The Politics of Supreme Court Retirements

Written by Isaac Chotiner and published in The New Yorker 6/22/21

 “It has been a little odd when people think that the best way to convince a Justice to retire is to write an open letter,” Noah Feldman says.Photograph by Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / GettyLast Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear that if Republicans recapture the Senate next year, they would likely reject any Supreme Court nominee that President Biden put forward in 2024. This position is consistent with McConnell’s stance after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2016, when he prevented President Barack Obama from filling the seat. (About the possibility of the Senate confirming a nominee in 2023, McConnell was noncommittal.) His comments increased the pressure on Justice Stephen Breyer, who is eighty-two, and who many progressive activists hope will retire this year, before the midterms. But Breyer has indicated that he believes the timing of his retirement should not be dictated by politics. Judges, he stated at a lecture in April, “are loyal to the rule of law, not to the political party that helped to secure their appointment.”

To discuss this issue, I spoke by phone with Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School. In a recent column for Bloomberg, he argued that the Justice “can be trusted to do the right thing—provided liberal law professors don’t box him in by declaring that he ‘must’ resign. . . . Every column or television comment—the more prominent, the worse—traps Breyer into having to stay out so as not to appear to be acting as a partisan.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether Breyer should make his decision based on who is President, what we might learn from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, last year, and whether it made sense to view the Supreme Court as a political institution.

Are the reasons you believe that people should not be telling Breyer to retire substantive as much as practical? In other words, is your fear solely that telling him to retire will make him want to do the opposite so as not to appear political, or do you also think that there are good reasons that he should not retire immediately?

I think the retirement decision is overwhelmingly personal, and I would not presume to tell a Justice that he or she should stay in the job if he or she wanted to retire—that’s for sure. Then, like every other observer who cares about the living Constitution, I hope that Joe Biden has an opportunity to nominate someone to the Court who shares that broad preference, and we know that, if the Republicans were to take power in the Senate, it’s very unlikely that they would confirm such a nominee.

You say it’s personal, but it’s not personal in the sense that it affects millions of people.

Well, the way you put the question was, Do I think there’s a reason for him to stay on? There might be circumstances in which you could imagine that a Justice really wants to step down and you say to that Justice, “Gee, I think you owe it to the Republic to stay in your post.” Indeed, some of Justice [David] Souter’s former law clerks said that to Justice Souter during the George W. Bush Administration, when he would say that he was ready to throw in the towel. I can imagine circumstances like that do arise, but we’re not in those circumstances now.

But, if you thought that people telling Justice Breyer to retire would have the effect of getting him to retire, is that something that you would approve of?

I would think that if someone really wanted a Justice to retire, the logical way to do that would be to communicate that privately to the Justice. I think it has been a little odd when people for whom I have a lot of respect—important scholars and academics or public figures—think that the best way to convince a Justice to retire is to write an open letter.

If Patrick Leahy or Chuck Schumer ran into Justice Breyer and said, “I think you should retire,” would that be appropriate, or would that be too partisan?

Well, that raises a different question, because those are members of a different branch of the government. I don’t think it’s appropriate for members of the executive or the legislative branch of government to say to a sitting Supreme Court Justice, “I think you should retire.” I think that’s a form of judgment or etiquette largely shared by most people. But I was talking about law professors and people like that, some of whom wrote pieces saying that Justice Ginsburg should retire, and some of whom have written pieces saying that Justice Breyer should retire.

You write about Breyer, “He is the one of the great pragmatist justices ever to have sat on the Supreme Court. . . . Breyer also knows Capitol Hill, having worked there three separate times,” and you add, “What Breyer needs and deserves is room to maneuver, to find the best and most rational way to satisfy the complex competing interests around his retirement.” This implies that the decision is complex and requires expertise. Do you think it is?

It’s certainly a complex decision. First, you have the personal considerations that anyone has when retiring from a position that he or she has been in for a long time. Second, you have the legitimate desire on Justice Breyer’s part, or at least I believe Justice Breyer has, to insure that the Supreme Court does not appear to be a partisan institution. To retire the moment that you have a Democratic President and a Democratic-controlled Senate might, to some people, look like you were saying that the institution is in some sense partisan, and Justice Breyer strongly rejects that idea. What’s more, at a moment when many people are insisting the Supreme Court is partisan, he has been giving lectures and is in the process of writing a book trying precisely to make a point that the institution isn’t partisan. So he has a vested interest in not sending that message. Third, of course, is the pragmatic reality he understands perfectly well that, in the new political situation that we live in, a Democratic President who doesn’t control the Senate is very unlikely to get anybody through, and that raises the risk that you might have a Republican President choosing someone whose constitutional vision or legal vision is super different from Justice Breyer’s. He’s a pragmatist, and he knows that.

Could you imagine someone like Breyer making the argument that it’s inappropriate to even consider the possibility that a Republican Congress might not let a replacement through?

Justice Breyer is a highly rational person, and he’s a realist.

Yes, in the piece you say,“The liberal legal commentariat should stand back and let the master operate.”

That’s true. I believe that, but what I’m also trying to say is that, in the course of his entire body of jurisprudence, I can’t think of a single case in which he relied on a formalism that required him to ignore reality. He thinks that reality has weight in the world and one should take account of it. So I can’t imagine Justice Breyer believing that it would be entirely inappropriate for him to, in any way, take account of political reality. That’s not the kind of viewpoint that I would attribute to him. Among other things, Justice Breyer has a concern for the Supreme Court to function well. And, in a world where a Republican Senate won’t confirm any nominee put forward by Democratic Presidents, if a Justice stepped down or had to step down in that circumstance, that would leave an empty Supreme Court seat, and that would not be good for the Supreme Court’s functioning.

You wrote another column last July, in which you claimed, “The consequences of the 2020 vote on the Supreme Court, and the country, could not be greater.” That implies that Breyer needs to retire, right? If the future of the Court hinged on who was going to win the 2020 election, then it seems like whoever won should have a chance to appoint as many Justices as possible.

Right now, the Court has a 6–3 conservative majority. If there were to be a Republican President elected in 2024, and that person had a Republican Senate, there’s a real possibility that, if Justice Breyer had to retire during that period of time, we would go to a 7–2 conservative majority, which is very different from a 6–3 majority. So, from my perspective—of someone who favors a Supreme Court that has as many Justices as possible who believe in the living Constitution—that would be a devastating consequence. That said, the current 6–3 conservative majority can already potentially reach decisions that will themselves be devastating from the standpoint of protecting fundamental rights. That could happen even if the Court remained at 6–3. Did I write that before or after Ginsburg died?

It was before Ginsburg died.

I wrote that under those conditions when it was a 5–4 Supreme Court. Things do look a little different once the Court goes to 6–3.

Right, but the reason the Court went from 5–4 to 6–3 is that Justice Ginsburg didn’t in fact retire, and died. So then how do you view her decision not to retire when there was a Democratic President?

I desperately wish that Justice Ginsburg had retired when Barack Obama was President and the Democratic Party controlled the Senate. Her health had not been good at all, and that was known to the world, and of course known to her. I am deeply saddened that she did not.

So you think waiting too long is a fair critique of a Justice?

Look, I think it’s always situational, right? When should Thurgood Marshall have stepped down? He tried really hard to make it through eight years of Reagan and four years of George H. W. Bush, and he just didn’t quite make it. [Marshall retired in 1991 because of health issues.] But should he have stepped down under Carter, almost ten years before he actually passed away? That’s a pretty tough call to make, and it is not at all clear that he should have done.

He was in his seventies, not his eighties, in the Carter years, right?

Yeah, there was a big difference of age. But, yes, I think if there’s a Justice who cares about his or her legacy, and recognizes the possibility that that legacy could be disastrously undercut if he or she did not step down, it’s sensible for the Justice to take that into account and to step down. I have a pragmatist view of it.

I’m curious about this idea, which you’ve been circling in your answers, of viewing the Supreme Court as a political institution. I understand why in theory perhaps its not being a political institution would be a valuable thing for our country. But it seems clear to me that it is a political institution and that denying that reality seems to get us not necessarily in a better place. Do you agree?

I would like to draw a sharp distinction between the Supreme Court as a political institution and the Supreme Court as a partisan institution. Hard cases that come in front of the Supreme Court, whether they’re constitutional or statutory, involve subtle judgments about how to interpret the Constitution and how to interpret the laws, and those inevitably implicate deeply held political beliefs. When the Supreme Court decides those close cases, politics unquestionably come into its decision-making process, and, in that sense, the Supreme Court is a political institution. Look, the Justices are appointed by the Presidents of different parties and confirmed by the Senate, so therefore the Justices are appointed through a political process, and, in that sense also, the Supreme Court is a political institution.

But the Supreme Court ideally should not function as a partisan institution in the sense that the Justices should not be deciding cases based on what outcome would benefit one political party or the other. That’s hugely important as a value that all the Justices should, in principle, hold. Does that mean that every Justice has been wholly nonpartisan? Of course not, but the aspiration to be nonpartisan has the effect of constraining decision-making.

Bush v. Gore happened, and when it was decided, it looked to many observers like a partisan decision, and that was very costly to the legitimacy and reputation of the Supreme Court. In subsequent years, a good number of the Justices have tried hard not to make decisions that would make the Supreme Court look partisan. An example of how this constraint can operate does not require us to go very far back in history. Just think of how the Supreme Court operated during the 2020 election. There were many people in the country, including, it would seem, the President, Donald Trump, who imagined and hoped that the Supreme Court would intervene in the election and, against established precedent, decide some case or set of cases in a way that would enable Trump to win the election even though he’d lost, and reasonable observers were worried about that.

That perception itself is very harmful to the Supreme Court. But the very good news is that the Supreme Court Justices did not go that way. Those Justices did not decide, say, the Pennsylvania case in a way that would have thrown the electoral outcome into doubt. Instead, the Justices overwhelmingly voted in a nonpartisan way that was consistent with the rule of law. We who are not on the Supreme Court should be doing everything we can to encourage the Justices in their commitment to the ideal—and it’s an ideal—of deciding cases without reference to partisanship.

I’d concede that there were a lot of overwrought claims that the conservative majority would just hand the election to Trump, and those turned out to be completely wrong. It doesn’t seem to answer the question, though, of how they would have behaved in an election that was as close as Florida in 2000. About that, I have absolutely no confidence that they would not have acted in a partisan way.

As I said, Bush v. Gore did happen, so I can hardly say that it’s inconceivable that a 5–4 majority could intervene in the way that they did intervene in Bush v. Gore. But the fact is that constraints on Justices are not there only for the cases in which they might not work. They’re still valuable the rest of the time. I thought that people’s saying the Supreme Court was going to hand the election to Trump was an overwrought view, but neither I nor anybody else could be absolutely certain of it, and the reason that our judicial system works when it works is because not only the Justices but the lower federal-court judges, too, are people who, on the whole, actually believe in the rule of law. And that set of beliefs is really important, even if we, as critical outsiders, are not naïve and admit that politics come in. Their belief, nevertheless, is importantly constraining.

You mentioned different kinds of political decision-making, and I wonder about a certain kind, beyond partisanship, which is when people work backward, consciously or not, to the decision that they want. It’s very easy for Justices to tell themselves that they’re just calling balls and strikes, as Chief Justice [John] Roberts famously said in his confirmation hearings, and maybe he consciously believes that. But I can often guess where the Justices will end up on certain Court cases, and it’s not just because I studied their judicial philosophy and understand the constitutional issues involved. It’s because I know which were appointed by Republicans and which by Democrats. Is that too glib?

It’s not a question of glibness, but it is a question of subtlety, of differentiating jurisprudential commitments from politics. Now, jurisprudential commitments include some political beliefs. In fact, when the late, great Ronald Dworkin talked about what we call jurisprudential beliefs, he said that they were grounded in what he called “political morality.” He was acknowledging that there is a morality that is connected to people’s political values and beliefs. Again, that is, to some degree, inevitable in constitutional decision-making in high-stakes cases, but it should be separable from who happens to be the President now, and whether you like the legislation or not like the legislation.

Chief Justice Roberts did indeed cast the decisive vote not to overturn the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act case, and I don’t think that’s because he loved Obamacare. I think it’s because he really believed that, in light of the doctrine, there was a constitutional way to uphold the individual mandate. It doesn’t matter so much whether that was totally constrained by belief or whether his desire was to appear as though he was being nonpartisan. Who knows? You have to be deep in his psyche to know that. Even he might not know. But the result was a distinctly nonpartisan decision.

Could one make the argument that one side’s partisanship changes the rules of the game for the other side? I worry that the ship has left the harbor. This is now a partisan institution. Republicans act like it’s a partisan institution and will play very tough, and so, even if there’s something in theory to say for Breyer trying to establish nonpartisanship, in theory it’s naïve.

Stephen Breyer is one of the least naïve people I have met in my life, and I have very little worry that his decision-making process would be naïve. And if I did think that he were naïve, I would not think that his consciousness could somehow be raised to realism by op-eds. That said, the appointment process now is absolutely wholly partisan. That is absolutely true. We have entered a new era in the nature of the appointments process. That is different from whether the Supreme Court, in terms of the decisions of the Justices from their perspective, needs to be partisan. Notice the distinction.

You wrote a column last year about Amy Coney Barrett, in which you stated, “I disagree with much of her judicial philosophy. . . . Yet despite this disagreement, I know her to be a brilliant and conscientious lawyer. . . . Those are the basic criteria for being a good justice. Barrett meets and exceeds them.” You also called her a “sincere, lovely person,” and wrote, “Barrett is also a profoundly conservative thinker and a deeply committed Catholic. What of it? . . . I’m going to be confident that Barrett is going to be a good justice, maybe even a great one.” The Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar famously wrote in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, before the sexual-assault allegations against Kavanaugh became public. Is there too much focus in the legal profession on the quality of the Justices’ reasoning or how lovely they are as a person, when what is really important is how they’re going to vote on key issues?

When I wrote that piece, it was a hundred-per-cent certain that Justice Barrett would be confirmed by a majority-Republican Senate. The point that I was trying to make in the piece was not that any particular Democratic senator should vote for her confirmation. I’m not a senator, and I didn’t have to take a position on that. What I was saying is that it is and was unnecessary to vilify a Supreme Court nominee who is on her way to confirmation solely because one deeply disagrees with her judicial philosophy and is very likely to disagree with decisions that she reaches.

We do better by fostering a judicial and political culture in which we can acknowledge the sincerity and the good qualities even of people with whom we deeply disagree, and who will do things that we think are constitutionally wrong, and the reason we do better when we’re able to do that is that it doesn’t weaken our own beliefs or our own commitments. Rather, it encourages us and encourages them to remember that we’re all in this thing called living under the Constitution together, and that if we’re all in this thing together and we’re not evaluating every issue at the personal level from a partisan political perspective, then, when the stakes are very high, as indeed they were going to be just after Justice Barrett joined the Court, in the 2020 election season, we will increase the odds that those Justices who are confirmed share the belief that I have in the ideal of nonpartisanship.

Couldn’t you flip that the other way and say that, by arguing being respectful to people changes how they behave, you are arguing that people are inherently political, and that they respond to incentives and they respond to how they’re treated, or they respond to people badgering them—

No, no. No, Isaac, I don’t think so at all. Take a social practice, such as kindness to other people. If I say that if I’m kind to you, it increases the odds that you’ll be kind to me because we’re both committed to a belief in kindness. I’m not saying that kindness is an empty value. All social values have some components of self-interest, including kindness, including goodness, including nonpartisanship. I want a legal system in which Justices are nonpartisan because otherwise the vote might go against me sometime, and [one in which] the person on the other side also believes in nonpartisanship and in its value because the vote might go against her sometime. So it’s not undercutting that commitment; it’s a reinforcing of that ideal, and that’s true of kindness, it’s true of politeness, and it’s true of nonpartisanship.

That totally makes sense, although it goes against what Justice Roberts would say about calling balls and strikes, because the whole point of being an umpire is that you’re not supposed to care how people treat you.

You’ll notice that I’ve never embraced the balls-and-strikes analogy. But you’re a sports fan, and so you know that statistical analysis shows that different umpires have different strike zones. So we know that even the analogy is referring to an underlying reality that is, in fact, not objective. Umpires do call balls and strikes, but it turns out each of them calls them differently, on the basis maybe not of their political beliefs or commitments but based on some incompletely expressed idea of what’s a ball and what’s a strike. So there is no genuine objectivity with respect to balls and strikes as long as human beings are making the call.

What the founders of critical race theory have to say about the conservative attacks

Photo by Matthew DeVries on

Written by Rachel Hatzipanagos and published in

The Washington Post July 22,2021

For decades, the founders of critical race theory hashed out their differences at academic conferences and in journals.

The “crits,” as they are known, disagreed over whether their framework for examining systemic racism was too far removed from activists, and if their approach focused enough on the struggles of the poor.

“This was before the internet, before email. If you wanted exchange of ideas, you met face-to-face,” Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said in an email. “This allowed for expressions of difference, questioning, arguing, while forging solidarity.”

But in recent months, critical race theory has leaped from the classroom to conservative news networks, where it has been attacked as divisive. Conservative activists and politicians have seized on the issue, often redefining the academic term to encompass nearly any examination of systemic racism. Several state legislatures are considering whether to ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

In interviews, the scholars who helped create this academic framework said they’re angry about the way the current debate distorts their ideas. They worry about chilling effect this backlash could have on teaching about race and racism in America.

“This is basically an effort to create a boogeyman and pour everything into that category that they believe will prompt fear, discomfort and repudiation on the part of parents and voters who are primed to respond to this hysteria that they’re trying to create,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia Law School.

Critical race theory: Breaking down the truth behind the spin

As outlined in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” CRT was fueled by provocative ideas from its start.

In 1980, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell argued that the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education failed to significantly improve the lives of Black students, and that the decision only came about because the United States needed to improve its image around the world. “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites,” Bell wrote.

His essay would become one of the founding documents of critical race theory.

Opinion: Two voices of resistance to the critical race theory backlash in Oklahoma

Not all critical race theory scholars agree exactly with Bell, or with each other. But they broadly argue that race is a social construct and that the law helps perpetuate racism and existing social hierarchies, said Ian Haney López, a law professor at University of California at Berkeley and a longtime scholar of critical race theory and dog-whistle politics.

“Law cannot stand apart from society. Law must take seriously the extent to which it’s enmeshed in and draws upon very often legitimate, unjust social hierarchies,” Haney López said.

These ideas exploded into the mainstream in the summer of 2020, when massive, multiracial protests spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement hit an all-time high, and books related to systemic racism and White privilege soared to the top of bestseller lists.

But as support for Black Lives Matter began to wane among White Americans, conservative activists such as Christopher Rufo began to argue that attacks on critical race theory could be used to turn Americans against efforts to increase awareness of systemic racism more broadly.

“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo, 36, wrote on Twitter.

For generations, children have been spared the reality of slavery. Some schools are trying to change that.

By September, President Donald Trump banned federal agencies from teaching critical race theory in trainings. President Biden has since reversed Trump’s order, but conservatives have remained focused on the issue. In May, several GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to ban the teaching of critical race theory in federal institutions because they say it promotes discrimination and stokes division.

“I grew up attending segregated schools in the Jim Crow South during a time when people were treated differently based on the color of their skin,” wrote Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) in a statement. “Critical Race Theory preserves this way of thinking and undermines civil rights, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection before the law, and U.S. institutions at large.”

Haney López sees these attacks on critical race theory as part of “a well-established theater that is well practiced, well-established, even to some extent demanded by the right wing base.”

He believes there are a few things that made CRT attractive to attack. The scholar-driven movement fits into the right’s attack on “cultural elites.”

“It is part of a larger practice of culture-war politics, an effort by the Republican Party, by the party of big business, to convince working Americans that the elites who threaten them are not economic titans, but instead, cultural elites,” Haney López said.

And critical race theory, “has the word ‘race’ in it so it can be connected to the larger claims that demands for racial justice are really a form of anti-White racism and are rooted in hatred of White people,” Haney López said.

“There is a central lie that is being told all the time that is completely independent of CRT and … it is the lie that says people of color threaten White people,” he added.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

Opponents of critical race theory are also pushing legislation that would limit what students can be taught about race and racism. For generations, many U.S. public schools have not taught the true horrors of slavery, a Washington Post series reported last year.

Pushes to revamp curriculums and include scholarship such as the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, essays that examine slavery’s ongoing impact on American life, have similarly met resistance. At least 26 states have introduced bills or taken other actions to ban or limit CRT or discussions of race in the classroom, according to an Education Week tally.

“This is one of these moments where ignorance is a never-ending gift, you know, to these right-wing strategies of distraction and denial,” Crenshaw said. “Most Americans were not exposed to these histories in their classrooms.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is already taking steps to challenge the bans. But that hasn’t stopped some schools from prohibiting teachers from discussing race and racism in the classroom. A teacher’s course on race and ethnicity at Oklahoma City Community College was canceled for the summer semester, and Kansas is asking public universities to provide a list of courses that include critical race theory as part of the curriculum. A Tennessee schoolteacher was fired after assigning an opinion essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“We already see the most vulnerable educators — K-12 in red states, adjuncts and lecturers at universities, exploited grad students, small town librarians — losing positions, and facing hard choices and censorship when they are just trying to do their jobs,” Matsuda said.

Crenshaw said movements for social change have historically been met with resistance, and critical race theory is just the modern-day example.

“We have had efforts to suppress literacy, writing, advocacy, actual thinking about race from the earliest moments of our history,” Crenshaw said. “Abolition material was characterized as seditious and regulated by law. Black people, enslaved people, were not allowed to read by law.”

“The ability to turn racist aggression into self-defense is as old as the republic. The problem is that we’re unaware of it,” Crenshaw said. “And now as a society, we may be paying a cost for our ignorance about our own history.”

On the Nature and Meaning of Things

Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.

~Albert Einstein~

My new space is smaller than my old one. Some things had to go. For the most part, decisions were fairly easy. Having retired as a psychologist, many of my psychological trappings became expendable. Books, tests and files headed for the library sale or to the trash. Would I need any of these in the future? Possible, but not likely.

I left most of my monastic effects behind long ago and gradually divested myself of the rest one by one over the years. All that remains is my Latin dictionary and Psalter from which I once chanted. When I wrote a memoir about my seminary life, I wished I had kept my writings for reference but I managed without them, relying instead on the kind assistance and steel trap memory of my good friend Gerry.

I have kept a few books from my psychology days: a diagnostic manual, two books on personality types and a few volumes on practical wisdom. I had a twinge of regret parting with some of the others. Then it occurred to me that anything I need in the future will most likely be available on the Internet or through inter-library loan.

What else did I keep? My computer and some of my furniture made the trip. So did my published columns and books, writing and publishing references and art materials. My plants also came in out of the cold for the winter.

As I sit on the couch, I can see everything of importance to me, together in one space for the first time in my life. I find this comforting. So what do my things mean to me? The ones I brought give me a sense of continuity with my past and memories to guide me into the future.

My move gave me the opportunity to consider the meaning of the things which follow us through life until we decide to let them go. I once read a saying, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I realized this was quite childish. We can die clinging to things we valued during our lives. No matter how tightly we cling to them, they don’t accompany us to the next phase of our existence beyond the grave. They all pass to our loved ones or end up in a garage sale or the trash.

Our things are the least of our legacy. More important is how we have lived and the impression our lives have left on those touched by knowing us. I try to keep this in mind on a daily basis.

Action Steps

  • Look around to see what things surround you.
  • Consider the memories attached to each of them.
  • Which of your things connect you to people you care about the most?
  • Tell special people what they mean to you.
  • Think about what you would like as your legacy.

Selection from Dr. Langen’s book,  Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage

After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made

Review by Joseph Langen

When I saw the ad for this book, I had mixed feelings. I am tired of thinking about the mess which has developed in our country, how we have created it and questioning what to do about it. On the other hand if we do not think about what faces us, at best we are stuck with it and at worst the problems will only deepen. I decided to forge ahead and read the book.

One question I had while I was waiting for the book to be available at the library was what the author meant by “the fall.” By the end of the book, I realized that the author never did address this issue directly. After discussing it with my friend Bob over lunch, I realized that the fall referred to losing our preeminent status of leadership in the world and the emergence of China as positioning itself to take our place as the pre-eminent world power. He also notes that we have contributed to China’s rise through our extensive dependence on their capital investment and cheap goods.

He begins the book by chronicling developments in Hungary as it moved from a democracy to an authoritarian system. Among the factors contributing to this change in national focus are developments, many of which we have seen arise in our own country. Among those he mentions are partisan propaganda, packing the courts with right-wing judges, favoring big business over individual citizen needs, demonizing opponents through social media channels, political contributions branded as free speech and attacking as “others” people of color, the poor, immigrants and liberal elites.

The author has lived and worked in a variety of countries around the world and chronicles developments elsewhere which parallel our own slippery path including Hungary, Russia, and China. Our patriot act after 9/11 moved us toward despotic practices which have stayed with us. These include surveillance, restriction of immigration, detaining people without trial, torture of people in custody and killing people in other countries.

We came out in a leadership position after the world wars and cold war. Yet now we find ourselves enveloped in a cold war at home “between people who live in the reality of the world as it is and people who are choosing to live in a false reality made up of base right supremacist grievances and irrational conspiracy theories.”

All of this leaves us in a dire situation with reason to fear for our future. The author leaves us with no clear path toward resolution of the many difficulties facing us including other issues such as global warming, Covid, and ongoing racial tensions. He reminds us that we have faced and overcome many dire situations in the past, many through cooperation of other peoples around the world. We need to come together as an American people and also see ourselves as part the world community rather than feeling exceptional.

The question remains whether we as a society will be able or willing to rise to the challenge.

The Most Complete Picture Yet of America’s Changing Electorate

Republicans and Democrats have amassed divergent coalitions that will make coming elections especially competitive—and bitter.

Written by Ronald Brownstein and published in The Atlantic 7/1/2021

Once, researchers and political operatives had only a few options: some postelection academic surveys (particularly the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies), precinct-level analyses, and, above all, the mainstay of Election Day television broadcasts—exit polls.

Now the choices for understanding the electorate’s behavior have proliferated. The ANES poll has been joined by the Cooperative Election Study (CES), a consortium of academic researchers from some 50 institutions that surveys a huge sample of more than 60,000 voters. Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm, produces its own estimates of voting behavior, based on sophisticated modeling and polling it does with its database tracking virtually all actual voters. The Associated Press and Fox News teamed up with the venerable NORC at the University of Chicago this year to produce a competitor to the traditional exit polls called VoteCast.

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its eagerly awaited Validated Voters survey. Pew builds its findings by surveying adults it can identify as definitely having voted in November based on voting records, a methodology many analysts favor. (The CES will soon issue revised results based on a similar process of matching poll respondents to voting records.)

Each of these methods has its fans: Catalist, for instance, has emerged as the data source most trusted by Democratic political professionals, while other politicos and academics swear by Pew or CES. “It is part art and part science,” says the UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck, who helped launch the massive Nationscape polling project, which will eventually release its own assessment of 2020 in an upcoming book.

But with yesterday’s release of the Pew results, one thing is now clear: The principal data sources about 2020 have converged to a striking degree in their account of what happened. “As I’ve been looking at our data and comparing it to some of those other sources, I’ve actually been struck by how similar [they] are,” says the Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner, a co-director of the CES study. “You get a pretty consistent picture.”

Read: Democracy is already dying in the states

That consistent picture offers both parties reason for optimism and concern in roughly equal measure. The cumulative message from these studies is that we should brace for more years of grueling trench warfare between two coalitions that are becoming more and more inimical in both their demographic composition and vision of America. And to top it off? They appear to be about evenly matched. (While the Democratic coalition is clearly numerically larger—having won the popular vote in an unprecedented seven of the past eight presidential elections—Republicans have some offsetting advantages, some structural, others manufactured, that could allow them to control Washington nonetheless.)

Here are some other big conclusions from the studies:

GOP constituencies are shrinking, but the party’s hold over them is tightening.

A consistent message in these data sources is that the GOP’s core groups—particularly white people without a college degree—are declining as a share of the electorate as the nation grows more diverse, better educated, and more secular.

The major election studies differ on the share of the vote they believe was cast by white people without a college degree, from a high of 44 percent in the Catalist data, to 42 percent in the new Pew results, to just under 40 percent in the recent registration and turnout study from the Census Bureau (the first time the group has fallen below that threshold in census data).

But whatever absolute level of the vote the studies attribute to those noncollege white people, Catalist, Pew, and the Census Bureau each found the same relative movement, with the share of the vote cast by them in 2020 dropping two percentage points from 2016. That continues a long-term pattern: Working-class white people have declined as a share of the vote between two to three percentage points in each election during this century. That may not sound like much, but it adds up: In census data, they were still a 51.5 percent majority of voters as recently as 2004, before falling just below half in 2008 (almost certainly for the first time in American history) and continuing down to their current level.

Other groups important to the GOP are also shrinking. According to Pew, white Christians fell to 49 percent of total voters in 2020, down from exactly 50 percent in 2016; that’s also likely the first time in American history those voters didn’t constitute at least half of the electorate. Rural communities are also contracting as a share of the total vote (and population) in most states.

Anne Applebaum: Democracy is surprisingly easy to undermine

The countertrend is that the GOP last year continued to amass commanding margins with all of these voters. Even Joe Biden, a 78-year-old white Catholic who touts his working-class background in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania, achieved only grudging gains among white voters without a college degree: Pew found that he won 33 percent of them, just slightly better than the meager 28 percent Hillary Clinton captured in Pew’s 2016 survey. (The exit polls and Catalist, which also put Biden’s share with noncollege white voters at about one-third, recorded similarly small gains.) Likewise, while Pew found that Biden narrowed Clinton’s deficits among both white Catholics and white mainline Protestants, Donald Trump still carried both groups by roughly 15-percentage-point margins. All of the major data sources found that Trump also carried about four-fifths of white evangelical Christians. Similarly, Pew and Catalist both found that Biden remained stuck at the modest one-third of the vote Clinton won in rural areas.

These findings underline the trade that Trump has imposed on the GOP: He’s bequeathed Republicans a political strategy based on squeezing bigger margins out of shrinking groups. Many GOP strategists believe that’s an utterly untenable long-term proposition. “That’s not a formula for winning majorities and winning most of the time,” says the longtime GOP pollster Glen Bolger, who notes that Trump lost the popular vote twice and “got beyond lucky” to win the Electoral College in 2016. But that doesn’t preclude the GOP from continuing to win power in the near term with that approach—given that the Electoral College and Senate magnify the influence of states where those shrinking groups remain more plentiful (more on that below), and the determination of red-state Republicans, through their wave of restrictive voting laws, to suppress the influence of the rising groups that generally favor Democrats.

Class inversion is here to stay.

The new Pew data, like the earlier 2020 assessments, underscore the durability of what I’ve called “the class inversion” in each party’s base. In the ANES studies, the longest-running of these sources, every Democratic presidential nominee from Adlai Stevenson through Jimmy Carter ran better among white voters without a college degree than among white voters with one. But as cultural issues supplant economic concerns as the principal dividing line between the parties, every Democratic nominee since Al Gore in 2000 has run better among white voters with a degree than among those without one.

The class inversion hit a new peak in 2016, with Hillary Clinton running at least 15 points better among college than noncollege white voters in most of the major data sources (including a breathtaking 27 points better in Pew’s assessment). In 2020, Catalist and the exit polls showed the gap widening, while Pew found it slightly narrowing, but the class inversion remained enormous in all three; each study also found Biden winning a majority of college-educated white voters. (Those gains were central to his strong showing in white-collar suburbs around major cities.) He was especially strong among college-educated white women: “We have the ability to make [them] a base group,” says Celinda Lake, who served as one of Biden’s lead campaign pollsters. But ominously for the GOP, all three sources also showed Biden gaining significantly over Clinton in 2016 among college-educated white men, who historically have been a much more reliable Republican constituency. And while white people without a college degree have been steadily shrinking as a share of the vote, these college-educated white people have slightly grown since 2004 (from about 28 percent to 31 percent of the electorate, per the census). Especially valuable for Democrats: They are highly reliable midterm voters.

Voters of color may be diverging.

Pew’s study found that Biden won 92 percent of Black voters last year, and the other major data sources gave him only slightly smaller shares. Democrats may need to keep an eye on Black men, among whom Trump performed slightly better in 2020 than in 2016, but their support among Black women—which reaches as high as 95 percent in some of these analyses—provides an immovable obstacle to broad GOP gains.

Asian Americans, the fastest-growing nonwhite community, also look solid for Democrats. Although Republicans have strong beachheads in some Asian communities sensitive to arguments against Democratic “socialism” (such as Vietnamese Americans and some Chinese groups), the major data sources agree that Biden still won about two-thirds or more of Asian American votes last year, even as their turnout soared.

Hispanics, though, could be emerging as a wild card. Pew put Biden’s vote among Hispanics at only 59 percent; that’s lower than any of the other major sources, but they all agree that Biden fell off measurably from Clinton (and Barack Obama before her). The decline was most visible among Central and South Americans in South Florida and rural Mexican Americans in South Texas, but it extended far beyond that, Catalist and others found. Trump may have raised the party floor with Hispanics by attracting more of the culturally conservative among them; the yellow light on that prediction, as I’ve written, is that almost every incumbent president ran better, as Trump did, with Hispanics in their reelection campaign than in their first race. The clearest conclusion is that both parties view Hispanics as more of a contested community after 2020 than they did before—and will spend their campaign dollars accordingly.

The generational cavalry is arriving for Democrats.

Both Pew and Catalist found that the racially diverse, well-educated, and highly secular Millennials (born from 1981 through 1996) and Generation Z (born from 1997 through 2014) cast almost 30 percent of the votes last year, up substantially from 23 percent in 2016. Both sources also found Democrats winning about three-fifths of the votes from those two generations combined. If Democrats can defend their lead with that group, it will pay compounding dividends: The nonpartisan States of Change project forecasts that the two generations combined will cast 37 percent of the vote in 2024 and 43 percent in 2028. “You add those two [generations] together and you are talking about permanent structural change,” Lake says. Because these generations are the most racially diverse in American history, this current of new, young voters has been key in increasing people of color from about one-fifth of the electorate in 2004 to nearly three-tenths last year, according to census data. They are also swelling the numbers of Americans unaffiliated with any religious tradition, and Pew found Biden winning more than 70 percent of such “seculars” (even as they cast one-fourth of all votes.)

Conversely, the preponderantly white Baby Boomer generation, which has aged from its 1960s roots into a Republican-leaning cohort, is receding: While Catalist and Pew agree that Boomers outvoted Millennials and Gen Z in 2020, States of Change projects that the younger groups to outvote them for the first time in 2024. (Generation X is projected to remain constant through the 2020s, at about one-fourth of the electorate.)

Two factors might dilute this potential Democratic advantage. One, Schaffner notes, is if the turnout of these two younger generations, which spiked to historic levels in 2018 and 2020, slackens with Trump off the ballot in 2022 and potentially 2024 as well. The other, cited by Vavreck, is that these generations might become more receptive to GOP arguments on issues such as taxes and crime as they move further into middle age, with families and mortgages.

But Lake, like many Democrats, is optimistic that the GOP focus on stoking their base through endless cultural conflict (on everything from undocumented immigration to critical race theory) will leave Republicans very limited opportunity for gains among the younger generations. “Young people are very turned off by the racism, by the climate deniers,” she says. “So everything they are doing to solidify their base, and everything they are doing to try to win 2022, is digging them into a deeper hole for 2024 with young voters.”

Place matters.

A big challenge for Democrats is that the broad demographic changes favoring them—growing racial diversity, rising education levels, increasing numbers of secular adults not affiliated with organized religion—are unevenly distributed throughout the country. Adding to that challenge: The two-senators-per-state rule and Electoral College magnify the political influence of smaller interior states least affected by these trends (particularly the increase in racial diversity). Red-state Republicans are moving to systemically reinforce those advantages with the most aggressive wave of laws restricting access to the ballot since before the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and they are gearing up for equally aggressive gerrymanders of state legislative and congressional districts in states they control.

As I’ve written, the unequal distribution of racial and cultural change leaves Democrats facing something of a conundrum. The minority population is growing fastest across the Sun Belt, but the party generally doesn’t win as large a share of the vote among white people in those states as they do in the Rust Belt states, where minority growth has been much slower. Until Democrats can consistently win Senate seats and Electoral College votes in the diversifying Sun Belt states, that means they still need to win some of the Rust Belt states (particularly Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) where noncollege white people compose a much larger share of the vote than they do nationally. Democrats lately have made progress in the Sun Belt: Biden won both Georgia and Arizona, and the party now holds all four of their Senate seats. But Democrats’ Sun Belt gains aren’t yet expansive or secure enough to eliminate their need to hold the key Rust Belt battlegrounds—and for that they need to win a competitive share of working-class white voters.

The grooves are deeply cut.

The major data sources do show some noteworthy shifts in voter preferences from 2016, such as Trump’s gains with Hispanics and Biden’s with college-educated white voters. But given all that happened during Trump’s tumultuous presidency, including a deadly pandemic, most analysts are struck by the extraordinary similarity in how voters behaved across the two elections. “Continuity is the big story, consistency,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. Not only did the 2020 result “highly correlate” with the 2016 outcome both demographically and geographically, he notes, but presidential preferences also predicted how people voted in House and Senate races more closely than ever before.

Biden and his advisers clearly have a vision of how to break this stalemate: They hope that by delivering kitchen-table benefits, such as stimulus checks, infrastructure jobs, and expanded child-tax-credit payments, while muting his personal engagement with hot-button cultural issues, they can improve his standing among working-class voters of all races, including white voters. But that strategy faces unstinting GOP efforts to highlight the cultural issues that alienate those voters (especially white voters but also some Hispanics and Black men) from the Democrats. Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic analyst, argues that even if Biden delivers material benefits for blue-collar families, downplaying cultural issues such as crime and immigration won’t be enough. “You are going to have to draw the line a little bit more sharply against parts of the party and policies that are anathema to these voters,” Teixeira says.

Still, almost all of the analysts I spoke with believe that however the parties position themselves through 2024, change in these durable voter alignments is likely to come only around the margins.

Big outside events could shatter that assumption, of course, but the striking message from all the data sources studying 2020 is that America remains deeply but closely divided. Wide partisan fissures by race, generation, education, and religion are combining to produce two coalitions that are matched almost equally, with a Democratic edge in overall numbers offset by a geographic advantage (potentially reinforced by restrictive voting laws) for Republicans. “It is going to be super, super close again in 2024, I can tell you this right now,” Vavreck said firmly. “And I don’t even need to know who the candidates are going to be.”

Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

There’s a Word for What Trumpism Is Becoming

The relentless messaging by Trump and his supporters has inflicted a measurable wound on American democracy.

Written by David Frum and published in The Atlantic 7/13/2021

 “I became worse.” That’s how double impeachment changed him, Donald Trump told a conservative audience in Dallas last weekend, without a trace of a smile. This was not Trump the insult comic talking. This was the deepest Trump self. And this one time, he told the truth.

Something has changed for Trump and his movement since January 2021. You can measure the difference by looking back at the deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Trump made three statements about those events over four days. He was visibly reluctant to speak negatively of the far-right groups. He praised “fine people on both sides” and spread the blame for “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”

Trump’s evasions triggered a national uproar. As Joe Biden complained in an essay for The Atlantic at the time:

Today we have an American president who has publicly proclaimed a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and those who would oppose their venom and hate.

But if Trump refused to single out the far-rightists for criticism, he also refrained from praising them. Whatever he felt in his heart, he was constrained by certain political and practical realities. His non-Twitter actions as president were filtered through bureaucracies. He had to work with Republican congressional allies who worried about losing seats in Congress in the next election. He himself was still basking in the illusion of his supposedly huge victory in 2016, and hoping for a repeat in 2020. Outright endorsement of lethal extremism? That was too much for Trump in 2017. But now look where we are.

Shadi Hamid: Americans are losing sight of what fascism means

In the first days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump supporters distanced themselves from its excesses. The attack had nothing to do with Trump, they argued. He had urged only a peaceful demonstration. If anybody did any harm, that person was a concealed agent of antifa. But in the months since, the mood has shifted. Once repudiated, the attacks are now accepted, condoned, and even endorsed.

In the past few days, leading pro-Trump figures and even non-Trump conservative figures have endorsed a startling Twitter thread by a previously boutique podcaster, Darryl Cooper. Tucker Carlson read the thread aloud on his show.

The thread argued that the January 6 protesters were right to believe that they had been cheated out of power they deserved. They were right to believe that the government and the law were conspiring against them. They were right to believe that their opponents were capable of anything, even assassinating Trump. The implication: They themselves were equally entitled to go just as far. It’s long, but I’ll quote two key passages.

The entrenched bureaucracy & security state subverted Trump from Day 1, b) The press is part of the operation, c) Election rules were changed, d) Big Tech censors opposition, e) Political violence is legitimized & encouraged, f) Trump is banned from social media. 34/x

They were led down some rabbit holes, but they are absolutely right that their gov’t is monopolized by a Regime that believes they are beneath representation, and will observe no limits to keep them getting it. Trump fans should be happy he lost; it might’ve kept him alive. /end

The tweet thread began by claiming that Donald Trump himself shared these beliefs. You might wonder how the podcaster would know. The answer arrived on Sunday morning, when Trump phoned into Maria Bartiromo’s Fox News show to deliver his most full-throated endorsement yet of the January 6 attack on Congress.

The ex-president praised Ashli Babbitt, the woman slain as she attempted to crash through the door that protected members of Congress from the mob that had invaded the Capitol: “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman.” He praised the insurrectionist throng: “great people.” He denounced their arrest and jailing as unjust. And he implied that Babbitt had been shot by the personal-security detail of a leading member of Congress. “I’ve heard also that it was the head of security for a certain high official. A Democrat. It’s gonna come out.”

The relentless messaging by Trump and his supporters has inflicted a measurable wound on American democracy. Before the 2020 election, about 60 percent of Democrats and Republicans expected the election to be fair. Since Trump began circulating his ever more radical complaints, Republican confidence in the election has tumbled by half, to barely more than 30 percent, according to polling supported by the Democracy Fund.

The Trump movement was always authoritarian and illiberal. It indulged periodically in the rhetoric of violence. Trump himself chafed against the restraints of law. But what the United States did not have before 2020 was a large national movement willing to justify mob violence to claim political power. Now it does.

Is there a precedent? Not in recent years. Since the era of Redemption after Reconstruction, anti-government violence in the United States has been the work of marginal sects and individual extremists. American Islamic State supporters were never going to seize the state, and neither were the Weather Underground, the Ku Klux Klan killers of the 1950s and ’60s, Puerto Rican nationalists, the German American Bund, nor the Communist Party USA.

But the post-election Trump movement is not tiny. It’s not anything like a national majority, but it’s a majority in some states—a plurality in more—and everywhere a significant minority, empowered by the inability of pro-legality Republicans to stand up to them. Once it might have been hoped that young Republicans with a future would somehow distance themselves from the violent lawlessness of the post-presidential Trump movement. But one by one, they are betting the other way. You might understand why those tainted by the January 6 attacks, such as Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, would find excuses for them. They have butts to cover. But Hawley is being outdone by other young politicians who weren’t in office and seemed to have every opportunity to build post-Trump identities—including even former Trump critics like the Ohio Senate aspirant J. D. Vance. Why do people sign up with the putschists after the putsch has failed? They’re betting that the failed putsch is not the past—it’s the future.

What shall we call this future? Through the Trump years, it seemed sensible to eschew comparisons to the worst passages of history. I repeated over and over again a warning against too-easy use of the F-word, fascism: “There are a lot of stops on the train line to bad before you get to Hitler Station.”

Two traits have historically marked off European-style fascism from more homegrown American traditions of illiberalism: contempt for legality and the cult of violence. Presidential-era Trumpism operated through at least the forms of law. Presidential-era Trumpism glorified military power, not mob attacks on government institutions. Post-presidentially, those past inhibitions are fast dissolving. The conversion of Ashli Babbitt into a martyr, a sort of American Horst Wessel, expresses the transformation. Through 2020, Trump had endorsed deadly force against lawbreakers: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29, 2020. Babbitt broke the law too, but not to steal a TV. She was killed as she tried to disrupt the constitutional order, to prevent the formalization of the results of a democratic election.

If a big-enough movement agrees with Trump that Babbitt was “wonderful”—if they repeat that the crowd of would-be Nancy Pelosi kidnappers and Mike Pence lynchers was “great”—then we are leaving behind the American system of democratic political competition for a new landscape in which power is determined by the gun.

That’s a landscape for which a lot of pro-Trump writers and thinkers seem to yearn.

You are living in territory controlled by enemy tribes. You, and all like you, must assume the innocence of anyone remotely like yourself who is charged in any confrontation with those tribes and with their authorities—until proven otherwise beyond a shadow of your doubt. Take his side. In other words, you must shield others like yourself by practicing and urging “jury nullification.”

Those words are not taken from The Turner Diaries or some other Aryan Nation tract. They were published by a leading pro-Trump site, the same site where Trump’s former in-house intellectual Michael Anton publishes. They were written by Angelo Codevilla, who wrote the books and articles that defined so much of the Trump creed in 2016. (Codevilla’s 2016 bookThe Ruling Class, was introduced by Rush Limbaugh and heavily promoted on Limbaugh’s radio program.)

We are so accustomed to using the word fascist as an epithet that it feels awkward to adjust it for political analysis. We understand that there were and are many varieties of socialism. We forget that there were varieties of fascism as well, and not just those defeated in World War II. Peronism, in Argentina, offers a lot of insights into post-presidential Trumpism.

Juan Perón, a bungling and vacillating leader, attracted followers with a jumble of often conflicting and contradictory ideas. He had the good luck to take power in a major food-producing nation at a time when the world was hungry—and imagined that the brief flash of easy prosperity that followed was his own doing. The only thing he knew for certain was the target of his hatred: anybody who got in his way, anybody who questioned him, anybody who thought for himself or herself. An expatriate Argentine who grew up under Perón’s rule remembered the graffiti on the walls, the Twitter of its day: Build the Fatherland. Kill a student. As V. S. Naipaul astutely observed, “Even when the money ran out, Peronism could offer hate as hope.”

After Perón lost power, Peronism became a myth of a lost golden age—a fantasy of restoration and redemption—and always a rejection of the frustrations of normal politics, of the tedium of legality. Who needed policies when the solution to every problem was a magic name? Politicians who hoped for the old leader’s blessing trudged to his place of exile, were photographed with him, and then sabotaged by him. The only plan he followed was somehow to force himself again upon his country, one way or another.

It was pathetic and terrifying, a national catastrophe that produced a long-running international musical.

In the United States, the forces of legality still mobilize more strength than their Trumpist adversaries. But those who uphold the American constitutional order need to understand what they are facing. Trump incited his followers to try to thwart an election result, and to kill or threaten Trump’s own vice president if he would not or could not deliver on Trump’s crazy scheme to keep power.

We’re past the point of pretending it was antifa that did January 6, past the point of pretending that Trump didn’t want what he fomented and what he got. In his interview on July 11—as in the ever more explicit talk of his followers—the new line about the attack on the Capitol is guilty but justified. The election of 2020 was a fraud, and so those who lost it are entitled to overturn it.

I do not consider myself guilty. I admit all the factual aspects of the charge. But I cannot plead that I am guilty of high treason; for there can be no high treason against that treason committed in 1918.

Maybe you recognize those words. They come from Adolf Hitler’s plea of self-defense at his trial for his 1923 Munich putsch. He argued: You are not entitled to the power you hold, so I committed no crime when I tried to grab it back. You blame me for what I did; I blame you for who you are.

Trump’s no Hitler, obviously. But they share some ways of thinking. The past never repeats itself. But it offers warnings. It’s time to start using the F-word again, not to defame—but to diagnose.

David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy(2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

We Are Two Nations, Divisible

Written by Ed Kilgore and published in The Intelligencer July 8, 2021

On Independence Day, which fell on Sunday this year, I found myself as an elder at my small mainline Protestant church lofting up a prayer for “our nation, on its birthday, that we may overcome the conflicts dividing us and find peace and reconciliation.” I’m sure similar sentiments were expressed in many worship services on July 4, not to mention in op-ed columns and in private conversations at BBQs, community events, and family get-togethers. Many, if not most, Americans crave relief from a conflict-ridden and volatile political climate that has grown steadily more intense in recent years, starting even before Donald Trump’s election.

But in retrospect, my pious hopes for unity were just that. And while I do pray a benevolent God may keep us Americans from ripping one another apart over our political and cultural differences, it’s time to recognize that they are real, not contrived; deep-seated, not superficial; and an authentic reflection of divisions in our population, not an invention of manipulative elites, politicians, or the news media. Embracing this fact is important, as history shows; avoiding legitimate forks in the road could lead the country into a wilderness of false compromises and a failure to address significant problems, just as happened when we initially put off dealing with the issue of slavery.

As the Pew Research Center documented in 2017, the breadth and persistence of our differences has been steadily increasing, even though we wish it were otherwise:

The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values — on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas — reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.

As Pew noted, partisan polarization (between Democrats and Republicans) is partly attributable to the ideological sorting out of the two parties that began during the civil-rights era. Because this process coincided with greater ideological polarization as well (between liberals and conservatives), it’s easy to pine for the days when there were liberals and conservatives in both major parties and things got done. But nostalgia for the good old days ignores the price that many Americans had to pay for this suspension of political hostilities. In the 1960s, open racism was still largely accepted; the idea of equality for women — and of legalized abortion — was highly controversial; equality for LGBTQ folks was a subversive, underground idea; and a global war against Communism was barely debated until it failed miserably in Vietnam.

While the subsequent decades were increasingly turbulent politically, with conflicts within and between the two parties over a wide range of domestic, foreign-policy, and cultural issues, we’ve been in a true era of polarization since the disputed election of 2000. And while it got immensely worse when Trump became president, his departure has hardly made things better, as Ron Brownstein recently observed:

These centrifugal pressures call into question not only the ability of any president to unify the nation, but also his or her ability even to chart a common course for more than roughly half of the country — either red or blue America. This divergence, across a wide range of issues and personal choices, is rooted in the continuing political re-sorting that has divided the parties more sharply than ever along demographic and geographic lines and produced two political coalitions holding inimical views on the fundamental social and economic changes remaking America. And that destabilizing process shows no signs of slowing, much less reversing, even after Trump — who fomented division as a central component of his political strategy — has left the White House.

Our stark divisions are so painful that it’s tempting to blame them on elites — on the media, who are thought to promote conflict to make a buck, and the political leaders seeking to energize followers by demonizing the opposition and refusing to compromise. But the idea of a unity-seeking citizenry being frustrated by partisan gabbers and pols simply isn’t accurate. And the fact that a change of administration has barely reduced partisan conflict is telling. It’s not just about Trump, as Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz explains in a soon-to-be-published paper he shared with Brownstein.

“One of the most important reasons why Democrats and Republicans intensely dislike each other is that they intensely disagree on a wide range of issues including the size and scope of the welfare state, abortion, gay and transgender rights, race relations, climate change, gun control and immigration,” Abramowitz writes. “As long as the parties remain on the opposite sides of almost all of the major issues facing the country, feelings of mistrust and animosity are unlikely to diminish even if Donald Trump ceases to play a major role in the political process.”

The divisions, moreover, go beyond public policy to matters of personal conduct, as evidenced by the extraordinary reluctance of self-identified Republicans to take advantage of easily available COVID-19 vaccines, with many regarding their encouragement by the government as an infringement of personal liberty. But even the broadest understanding of partisan conflict may understate its pervasiveness and power. As the Bulwark’s Joshua Tate points out, the long-standing conservative tendency to view Republican constituencies as the “real America” has evolved into a paradox: Alleged super-patriots despise much of what their country has become.

Trumpist writers have worked themselves into such a state that they have stretched their critique to include literally half of the American population. As Michael Anton, a former Trump aide who is now a Claremont Institute senior fellow and a Hillsdale lecturer, puts it, “one side loves America, the other hates it — or can tolerate it only for what it might someday become, were the Left’s entire program to be enacted without exception.” Anton, the articulate id of intellectual Trumpism, cuts America in two on religious, linguistic, and even moral grounds, casting the Biden coalition as speaking a babble of languages, worshipping “wokeness” with “Dionysian abandon,” and conceiving of justice solely through the lens of punishment. In a blunt essay, Glenn Ellmers, another Claremont and Hillsdale associate, claims “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”

Conservative longing for a lost American “greatness” finds its parallel in the left’s instinctive belief in the inevitability of “progress,” defined as a more rational and equitable political system bent on obliterating illegitimate privileges and empowering members of oppressed identity groups. Right-wing hatred of progressives as inauthentically American is reciprocated by progressive hatred of (or more accurately, contempt for) Trump voters, whom they deem, to use Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate phrase, “deplorables” determined to defend the worst features of the past.

There are, of course, self-identified Republicans who dislike or only conditionally back Trump and his supporters and self-identified Democrats who fear “socialism” or “cancel culture” or “wokeness,” but their numbers seem to be steadily declining. And while the public longs for bipartisanship in the abstract, what they really seem to want is the other side’s surrender, not any actual compromise.

You can look at this pervasive polarization and bewail a lost, if increasingly imaginary, tradition of American unity. Or you can welcome the benefits that come with the costs of disunity: the new clarity and accountability that two parties with systematically opposed perspectives creates. Is partisan polarization dangerous? Of course, as the Civil War showed. Is an absence of partisan polarization dangerous too? Of course, as the oppressive period prior to the Civil War showed, when the two major national parties sought to avoid a reckoning over slavery. Sometimes an end to polarization simply reflects the victory of one set of beliefs over another, as when the Republican Party was formed to demand a curb on the slave power and eventually won power of its own; or when the Democratic Party decisively broke with its limited-government heritage during the New Deal and became the majority party for a generation.

I’d argue we are at another big inflection point. It’s more likely the country will turn left or right than achieve major compromises. That today’s conservatives are frantically trying to suppress popular majorities by exploiting anti-democratic features of our system or, worse yet, by denying such majorities exist is a pretty clear sign of which way the wind is blowing. If the authoritarian strain in Republican politics exemplified by Trump morphs into the kind of reactionary movements that crushed parliamentary democracy entirely in Europe nearly a century ago, perhaps we will long even more for the phony solidarity of an imagined bipartisan past, when backs were slapped and deals were cut in Congress and justice and progress were denied.

More likely, we are destined in the very near future to acknowledge and resolve our differences by choosing sides and having it out. That’s far healthier than denying those differences or blowing up the whole system to avoid defeat.

There Is No Debate Over Critical Race Theory

Pundits and politicians have created their own definition for the term, and then set about attacking it.

Written by Ibram X. Kendi and published in The Atlantic, 7/9/2021

 About the author: Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

The United States is not in the midst of a “culture war” over race and racism. The animating force of our current conflict is not our differing values, beliefs, moral codes, or practices. The American people aren’t divided. The American people are being divided.

Republican operatives have buried the actual definition of critical race theory: “a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country,” as the law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who helped coin the term, recently defined it. Instead, the attacks on critical race theory are based on made-up definitions and descriptors. “Critical race theory says every white person is a racist,” Senator Ted Cruz has said. “It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin,” said the Alabama state legislator Chris Pringle.

There are differing points of view about race and racism. But what we are seeing and hearing on news shows, in school-district meetings, in op-ed pages, in legislative halls, and in social-media feeds aren’t multiple sides with differing points of view. There’s only one side in our so-called culture war right now.

Conor Friedersdorf: Critical race theory is making both parties flip-flop

The Republican operatives, who dismiss the expositions of critical race theorists and anti-racists in order to define critical race theory and anti-racism, and then attack those definitions, are effectively debating themselves. They have conjured an imagined monster to scare the American people and project themselves as the nation’s defenders from that fictional monster.

The Biggest Threat to Democracy Is the GOP Stealing the Next Election

STEVEN LEVITSKY AND DANIEL ZIBLATT The evangelist Pat Robertson recently called critical race theory “a monstrous evil.” And over the past year, that “monstrous evil” has supposedly been growing many legs. First, Republicans pointed to Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Three days after George Floyd’s murder last year, President Donald Trump recast the largely peaceful demonstrators as violent and dishonorable “THUGS.” By the end of July, Trump had framed them as “anarchists who hate our country.”

Then “cancel culture” was targeted. At the Republican National Convention in August, Trump blasted “cancel culture” as seeking to coerce Americans “into saying what you know to be false and scare you out of saying what you know to be true.”

Next came attacks on the 1619 Project and American history. “Despite the virtues and accomplishments of this Nation, many students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains,” read Trump’s executive order on November 2, establishing the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.

And now the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, cancel culture, the 1619 Project, American history, and anti-racist education are presented to the public as the many legs of the “monstrous evil” of critical race theory that’s purportedly coming to harm white children. The language echoes the rhetoric used to demonize desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the conservators of racism organized to keep Black kids out of all-white schools. Today, they are trying to get critical race theory out of American schools. “Instead of helping young people discover that America is the greatest, most tolerant, and most generous nation in history, [critical race theory] teaches them that America is systemically evil and that the hearts of our people are full of hatred and malice,” Trump wrote in an op-ed on June 18.

After it was cited 132 times on Fox News shows in 2020, critical race theory became a conservative obsession this year. Its mentions on Fox News practically doubled month after month: It was referred to 51 times in February, 139 times in March, 314 times in April, 589 times in May, and 737 times in just the first three weeks of June. As of June 29, 26 states had introduced legislation or other state-level actions to “restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism,” according to Education Week, and nine had implemented such bans.

I have been called the father of critical race theory, although I was born in 1982, and critical race theory was born in 1981. Over the past few months, I have seldom stopped to answer the critiques of critical race theory or of my own work, because the more I’ve studied these critiques, the more I’ve concluded that these critics aren’t arguing against me. They aren’t arguing against anti-racist thinkers. They aren’t arguing against critical race theorists. These critics are arguing against themselves.

Read: The GOP’s ‘critical race theory’ obsession

What happens when a politician falsely proclaims what you think, and then criticizes that proclamation? Is she really critiquing your ideas—or her own? If a writer decides what both sides of an argument are stating, is he really engaging in an argument with another writer, or is he engaging in an argument with himself?

Take the journalist Matthew Yglesias. In February, in The Washington Post, he wrote that I think that “any racial gap simply is racist by definition; any policy that maintains such a gap is a racist policy; and—most debatably—any intellectual explanation of its existence (sociological, cultural and so on) is also racist.” But nowhere have I written that the racial gap is racist: The policies and practices causing the racial gap are racist. Nowhere have I stated that any intellectual explanation of the existence of a racial gap is racist. Only intellectual explanations of a racial gap that point to the superiority or inferiority of a racial group are racist.

Was Yglesias really arguing against me, or was he arguing against himself? What about the columnist Ross Douthat? In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, he did what GOP thinkers keep doing to Americans striving to construct an equitable and just society: re-create us as extremists, as monsters to be feared for speaking out against racism. Douthat accused me of “ideological extremism that embarrasses clever liberals,” comparing me to the late Rush Limbaugh. I’ve spent my career writing evidence-based historical scholarship and demonstrating my willingness to be vulnerable; Limbaugh had no interest in being self-critical, and for decades attacked truth and facts and evidence.

Douthat claimed that I have a “Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism—and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect ‘equity’ may be a form of structural racism itself.”

Where did he get perfect equity? In How to Be an Antiracist, I define racial equity as a state “when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing.” I proposed that an example of racial equity would be “if there were relatively equitable percentages” of racial groups “living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies, or, better, nineties.” By contrast, in 2014, 71 percent of white families lived in owner-occupied homes, compared with 45 percent of Latino families and 41 percent of Black families. That’s racial inequity.

What we write doesn’t matter to the people arguing with themselves. It doesn’t matter that I consistently challenge Manichaean racial visions of inherently good or evil people or policy making. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write about policy making being good or evil, or that I write about the equitable or inequitable outcome of policies. It doesn’t matter that I’ve urged us toward relative equity, and not toward perfect equity.

If you want to understand why I’ve made these arguments, you first need to recognize that for decades, right-wing thinkers and judges have argued that policies that lead to racial inequities are “not racist” or are “race neutral.” That was the position of the conservative Supreme Court justices who recently upheld Arizona’s voting-restriction policies. Those who wish to conserve racial inequity want us to focus on intent—which is hard to prove—rather than the outcome of inequity, which is rather easy to prove. Case in point: GOP state legislators are claiming that the 28 laws they’ve enacted in 17 states as of June 21 are about election security, even though voter fraud is a practically nonexistent problem. They claim that these laws aren’t intended to make it harder for Black voters or members of other minority groups to cast ballots, even as experts find that’s precisely what such laws have done in the past, and predict that’s likely what these new laws will do as well.

Jarvis R. Givens: What’s missing from the discourse about anti-racist teaching

These critics aren’t just making up their claims as they go along. They are making up the sources of their criticism as they go along. Douthat argues that work like mine “extends structural analysis beyond what it can reasonably bear, into territory where white supremacy supposedly explains Asian American success on the SAT.” Who is giving this explanation other than Douthat? I’m surely not. I point to other explanations, including the history of highly educated Asian immigrants and the concentration of score-boosting test-prep companies in Asian (and white) neighborhoods.

White supremacy does explain why more than three-quarters of the perpetrators of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents before and during the pandemic have been white. Asian American success as measured by test scores, education, and income should not erase the impact of structural racism on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. This group now has the highest income inequality of any racial group in the United States. Asian Americans in New York experienced the highest surge of unemployment of any racial group during the pandemic. Do the critics of critical race theory want us to think of the AAPI community as not just a “model minority,” but a model monolith? Showcasing AAPIs to maintain the fiction of a postracial society ends up erasing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Critical race theory has been falsely labeled as anti-Asian. Helen Raleigh, an Asian American entrepreneur, defined critical race theory as a “divisive discriminatory ideology that judges people on the basis of their skin color” in Newsweek. “It is my practice to ignore critics who have not read the work and who are not interested in honest exchange,” responded one of the three Asian American founders of critical race theory, Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii. “But I do want to say this for the record: Asian Americans are at the center of CRT analysis and have been from the start.”

How should thinkers respond to monstrous lies? Should we mostly ignore the critics as Matsuda has, as I have? Because restating facts over and over again gets old. Reciting your own work over and over again to critics who either haven’t read what they are criticizing or are purposefully distorting it gets old. And talking with people who have created a monologue with two points of view, theirs and what they impute to you, gets old.

But democracy needs dialogue. And dialogue necessitates seeking to know what a person is saying in order to offer informed critiques.

As a scholar, I know that nothing is more useful than criticism to improve my scholarship. As a human being, I know that nothing is more constructive than criticism to improve my humanity. I’ve chronicled how criticism and critics have been a driving force on my journey to be anti-racist, to confront my own racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist ideas—and their intersections. Constructive criticism often hurts, but like painful medical treatments, it can be lifesaving; it can be nation-saving.

But what’s happening now is something entirely different and destructive—not constructive. This isn’t a “culture war.” This isn’t even an “argument.” This isn’t even “criticism.” This is critics arguing with themselves.

Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.

Welcome to My New Site- Joe’s Political Blog

When I look back over my life, I recall many surprises, adventures and wonderful people who have made my life worth living. In simpler days, I basked in all of life’s delights which found their way into my life.

As I grew older, I discovered the challenges which await almost everyone and some fairly unique ones. I thought I knew where my life was headed but was in for a rude awakening. I wrestled with the lifestyle I thought would shape my life, my adventures with the draft board, feeding a family while attending college and graduate school, the effects of mental illness in my family and with the challenges of my career. My greatest challenge was surviving a divorce.

Fortunately I discovered that there is life after divorce, more splendid than I could imagine up to that point in life. I am grateful for how life has turned out for me, I ended up writing a variety of books and many articles over the years. I have tried to focus on the bright side and ways people can enjoy life, each other and themselves. Lately, politics has cast a cloud over everyone I know including me. Some people try to avoid politics, some jump in head first and try to have a positive effect and others seem to have given up on our democratic way of life and have chosen to live in an alternative reality.

I thought about politics very little when I was young and saw them as a mysterious world which had little relevance to me and my sheltered life. That is a long story. Fortunately, I have written about it and published the story of my early years in my memoir Young Man of the Cloth. Check it out if you are interested in my early influences and adventures.

I have been posting articles about politics lately on my blog, Chats with My Muse, along with more positive posts about making the best of life. Recently, I have come to realize that the two do not mix. Dealing with the the stink of politics in the same place where I try to help people stay positive does not seem right, at least not to me. I have decided the two topics need separate arenas, at least as I see it.

With all this in mind, I have decided to continue entertaining my positive thoughts and sharing them in my blog, Chats With My Muse. I will discuss the pros and cons of politics, as I and others see them, in this blog.

I hope you will find both blogs useful and that they might be helpful in clarifying your thoughts and feelings about life as well as your thinking about about politics. Please join me in the adventure.