused by giving civil services autonomy to continue their work), and between the goals of their non-fascist allies.

Other than the varied origins of the fascist movements, the most interesting part of The Anatomy of Fascism to me was its end-point. Paxton identifies two possible outcomes for a fascist movement: radicalization or dissolution into generic authoritarianism. The extreme promises made during the rise to power preclude “comfortable enjoyment of power.” In one scenario, the fascist movement runs out of steam, but members of the party are able to keep hold of the levers of power as run of the mill authoritarians, the difference being that the fascist movement specifically appeals to the emotions of a broad segment of the population in order to fuel its rise to power. On the other extreme, the movement becomes ever more extreme in pursuit of its promises until the situation dramatically changes, as in the Holocaust and World War 2.

Reading The Anatomy of Fascism in the United States 2021, the obvious question is what it might say about modern political developments and, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Paxton is absolutely clear that the United States has had fascist movements in the past, and not just America First and the other Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. However, he confidently states that, as of 2004, the United States had resisted making them mainstream:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally…Of course the United states would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists…Fortunately I was wrong (so far).

I am still mulling over a lot of these questions in light of what Paxton wrote, but I have four broad thoughts at this point:

1. I was not wholly convinced by Paxton’s treatment of Fascist and pseudo-Fascist movements in the United States. He gestures to a long tradition of nativist agitation, including the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and iterations of the KKK as evidence for its presence, but concludes that these groups never truly went mainstream. Setting aside that the KKK went through several discrete iterations, Paxton doesn’t account for the fact that these ideas did go mainstream, even without direct fascist agitation. Perhaps the widespread support of these ideas in the form of Jim Crow legislation and immigration controls disarmed them as fascist talking points, but that’s worse.

2. The idea that the United States can succumb to a fascist dictatorship has been the premise of novels since at least 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here. More recently, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, which David Simon turned into an HBO series, which I wrote about favorably here. Though my current thinking about The Plot Against America isn’t as positive now as it was in that write-up, I do think Lewis and Roth are correct about one thing in particular. My fear is that the American two-party system makes it, if anything, more vulnerable to Fascism than a decentralized European parliamentary system. In the latter, it required various alliances to bring fascists into the mainstream while the former offers one of the two parties not merely as an ally, but a vehicle.

3. When talking about fascism and American politics there is a problem with labels. Calling an opponent a fascist is a way to discredit them and shut down debate, and rarely has anything to do with historical debate. Paxton several times invokes Orwell’s dictum that American fascism is not going to look like Hitler because it is going to wear authentically American clothes. This gets at the root of the issue. Knowingly or not, Trump’s campaigns ran plays from the fascist playbook: the rallies, the obsession with national decline, the appeals to family values, the framing of the world entirely in terms of allies and enemies. Historical reductivism is not a useful exercise and a lot of those traits have deep roots in American society without the presence of self-identified fascists, though we certainly have those, too. The Republican Party also reoriented itself to accommodate Trump who became their charismatic leader, but too narrow a focus on Trump also misses the evolution of the Republican party that has sought to sow mistrust in government since the 1970s. Was Reagan a fascist, then? Most people would say no. Was Trump a fascist? That’s a question without a productive answer.

4. For as much as I believe there is coordination in talking points between Republican party leaders and at least some of the right-wing media in the United States, it is striking the extent to which driving force of nationalist rhetoric in this country comes from media personalities rather than from the party. Trump was a little bit different before his ban from social media, but even in that case there was a feedback loop between the two. While Paxton might point out that the party unity in the fascist movements was mostly a creation of propaganda, they were nevertheless able to control that message. In the United States context, much of the nationalist fervor has been stoked by…television executives funded by billionaires? …talking heads? …agitators whose primary business is selling supplements? This is not to say that Republican politicians don’t make these statements, but, other than Trump, they seem better able to capitalize on the effects of the rhetoric than to actually fan the flames themselves. Offloading the rhetoric onto a third party also makes it easier to manipulate the system behind closed doors through voter restrictions and stacking the judiciary.

In sum, The Anatomy of Fascism is a good book to think with. Paxton might not be able to offer answers to every question, but this book provides exactly what he promises: a wealth of historical context that transcends a narrow focus on Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

ΔΔΔ

I recently reread Kitchen Confidential in advance of seeing the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. I love this book, even if it isn’t quite as magical as on my first read. I also finished Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I picked up because I have read how her books are beloved of critics. This book, told from the point of view of a bisexual college girl Frances who is close friends with her ex Bonni and strikes up an affair with Nick, the husband of the writer Melissa who profiles Frances and Bonni for their poetry performances, traces the intimate web of relationships between these four individuals. It is an intimate and revealing portrait written in a way that makes me understand why Rooney appeals to critics, but I thought that it was a little too assured that its close examination of banal details could lead to profound observations about human relationships.

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.

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.

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?