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.

Right Energized

On August 3rd, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke before a number of conservative students at John Hopkins University. The overarching intent was to foster grass-roots campaigns in order to win the midterm elections for the Republican Party, building momentum for the 2012 election. It was clear that Gingrich fervently believed what he was saying and it was refreshing to see so many 18-25 year olds dedicated to a political cause. The problem is in what was being said.

I will not take the time to counter every point that was made, or every question raised, but I am worried about this. I am worried that it is the right that is most energized this year and worried about the misleading and blind rhetoric used to arouse this support.

The Gingrich speech comes on the heels of the Texas textbook law and the spreading popularity of the Tea Party and groups that support the defense of “Western Civilization” (also a statement that came up during the speech). Closest to my heart is that one of the common denominators here is that they are all based on a limited, twisted or mistaken perception of history. Of course there is the movement to recast Thomas Jefferson as of limited importance to the creation of the United States, as well as the declaration that Western Civilization is a unique corpus challenged and destroyed by multiculturalism and integration. As an aside, at least one of the groups claims that a classical education is also a threat to Western Civilization, despite it being one of the foundations of that civilization, both temporally and in that it has for centuries formed the the core of education in Europe and America.

Universally among my colleagues at the University of Missouri, the Texas textbook reform was met with resignation as much as with outrage. It is a rather basic, if sometimes overlooked fact that all history taught in schools is constructed to portray a message, whether that is what is about the unity of the country, states rights or the value of democracy. This construction doesn’t mean that it is untrue, merely that there is an inherent bias in what is useful and what is appropriate for young people. Then, at the college level, half of what happens is that educators have to first correct mistaken impressions from high school, as well as actually educating students. The Texas reform marks just the latest high school folly to correct, hence the resignation.

Getting back to Gingrich, my first reaction is the complete mangling of ideas and labels. His basic point is that America leans to the Right, but that the Left fights from the high ground, embedded as the Left is in tenured professor positions, media, presidency, House and Senate leadership, and so on (his opinion, not mine). As such, he claims that the mass of regular Americans need to start a revolution to overthrow the elite. This should sound familiar given the history of the last 150 years and the successes and failures of socialist and communist revolutions. And then Gingrich (among others) march on to call Obama a socialist. To call liberals elitist and socialist. In this particular instance, Gingrich called Obama a secular socialist.

This is my second concern, on which the latest incident is the debate raging over the mosque alongside ground zero. I understand that a majority of Americans are Christian, and I strongly support the right of all Americans to worship freely as they see fit. My issue is the suggestion that the United States was founded as a Christian country and it is this Christian foundation that guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of religion.

Christianity ensures freedom of religion.

Leaving alone that Christianity is a religious umbrella that comprises hundreds of different, sometimes mutually unrecognizable groups, the idea that it is a religious tenet to encourage other religions to worship as they see fit is unfathomable to me. This is not to say that individual Christians or Christian groups do not now recognize this right in other groups and other religions. The issue is twofold: 1) Their religion is right (as many claim) and therefore other religions should not be recognized; 2) If their religion is not the only one that is right or doesn’t have the whole Truth or the sole right to exist, how is it that their religion is the one that is so graciously granting the right to existence to those others?

Then there is the argument that one of the problems with Obama is that he is secular. Gingrich bluntly declared that secularism–rejection of Christian belief–is one of the underlying causes of dictatorships. Because no Christian nation has every oppressed its citizens or started wars, and there has never been a Christian dictatorship. As far as I am concerned God-given rights may as well be the same as natural rights. In either circumstance the rights are granted by the creator, in whatsoever guise that Creator is viewed. The rights are not ensured because we are a nation composed mostly of Christians founded on Christian ideals, but we are a nation of religious freedom because we are a nation that came together from multiple denominations.

This brings me back to the proposed mosque in Manhattan. I understand the argument Gingrich raised about Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia) not permitting synagogues and churches, but that is not a valid reason to limit religious freedoms here. This is exactly the argument Tom Friedman makes in his August 3 column. His argument is the same as mine: this is a display of openness and inclusion that is all but unprecedented. It is also a symbol of recognition that it was not “Muslims” who attacked the United States, but particular extremists. Yet people come out and basically claim that a mosque is sacrilege because Muslims or Arabs attacked the United States and while we support religious freedom, we do so everywhere except that piece of real estate. On top of it all there is increasing rhetoric about Sharia Law being instituted, supposedly as an insidious scheme to supplant the Constitution.

I have no issue with what people do. I have no problem with what people believe. So long as those two do not infringe on my person. I also find a lot to be admired in the conservative platform–small government, safety, lower taxes (although if there will be lower taxes, the savings should be equitably balanced), states rights and individual freedoms. I just cannot stand hypocrisy, including, but not limited to the dual standard between Bush and Obama, and individual freedoms everywhere except Patriot Act, marriage law, and abortions. I admire people who stand by their convictions, except where those convictions made without enough information. My greatest fear and what I find most depressing in America today is the thorough, unapologetic ignorance that exists. In a sense I believe in some sort of American exceptionalism, but in our constitution and because, historically, American creativity, ingenuity and ambition has achieved great things, not because being American is inherently exceptional.

Education and information are the keys to all of this. The problem is that if people are unreceptive or uninterested, education and information are limited.