Where to (re-)start…

April 16, 2015

In the months since my last post, hardly a week goes by without something in the news or everyday life that makes me think “I should post something on that;” but by the time I get to where I can sit down and do it, I have other things on my mind and it never happens.

Maybe the trick is to stop feeling I have to clear enough time and attention to do a long fully-argued post before I can write anything.

But I like spinning out long fully-argued posts.

OK, here’s a quickie. This thought underlies a lot of my thinking about politics, morality and religion topics, and almost everything I start spinning out on those topics leads back to it, so I’ll say it once here, and maybe unpack it in the near future:

The history of all human society is, above all, the history of society.


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!

The week in politics

June 27, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Hope to get back to it on a more regular basis.

Anyway, the big news of the week (here in Boston at least) is the election of Ed Markey to the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. This was no surprise to anyone unless they get all their news from the Herald, which alone of all the media I’ve seen kept finding inklings of a significant surge of support for Gabe Gomez. Markey has been criticized for playing it safe and “merely” mobilizing his base, but in fact that was all that was needed; turnout was in fact half of what it had been in the Brown/Coakley race. Gomez never gave people a reason to vote for him beyond his being a nice guy, a Navy SEAL, young, vigorous, and less partisan (i.e. less predictable in his positions) than Markey; the last-mentioned consideration actually counted against him, and the others weren’t enough to  make up for it. As I wrote after the primaries, I never got the sense that the public mood this year was anything like what it was when Scott Brown scored his upset win a few years ago; moreover, Brown wasn’t the total outsider to politics that Gomez proudly presented himself as. As much as we sometimes gripe about the “insiders,” here in MA we tend to prefer elected officials with experience.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court started out the last week of its term with two decisions which were strongly conservative, though skating short of being radically so: they didn’t exactly end Affirmative Action and the Voting Rights Act, they just set standards of scrutiny that will make these policies harder if not impossible to follow. Then came the Equal Marriage cases. This time they gave the Left just enough of what it wanted, again without doing anything really radical. It seems that as long as the Court is dominated by two parties of four justices apiece, with one regular swing vote, we’re going to see more of these narrowly-crafted opinions; which may be the best thing from the point of view of the law as a whole.

Informed opinion all along had been expecting something like the DOMA and Prop 8 opinions, especially since the oral arguments. For one thing, the dominant flavor of conservatism on the Court is pro-business, not culture-war, though Scalia at least clearly falls into the latter category. Dumping DOMA was an easy step for the Court to take; the posture of the case made it at least as much about States Rights as about Equal Protection. The part of the law that immunized hetero-only states against Full Faith and Credit challenges was not in question; only the part that aligned the Federal Government with those states, causing  legally married same-sex couples in the growing number of Equal Marriage states to miss out on Federal benefits they arguably were entitled to.  Of course the decision will only increase the political pressure for Equal Marriage in the remaining states; same-sex couples there will fight more vigorously for their rights, and even people there who aren’t for same-sex marriage per se might be sensitive to the argument that couples shouldn’t be denied Federal benefits that similar couples in other states have.

As for Prop 8, again the Court did the easiest thing it could have done, from a judicial conservative point of view: it followed the long-standing tradition of avoiding potentially embarrassing issues by deciding that there wasn’t a valid case or controversy for it to decide. If the Governor and Attorney General of a state, as the original defendant in the case, are unwilling to defend their law on appeal, that apparently ends the matter; no other supporter of the law has standing, so there’s no case. What effect this has will have to be worked out by the Californians, but the executive branch seems quite willing to follow the District Court ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

This will bring the number of Americans living in Equal Marriage states up to around 30%. Only 30%, we on the Left complain, and rightly so; but let us bear in mind that 10 years ago the percentage was 0.

Finally a shout-out to Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who reminded us how filibustering was meant to be done. Take note, Harry Reid!!!

This week we had a primary here in Massachusetts, to choose the candidates for Secretary of State Kerry’s old Senate seat.

The winners were U. S. Representative Markey on the Democratic side, and for the Republicans (more surprisingly) a political newcomer (ex-SEAL, businessman) named Gabriel Gomez. The state is well known to be heavily Democratic, so Markey is favored in the upcoming election, but Gomez is considered to be the Republican most capable of pulling an upset, because he is an attractive personality, not publicly identified with extreme right-wing positions or causes, socially moderate-to-liberal, a Latino, and above all a fresh face compared to his opponent, who has been in Congress since the 1970s. A poll published today in fact shows Markey with a mere 4% lead, and Gomez leading among Independents.

People are wondering if Gomez will be another Scott Brown, who won the special election to succeed Ted Kennedy a few years ago; his opponent Martha Coakley had started out as the overwhelming favorite. It can happen; but there are factors working against Gomez as well. For one thing the anti-Obama mood of 2010, which helped elect Brown, seems to be behind us.  Also, there is the fact that there’s already been a Scott Brown; the Markey campaign won’t be caught by surprise, they’ll know better than to be take the election for granted as Coakley seemed to do. They’ve already begun campaigning hard against Gomez, trying to portray him as more right-wing than he comes across in person, and also pointing out that however nice a guy he might be he’ll still be a vote for the Republicans when it comes to organizing the Senate (and very likely disrupting it with filibusters as they’ve been doing). On the other hand going after someone with a nice-guy image can backfire badly if the attack can’t be made to stick.

A couple of other things: Markey may be the consummate Washington insider, but locals here don’t seem have the same antipathy towards such types as they do towards Beacon Hill insiders. Moreover, Coakley was Attorney-General; in other states prosecutors may be popular heroes and have a leg up in seeking higher office, but here they seem to make more enemies than friends, as the people they feel they have to prosecute are often well connected. Scott Harshbarger, I seem to recall, ran into this problem when he ran for Governor in 1998…

An irony is that we wouldn’t be having this election at all, or the one in 2010 that gave us Senator Brown, if the Democrats hadn’t tinkered with the law in 2004. Until then Massachusetts, like most states, allowed the Governor to fill Senate vacancies by appointing someone to serve until the next regular Congressional election; but that year Kerry ran for President, and if he’d won Mitt Romney would have appointed his successor in the Senate. The overwhelming Democratic majority in General Court (as we call the state legislature) didn’t like that idea, so they reduced the term of an appointed Senator to just enough time for a special election to be organized. But Kerry of course ended up staying in the Senate; by the time an actual vacancy did arise we had a Democratic Governor, but it would have looked bad even by Beantown standards if they’d tried to change the law back.

I’m back

December 12, 2012

Previously, whenever I let time go by without posting on this blog, visits would drop off to a daily average of 0 until I resumed; this time, though, I have been surprised to note a steady trickle of visitors throughout. One day recently I actually hit double digits. So in spite of too much else on my plate, I have decided to start writing again. Let’s see how long I can keep it up this time.

Let’s see, what has been going on since my last post… Oh yes, there was an election, wasn’t there. More or less as I expected – or at least as I remember expecting, I haven’t checked to see whether what I actually wrote here confirms this – the Romney campaign focused on economic conservatism at the expense of other flavors, but failed to come up with anything  to make such a platform more attractive to the general public than it has been since 1929. Romney seems to have taken it for granted that the widespread and understandable disappointment in the rate of the recovery since 2008 would translate automatically into an eagerness to embrace the Republican alternative; whereas in fact lots of us still blame Republican policies for the collapse itself and believe that returning to them can only make the situation worse. In fact the GOP has done as well as it has in presidential elections since World War II by focusing on things other than its classical economic program: patriotism, fear of street crime, concerns about increasing cultural diversity and the decline of sexual morality, all that sort of thing. The one time I can remember when a Republican won on largely economic grounds was 1980, when neither candidate actually embraced his own party’s traditional position: Carter did not run as much of a New Dealer, and Reagan claimed to be offering something radically new (which his running mate had actually called “voodoo” when running against him in the primaries). If the parties that year had nominated Bush Sr and Ted Kennedy instead, then maybe the election would have been a clear referendum on the New Deal. But we didn’t have one, most GOP candidates have done their best to avoid one, and Romney’s going all out for one seems to show an unprecedentedly naive trust in his own talking points. Now I’m not saying he couldn’t have won such a referendum, that an argument couldn’t have been found to win his case for him; I do tend to think it couldn’t, but my point here is that it didn’t seem to occur to Romney that some new or more vigorous argument was needed.

Nevertheless the election was a rather close one, nationally, though individual states and counties seem to be turning more solidly “red” or “blue” than ever before. So polarization is still very much in the  news. A couple of weeks ago I finally read The Big Sort, the 2008 book on how liberals and conservatives seem to be crystallizing into two separate cultures with ever less contact and communication between them. I’ve also been going back to the origins of two-party politics in Restoration England. Maybe I’ll manage to post something on these subjects in the days to come.

Wish me luck!



August 13, 2012


I’ve said before that Romney wanted to make this election a referendum on the New Deal, and now he seems to have done exactly that. I really don’t believe he picked Ryan under pressure from the Tea Party; if it looked like he could coast to victory he might have gone with a more boring choice, but Ryan is just the kind of hard-core conservative who is most compatible with what we can plausibly assume to be Romney’s own beliefs. (Although I am not the first to note the irony, given his touting of his business experience as essential to the ability to lead the country, that his running mate’s entire career has been in Congress.)

As I’ve also said, the whole primary contest wasn’t about Mitt’s degree of conservatism but his particular flavor of conservatism. If he’d picked someone better known for religious-right culture-war credentials, or for race- or immigrant-baiting, that would look more like panic.

So now it’s Romney-Ryan, and everyone in both parties is professing to be delighted with the fact. Actually I think Ezra Klein hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

Both Democrats and conservatives are going to get the exact debate they wanted. I’m not so sure about Republicans.

Because there is a very real possibility that senior citizens and other beneficiaries of government programs will totally freak out over the Ryan budget, making the election another 1964. Maybe not, but at least there’s a clearer choice than we’ve had in a while. No side issues like patriotism or sexual morality to induce people who don’t really buy conservative economic theory to vote Republican anyway; nor even a chance that people will vote Republican because they like the sound of the anti-“big government” slogans, without thinking through what they mean in practice. The Obama campaign will have and will take every opportunity to spell it out in gory detail. For the first time, if the Republicans do win, no one can deny that they have a clear mandate to roll up the safety net and run the country like the Depression never happened. And if they lose, it will be equally clear that all their victories over the past few decades were due to those side issues they managed to wrap themselves in. We shall see.

Another commentator, Amy Walter of ABC news, argues that the average swing voter doesn’t want an ideological battle:

They aren’t spending their evenings debating the benefits of Hayek or Keynesian economic models. They are just trying to figure out which candidate is capable of getting something done. They will reward the politician who succeeds in getting things moving again. But that shouldn’t be taken as proof that voters are endorsing the philosophical underpinnings of that success.

In other words, voters are looking less at ideology and more at competency.

Tell that to Mike Dukakis. I mean, Walter may be right that a significant number of voters do feel that way, but it is still unrealistic. There’s no point in discussing competence if we disagree radically about what we want done in the first place. Clearly President Obama, whatever one thinks of his personal abilities, could have carried out at least somewhat more of his agenda if he hadn’t been obstructed by the Republicans in Congress;  where we disagree is on whether this would have been a good thing or a bad thing. There’s been a lot of handwringing in the pundit class for decades over “failed Presidencies,” but the fact is most of us can think of some things we are glad that one or another President has failed at; we’re just split down the middle over which things. If either side wins a decisive victory this November, maybe it will put the question behind us for a while…

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.”