In the months since my last post, lots of things have happened. We’ve had a national election, for one thing, which by most accounts has assured us two more years of political gridlock and confirmed the deep polarization of public opinion. At the same time, the drive for marriage equality has gone from one success to the next, with only an occasional glitch. (One – only one – circuit of the Court of Appeals has taken a stand against the trend, increasing the chances of the Supreme Court taking a case soon and deciding once and for all whether the Equal Protection clause requires equal marriage laws.)

And as usual I’ve been reading lots of stuff.

The polarization thing has drawn me back to my interest in the roots of representative democracy as we know it, in 17th and 18th century England. This is something I may be able to cook down into a series of blog posts. The latest soundbites from the conflict of Whigs and Tories. Actually, most recently I’ve been looking at the earlier history of Scotland, because it was Scots Calvinist resistance to royal imposition of Episcopacy and its trappings that triggered the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Which wouldn’t have happened if the crowns of the two countries hadn’t been united since 1603. That’s one of the things I’m getting from my study of history – a sense of how things could have turned out very differently if some heir to a throne had lived longer, or died sooner, or been born a different gender.

So let’s see if I can get myself to write up some of this stuff, and whatever else comes up.

Wish me luck!


Reviewed in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, two new books on the Civil War and the events leading to it.  America’s Great Debate, by Fergus M. Bordewich, and Fateful Lightning by Allen C. Guelzo.

This topic resonates with me because of my recent thinking on political polarization. After all, the mid-19th century was the one time in our history we were undeniably at least as polarized as now: so much so that a large part of the country tried secession, and almost managed to make it stick. Of course there’s no real likelihood of another Civil War breaking out; our differences don’t follow state lines quite as closely as they did then, and Federal institutions (and firepower) are much stronger. But the way our major political subcultures are screaming past each other, totally incapable of acknowledging the legitimacy of each other’s viewpoint, is certainly reminiscent of those days.

It all makes me wonder whether sometimes polarization is so great, so deep, that the only way out is for one side to beat the [deleted] out of the other.

The Bordewich book interests me especially because of its focus on the Compromise of 1850. I first read about it in Profiles in Courage when I was a kid; the book had a chapter on the vilification of Daniel Webster for his (courageous, the book said) support for the Compromise. I’ve always tended to sympathize more with the anti-Compromise abolitionists; but would we have ended up worse off, as is usually suggested, if instead secession had happened 10 years earlier?

And what did possess Stephen Douglas, just 4 years after his work in getting the Compromise enacted, to effectively override it with the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Without that, could the nation have carried on “half slave and half free” even longer?

More to come. Whether I read the books or not, I won’t stop thinking about the topic anytime soon. For now I leave you with this sentence I just found in Jefferson’s famous “Firebell in the Night” letter, about the beginnings of sectional polarization in 1820: “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

Romney in ’12?

September 17, 2011

My friend John Burciaga has posted – here, and here – some excellent reasons why Mitt Romney should be the Republican party’s nominee for President, for the good of the party and the country.

It is not however clear to me that these reasons will persuade a majority of Republican primary and caucus participants.

Mitt does have a natural appeal to a large part of the party’s base: that part which is most concerned with economic policy, and is impressed mainly by a candidate’s business experience. In the 2008 primaries he did well in the northernmost states. (Also wherever there is a large concentration of Mormons.) But will this be enough to win? It seems to me that among the grass roots of the party the business-minded are outnumbered by the social/religious conservatives, who have a strong distaste for Romney because he clearly isn’t one of them – not only because of his Mormonism (evangelicals generally don’t consider him a “Christian”) but because he never particularly supported their issues until he started running for national office.

Bachmann may have been a flash in the pan, but Perry has much more solid credentials, political preferences aside. He is after all the governor of a large and prosperous state, the longest continuously serving governor in the country (someone recently pointed out that he’s the only current governor who was in office on 9/11/01). And while his views on many subjects may seem way out to people like me and most of my friends, they aren’t that far from the mainstream in today’s GOP. John expects the grass roots of the party to be overcome by a wave of (well, what seems to us to be) good sense; if that were the way it worked, we could have gotten a President Romney back in the 1960’s… Of course a lot can happen between now and next year’s convention, but as of now, I see no compelling reason not to regard Perry as the front-runner for the nomination.

Over the next few days I may write some about how I see the present situation in historical context; I think I have some interesting quirky stuff to say.



3) But how did it come about that a lame-duck Congress – the one with a Federalist majority, which had just been resoundingly overturned – came to be responsible for not only counting and certifying the electoral vote, but also stepping in and picking the winners if no one had the necessary majority? I used to think it was a simple straightforward matter of timing; whereas now, under the 20th Amendment, the Congressional term starts on January 3 and the Presidential term on the 20th, in those days all terms started on March 4. Well, that’s true as far as it goes, but why? I assumed that the Constitution had originally specified the March date, but no, it seems that was introduced more or less by accident; all the Constitution said was that Congress was to meet on the first Monday in December every year unless it voted to change the date. The original intent seems to have been that the states would arrange elections in the fall of every even-numbered year, and the new Congress would convene that December. (It occurs to me that this meshes well with the provision later adopted by the second Congress, that the Electors would cast their ballots on the first Wednesday in December. If things had gone as originally intended, the new Congress would have been in place by then, to receive and inspect the ballots, hold its own election if no one had the necessary majority, and have a new President in office by maybe sometime early January.)

But by the time there were enough ratifications to put the Constitution into effect, it was already September of 1788, and when the old Continental Congress met for the last time to certify the result and arrange the transition, they considered it too late to get the new Congress elected to meet that year. At the same time, no one wanted to wait till the following December, so they split the difference and came up with the March date for the first Government under the Constitution to take office. As it happened the new Congress wasn’t able to assemble a quorum till April 6, when they counted the electoral votes which, to no one’s surprise, unanimously elected George Washington.

Well, a month wasn’t a long time in those days, so no one saw a problem in Congress pre-dating the start of its own term and Washington’s to March 4, the date originally intended; but then, because the President’s term was specified as 4 years, and their own as 2 for Representatives and 6 for Senators, subsequent Presidents and Congresses could not take office before that date (in the odd-numbered, non-election year), and the country was stuck with a lame-duck period unlike anything else in the modern world; worse yet, they never saw fit to provide (except sometimes on an ad hoc basis) an alternative to the December date for Congress to actually convene, so we were stuck with a really absurd rhythm in which a Congress would be elected in the fall of an even-numbered year, but not be able to meet (unless the old Congress specifically summoned them, which happened occasionally) until the  December of the next year; it would then have a “long session” which would last as long into the year after that as needed, i.e. the next election year, and then re-convene for a “short session” in December after the election, to take care of business through March 3; then there would be no Congress in session until the next December.

Again, that’s enough for one day. It will take me a while longer to digest the next major section of Ackerman’s book, devoted to issues relating to the Federal judiciary in the wake of the 1800 transfer of power: the “midnight judges,” the Jeffersonians’ attempts to get rid of as many of them as possible, and the resulting court cases, including of course Marbury v. Madison.

Maybe I’ll write of other things in the meanwhile. Bear with me!

The Constitution we have…

September 13, 2011

The other day I noticed the cover of the current edition of American Prospect – not the 9/11 one but the following month’s, not online yet (or I’d post a link, of course) but on the stands and in libraries already. It shows a standard portrait of George Washington with a mouth balloon saying “Oops!” – illustrating an article by Harold Meyerson entitled “Did the Founders Screw Up? – Why presidential democracy no longer works for America.”

I don’t wish to get into the details of the article right now, but rather report what came to my mind first when I saw the cover: first, I thought the title was perhaps inaccurate in its provocative tone, in that there is considerable middle ground between (1) not quite anticipating developments two centuries in advance, and (2) screwing up; but then I was reminded of how the Constitution as originally written caused a near-disaster just 12 years later, in the election of 1800; though there have been several books on that subject recently, the one I immediately thought of  was Bruce Ackerman’s similarly titled The Failure of the Founding Fathers. So I went back to it to remind myself of some of its contents.

What is well known, or at least what I’ve known about the 1800 election since I was a kid, is that the Constitution origially had the Presidential Electors each cast  two ballots for the Presidency, at least one of which had to be for a candidate from outside the Elector’s own state; to be elected, one had to have the votes of a majority of the Electors; and the runner-up became Vice President. This failed to anticipate the formation of national parties putting forward candidates for both offices as a single “ticket;” thus Jefferson and Burr, the winners in 1800, ended up with an exact tie in the electoral vote, with nothing to indicate which should be Pres and which VP (though it seems clear that everyone intended Jefferson to be the head of the ticket). This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where the defeated Federalist party was still in charge and came close to electing Burr over Jefferson out of sheer mischief, until wiser heads prevailed. Promptly thereafter the 12th Amendment was adopted, giving us more or less the system we have now.

Things I hadn’t known, or hadn’t paid sufficient attention to, before I read them in Ackerman:

1) Only under the original system could there have been both an exact tie and an absolute majority of the Electors. There were 138 Electors that year; thus 276 votes were cast, but the necessary majority was a majority of the 138 only, that is 70. As it happened, Jefferson and Burr each got 73. This is why the run-off in the House was just between the two of them; if neither had gotten to 70, a more familiar provision would have taken effect allowing the House to choose between the top 5 candidates (changed by the 12th Amendment to top 3). This is why the Federalists weren’t able to simply elect their own candidate, presumably Adams though Ackerman suggests they might have preferred C. C. Pinckney as marginally more acceptable to at least some Jeffersonians.

2) In fact it could have turned out that way;  the ballot submitted by the four Georgia electors was technically deficient, and the Congress could have voted to dismiss them, leaving Jefferson and Burr tied at 69. Now, in accordance with the Constitution, the presiding officer of the joint session where the votes were counted was the President of the Senate, i.e. the sitting VP, Jefferson himself… but he could have been overruled on this if anyone had really wanted to make trouble, or if anyone really suspected hanky-panky in Georgia (which everyone knew intended to vote for Jefferson-Burr).

The plot thickens; but this is already long enough for a post, so I’ll end here for now and put up more tomorrow (a good bit is already written, so you can be pretty sure something will appear).

The other night I went to see Bertrand Tavernier’s new film, The Princess of Montpensier. In general I’m not that much of a film buff, but I’ve been through phases of it. In particular, at a certain point back in the last millennium  I had a cluster of friends with whom I regularly went to see all the latest French stuff, and it was just then that Tavernier’s first big hit The Clockmaker came out. So when his name began appearing again  in the papers a couple of weeks ago, it rang a bell and I decided to take a look and see what he’s been up to lately.

Also,  as my friends know, I am an avid reader of history, and Princess is nothing if not deeply rooted in French history. Based on a story by Mme de La Fayette, better known for another Princess novel, the film takes place during the first part of the 16th century Wars of Religion and climaxes with the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. So there’s plenty of blood and guts and snazzy swordplay in it; but it’s fundamentally a love story, about a young woman with too many men in her life. Four, to be exact… The historical details aren’t spelled out in too great detail; I think the original French audience was expected to know the basic outlines and to realize, for example, that two of the heroine’s suitors were among the Three Henries whose bitter rivalry was to dominate the final phase of the Wars two decades later.  I certainly felt that knowing things like this added a certain flavor to my experience of certain scenes; but the important stuff I think was self-explanatory.

I liked the fact that all four of the men who professed an interest in the poor Princess were very clearly delineated: the young husband  preoccupied with propriety, honor and family duty; the passionate Guise with his scarred face; the King’s brother Anjou (later to reign as Henri III after a brief stint as King of Poland) for whom it all seems to be very much a game; and the older, sadder, ineffectively wiser Chabannes. And her father-in-law with his incessant blather about food and wine…

Given my interests I always pay attention to how historical fiction tweaks the known facts to make a better story. I’m no purist, Macbeth’s 17-year reign which Shakespeare somehow bypasses doesn’t bother me at all, but I like to notice the details.  The love plot seems to have been created by Mme de La Fayette, but all the main characters are clearly historical except perhaps for Chabannes. I cannot imagine why Tavernier saw fit to change the given names of the Montpensier couple from François and Renée to Philippe and Marie… More interesting is the fact that  in  real life the Princess, though she did in fact die young, lived long enough to bear a son to her Prince; Mme de La Fayette wants none of this, and simply has her die in despair at Guise’s final betrayal; whereas Tavernier has a softer ending, with the Princess alive, finally renouncing love and passion and expecting to die soon. And the last straw for her in the movie is Guise’s marriage to Catherine of Cleves; in real life this had already happened several years earlier, and in Mme de La F.’s version his abandonment of the Princess is marked by an affair with another woman entirely. I think Tavernier wanted him to appear more noble than that…

Anyway, a most enjoyable evening, and I’d recommend the film to anyone.

Thoughts on Egypt

February 1, 2011

2 caveats: I have no expert or inside knowledge of the situation; and I am aware that events are in progress and anything I write may be easily overtaken by them before anyone reads it. But as I said the other day: Hey, it’s a blog.

Now then.

Like just about everyone I’ve heard from, my sympathies are with the people of Egypt; I applaud their struggle for freedom and democracy; I profoundly hope that they emerge from all this with a better government than they’ve got now, and with few if any casualties along the way. Do I think it will happen?

Well, the historical events that naturally come to people’s minds are the revolution against the Shah, the fall of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. (I also think back to the previous round of democratic transitions in Europe, the fall of the last fascioid regimes in the 70’s…) Which if any does Egypt particularly resemble? I don’t see it as very much like China in ’89, or ever. The protestors there were mainly from a small young urban educated elite, in a country with a vast peasantry which the government could count on for at least tacit support, an official ideology which a lot of people still took seriously, and a massive propaganda machine at the disposal of the ruling party; Egypt under Nasser probably had that kind of infrastructure, but I see no evidence of that today. The Mubarak regime seems to be far more of a one-man show, depending on thuggery and thievery far more than on any penetration into the hearts and minds of anyone; strong up to now, but brittle. There seems at least at present a real possibility that the military will ditch the President and make its peace with the people. It may still end badly. The leaders may try to get by with a few cosmetic changes and wait for things to die down; or things may get so out of control that people will find a crack-down justifiable. Or else the masses may come to power in a way that leads to the demonization of almost everyone with the skills to make things work. But right now my sense is that there’s enough good-will on all sides, except where Mubarak and his inner circle are involved, that a new government based on a broad consensus should be possible.

The Iranian model also doesn’t seem very applicable. Of course Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Any government based on a broad consensus, formally democratic or not, will have to reflect that somehow. Any government based on a broad consensus will have to recognize the Ikhwan  (Muslim Brotherhood), or something like it, as a legitimate voice in public affairs. There is nothing wrong with this; we Americans have got to learn not to panic at the word “Islam.” What I don’t see is any sign of protestors demanding anything like full implentation of shari’ah; they have different agendas entirely. What I don’t see is anything like the underground infrastructure of Iranian mullahs and ayatollahs and theological schools that survived all those decades of Pahlevi rule; Sunni Islam is less conducive to that. Will the majority, if it comes to power, learn to accept their Coptic brethren as full equal citizens? Only time will tell. Will it demand a stronger stance against Israel, even repudiating Sadat’s peace treaty? Quite possibly, but I think most Egyptians would realize they have a lot of work to do on the domestic front before they can even think of posing a credible threat to such a well armed neighbor.

In the long run the threat to Israel may be ideological and not military; if a substantial part of the Arab world does succeed in democratizing and in resolving peacefully its various ethnic and religious minority conflicts, Israel’s gentile sympathisers (myself included) may gradually become less easy to persuade that the Jews’ survival there absolutely requires a guarantee that their state must be so firmly Jewish as to keep its Arab citizens (and occupied persons for that matter) from ever getting the share of political power that their numbers would seem to justify… But that’s a very big “if,” not a bridge to be crossed anytime soon.

So – is Egypt more like Eastern Europe in ’89? Again, less infrastructure on the side of the government, but also less familiarity with democratic ideas and methods on the part of the people. Face it, no analogy is really that good. The Egyptians will have to model their own future. There are, I repeat, a lot of ways it can turn out badly, but I think one can begin to be very cautiously optimistic…

UPDATE 9 a.m. EST Wednesday 2/2: looks like the government has been able to collect enough goons to stage a “spontaneous patriotic rally” and attack the protestors. The usual suspects, tough guys with an enthusiasm for cracking heads. We’ll see.