Twenty-First Century Puritans

Being out on the ocean prompts reflection… 

When I taught Law and Public Policy, I approached the material through a constitutional lens, because I was–and remain–convinced that a basic understanding of American history and the philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for anyone hoping to understand today’s politics.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way people today understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty.

Puritans saw liberty pretty much the same way current politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Johnson do– as “freedom to do the right thing” as they definied it. That meant their own freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and it included their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did likewise.

The Founders who crafted the American constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on the Enlightenment concept of liberty, not the Puritan version. It’s an approach we sometimes call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government (nor necessarily “God given” either). Most of them–especially the Deists– believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

That philosophical construct is why–contrary to popular belief–the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human, and it protects them against infringement by an overzealous government. As I used to tell my students, the American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.

Most Americans today live in a post-Enlightenment culture. We accept and value science. We understand liberty to mean our right to live our lives free of government control so long as we are not harming others, and so long as we respect the right of other people to do likewise. But there is a persistent minority that has never accepted an Enlightenment worldview, and that minority currently controls the Republican Party. These contemporary Puritans–who, along with their other religious convictions tend to see Black people and non-Christians as unworthy subordinates– use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing” as their reading of their holy book defines “the right thing.” They also  believe it is government’s job to make other citizens do the “right thing” –to impose their version of “Godliness” on the rest of us.

These contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who defined “liberty” as the imposition of the correct religion on their neighbors. The Enlightenment construct of “live and let live”–the notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish, the right to follow our own set of moral imperatives (again, so long as we are not harming the person or property of someone else) was utterly foreign to those original Puritans, and it is evidently equally inconceivable to their philosophical descendants.

(Interestingly, these throwbacks to Puritanism never seem to doubt that they know precisely what God wants–that, as a friend once put it, God hates the same people they do. But that’s a phenomenon for a different post.)

If you had told me ten years ago that American government would once again be under the thumb of Puritans, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are–with a Speaker of the House of Representatives who is a full-blown Puritan throwback and a Republican Party that has rejected the Enlightenment.

When I have computer problems, I reboot. That usually returns my laptop to working order. Can we reboot America?

Comments

The Root Of The (Political) Problem

I recently read Persuasion interview with two noted political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose most recent book is The Tyranny of the Minority.  In two of their initial observations, they summed up the roots of America’s political dysfunctions.

Those observations began with America’s constitutional structure:

Our Constitution has always favored rural areas, which represent a minority of the population. For most of our history, that really wasn’t a big problem, because both parties had urban and rural wings; but now, demographic changes have really led us to a position in the 21st century where the Republican Party is primarily the party for rural areas, while Democrats are primarily the party of urban areas. And so this means that our constitutional structure over-represents rural areas, and so it’s no longer necessary at the national level for the Republican Party to win majorities in order to gain power. That has unleashed a set of distorting impacts on our politics that are very dangerous.

Adding to that urban/rural divide is the country’s longtime struggle with racism and the religious roots of White Supremacy.

Our central argument regarding why the Republican Party has sort of gone off the rails in the last 15 years or so is that, in the latter third of the 20th century, the United States changed dramatically and the Republican Party did not. It became an overwhelmingly white Christian party in a much more diverse country at around roughly the turn of the 21st century and that brought two problems. One is that it had a hard time competing for a national majority (and lost the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections) because it was relying so heavily on white and particularly white Christian votes. And, secondly, a segment of its base grew increasingly threatened; the Republican Party actually did an excellent job of appealing to racially conservative whites over the course of the last third of the 20th century, those who were unhappy with government efforts to enforce civil rights in the last part of the 20th century; and recruited these folks into its party, becoming a more racially conservative party. A primary-winning plurality of the Republican base grew pretty resentful over the visible rise of multiracial democracy in the 21st century. And so the party radicalized.

And so here we are. The entire discussion is worth reading (or listening to–I’m working from the transcription of a podcast, which you can also connect to from the link–but the two preceding paragraphs really focus on the roots of America’s current dysfunctions.

The authors concede that America’s constitutional democracy limits majority rule. Our system constrains majorities from invading the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. But as they also note, without majority rule, there is no democracy. And among important things that ought to be within the reach of majorities is the right to form governments and the right to govern with those majorities.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are quick to point out that–while their book offers suggestions for constitutional amendment–those suggestions are hardly radical. They would align our system somewhat more closely to the systems in Denmark, New Zealand and Finland. And they remind us that

Both Hamilton and Madison strongly opposed the current structure of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. That was designed because small states insisted on it and threatened even to break up the union if they didn’t get it. That was not part of some sort of far-sighted design of our founders. Madison opposed the Electoral College; it was the second-best solution after other alternatives had been voted down in the convention. And both Hamilton and Madison opposed supermajority rules for regular legislation.

Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote–Trump by some three million. Levitsky and Ziblatt say it would be “a great day for America if the Republican Party could win power with majorities fair and square.” That would mean we would have two parties committed to the democratic rules of the game. But as Levitsky notes (rather delicately), “the rural bias of our institutions weakens the incentive of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal.”

Their book–which I intend to purchase– wrestles with the question that frequently animates conversations on this blog: Why, after 150 years, has the mainstream center-right party gone off the rails?

You need a theory for that. Our theory focuses on the perception of existential threat faced by some members of a once-dominant ethnic majority that is losing its dominant status. But secondly and more pertinent here is the electoral institutions that dull the incentive of the party to adapt.

Yep.

Comments

How Has It Come To This?

I’ve posted a lot about electoral structures that are currently enabling a distinct minority of Americans to govern the rest of us. One of those systematic distortions–gerrymandering–has been enabled by a judiciary unwilling to say what we all can see: that the practice is contrary to “one person, one vote” and thus the Constitution.

What’s relatively new is the willingness of the GOP to publicly defend its attacks on democracy.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have benefitted from a combination of extreme gerrymandering and the political complicity of a state Supreme Court dominated by Rightwing judges. A liberal judge just won a seat on that body (by a surprisingly large margin in a state where close elections have been the norm), and Republicans threatened to impeach her–before she can participate in a single case.

As an essay in the Guardian explains:

In 2011, Republicans gerrymandered Wisconsin’s state legislature so badly that the party can win supermajorities despite losing the popular vote, as it did in 2018. Voters have fought back, and earlier this year they elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court, ushering in a new liberal majority which looked poised to finally overturn the gerrymander and bring democratic regime change to Madison.

But Wisconsin Republicans have no intention of seeing their undeserved power slip away. They’re proposing to impeach Protasiewicz on spurious charges before she has ruled on a single case, paralyzing the court and leaving the gerrymander intact.

When Trump argued that he was the real winner of the election because the votes of people living in Democratic-leaning urban areas were somehow fraudulent and should not count, he was repeating arguments that Wisconsin Republicans had already honed. The speaker of the state assembly, Robin Vos, has explained that the state’s gerrymander is fair because “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority”. Because Madison and Milwaukee are the parts of the state with the largest concentration of non-white voters, Vos has revealed what the Wisconsin gerrymander is really about: race.

No surprise there. The urban/rural divide isn’t just about racism, but rural racial grievance explains a lot.

Per Talking Points Memo, the election of a liberal judge to the state’s high court infuriated the beneficiaries of Wisconsin’s undemocratic gerrymandering.

For months, Republicans have been plotting how best to overturn her election, as two redistricting lawsuits were immediately filed at the state’s high court. In recent weeks, they’ve been coalescing around impeaching her, settling on the rationale that she called the state’s maps “rigged.” Notably, state Republicans have not brought the same ire to Justices Rebecca Bradley and Brian Hagedorn continuing to preside over abortion cases after likening abortion to the Holocaust and calling Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization,” respectively. 

The GOP is threatening to impeach both Protasiewicz, the judge, and Evers, the Democratic governor (since you can’t gerrymander statewide elections, voters were able to elect a liberal justice and a Democratic Governor). “The threat of actual democracy has convulsed the state government, while state Democrats express their outrage from their manufactured permanent minority.”

The use of skewed election systems to suppress the voices of minority voters is not new to the U.S. Wisconsin is only a blatant example.

Like their predecessors in other states, Wisconsin Republicans have been remarkably frank about their intention of ensuring that minorities stay in their place. When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers powered to victory in 2018 with massive wins in Madison and Milwaukee, the Republican legislature used a lame-duck session to strip him of much of his power. Not content with that, Evers’ Republican opponent in 2022, Tim Michels, promised that if he was elected then Republicans in Wisconsin “will never lose another election”.

Give him credit for transparency…

Republicans aren’t even pretending any more. It’s not just Wisconsin–but what happens in Wisconsin will be a test case, telling us whether these increasingly brazen attempts to secure minority rule will succeed.

The author of the Guardian essay–a British historian of the United States–notes that Wisconsin Republicans were among the most fervent backers of Trump’s undemocratic coup attempt, “but they needed no lessons from him in how to suppress the will of the people.” 

The Republican party’s belief in its own god-given right to rule – and that of its white, rural electorate – found its most dangerous expression in Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, but it long predated him. It will outlive him unless it is chastened by accountability and defeat at every turn. All eyes are now on Wisconsin and Janet Protasiewicz to see if it will be. 

If the Wisconsin GOP’s shameless abandonment of even a pretense of playing by the rules succeeds, we’re in for a world of hurt.

Comments

Lying As Free Speech

I really have to stop reading the news. It’s bad for my mental health.

Just recently, I’ve learned that Wisconsin’s Republican legislature plans to reverse April’s election of a state Supreme Court Judge–who won by eleven points–by impeaching her. (Grounds to be concocted later…)

DeSantis appointed the co-founder of Moms for Liberty to the state’s ethics commission.

Elon Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League for reporting on the steep rise of anti-Semitic content on “X.” Musk claims that it is the ADL’s reports, not his wack-a-doodle management of the platform formerly known as Twitter, that is responsible for the steep drop in companies willing to advertise on the site.

And I see that Florida–which has been waging war against “woke” (i.e. accurate) education–is being joined by Oklahoma in authorizing the use of PragerU propaganda in public school classrooms.

The Guardian recently provided an in-depth look at PragerU.

A rightwing media outlet promoting climate-crisis denialism and other “anti-woke” staples to young students and adults via social media has become a fundraising Goliath, raking in close to $200m from 2018 to 2022 with big checks from top conservative donors, tax records reveal.

Founded in 2009 by the conservative talkshow host Dennis Prager, the eponymous Prager University Foundation is not an accredited education organization. But via online media its PragerU Kids division has become a key tool in spreading false claims to young people with short videos aimed at undercutting widely accepted science that climate crisis disasters are accelerating due, largely, to fossil-fuel usage.

PragerU’s influence in pushing false narratives about climate change and other far-right shibboleths such as airbrushing the brutal reality of American slavery gained ground when the Florida board of education in July gave the green light to using its videos and other materials in classrooms, a move that PragerU is trying to capitalize on in Texas and other states. On Tuesday, Oklahoma’s school system also approved the use of PragerU’s materials.

On its website, PragerU claims to be the “world’s leading conservative non-profit, focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.”

In other words, through lying. They call it “edutainment.”

The site’s funders include the Right-wing’s “usual suspects”–  oil and gas billionaire brothers Farris and Dan Wilks ($8m over the past decade), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the National Christian Charitable Foundation and (predictably) the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation

PragerU cartoons and videos include one about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America, which has Columbus explaining that slavery isn’t so bad.

“Slavery is as old as time, and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed,” the cartoon Columbus said. “I don’t see the problem.”

Other PragerU videos about the climate crisis make various false claims: they depict solar and wind power as environmentally dangerous, liken environmental activists to Nazis and claim recent record-breaking heat is just part of the natural weather cycle.

What truly drives me up the wall is the emerging “conservative” argument that the First Amendment protects such unconscionable lying.

In an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, and fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have accused Democrats of violating the First Amendment rights of election deniers.

In a report titled “The Weaponization of CISA: How a ‘Cybersecurity’ Agency Colluded With Big Tech and ‘Disinformation’ Partners to Censor Americans,” they argue that

the First Amendment recognizes that no person or entity has a monopoly on the truth, and that the “truth” of today can quickly become the “misinformation” of tomorrow. Labeling speech “misinformation” or “disinformation” does not strip it of its First Amendment protection. As such, under the Constitution, the federal government is strictly prohibited from censoring Americans’ political speech.

These people have no shame….

These civil libertarian claims of unconstitutional suppression of speech come from the same Republican Party that is leading the charge to censor the teaching of what it calls divisive concepts about race, the same party that expelled two Democratic members of the Tennessee state legislature who loudly called for more gun control after a school shooting, the same party that threatens to impeach a liberal judge in North Carolina for speaking out about racial bias, the same party that has aided and abetted book banning in red states across the country.

The linked column focuses upon the GOP’s hypocrisy, but that hypocrisy’s effectiveness relies on Americans’ widespread ignorance about the operation of the First Amendment.

Free Speech doesn’t allow you to engage in defamation or commit fraud with impunity; it doesn’t allow  science teachers to substitute creationism for evolution.

It does, however, protect the ADL from Musk’s anti-Semitic  threats….

Comments

Why I Love David French

I make it a point to read anything I come across from David French, whose writing I love because it is both eloquent and thoughtful–and admittedly, for the same reason most of us like writers: he shares my own beliefs and concerns. (Come on–admit it. We all prefer the folks we consider wise because they agree with us.)

In a recent essay for the New York Times, French focused on one of my longstanding and primary obsessions: the American public’s lack of civic literacy, and the consequences of that pervasive lack.

French used what he aptly termed the the “Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy” as his jumping off point, using reactions to Ramaswamy’s glib ignorance as an example of the way “in which poor leadership transforms civic ignorance from a problem into a crisis — a crisis that can have catastrophic effects on the nation and, ultimately, the world.”

French refers to the research that I have often reported on this site:

Civic ignorance is a very old American problem. If you spend five seconds researching what Americans know about their own history and their own government, you’ll uncover an avalanche of troubling research, much of it dating back decades. As Samuel Goldman detailed two years ago, as far back as 1943, 77 percent of Americans knew essentially nothing about the Bill of Rights, and in 1952 only 19 percent could name the three branches of government.

That number rose to a still dispiriting 38 percent in 2011, a year in which almost twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol” as knew that John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States. A 2018 survey found that most Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Among other failings, most respondents couldn’t identify which nations the United States fought in World War II and didn’t know how many justices sat on the Supreme Court.

Unlike my periodic rants on the subject, French isn’t sharing these statistics to bemoan public ignorance. He wants to make a different argument, namely

that the combination of civic ignorance, corrupt leadership and partisan animosity means that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We’re finally truly feeling the consequences of having a public disconnected from political reality.

Simply put, civic ignorance was a serious but manageable problem, as long as our leader class and key institutions still broadly, if imperfectly, cared about truth and knowledge — and as long as our citizens cared about the opinions of that leader class and those institutions.

French reminded his readers of the time that Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe made a huge difference in that campaign. As he says:

Note the process: Ford made a mistake, even his own team recognized the mistake and tried to offer a plausible alternative meaning, and then press coverage of the mistake made an impression on the public.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present moment. Instead of offering a plausible explanation for their mistakes — much less apologizing — all too many politicians deny that they’ve made any mistakes at all. They double down. They triple down. They claim that the fact-checking process itself is biased, the press is against them and they are the real truth tellers.

He follows up with several examples of Ramaswamy’s blatantly, factually incorrect (and actually ridiculous– but articulate!) statements–and the reaction of the GOP, which  “deemed him one of the night’s winners.”

He sums it up:

The bottom line is this: When a political class still broadly believes in policing dishonesty, the nation can manage the negative effects of widespread civic ignorance. When the political class corrects itself, the people will tend to follow. But when key members of the political class abandon any pretense of knowledge or truth, a poorly informed public is simply unequipped to hold them to account…

A democracy needs an informed public and a basically honest political class. It can muddle through without one or the other, but when it loses both, the democratic experiment is in peril. A public that knows little except that it despises its opponents will be vulnerable to even the most bizarre conspiracy theories, as we saw after the 2020 election. And when leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity, the Republic can fracture. How long can we endure the consequences of millions of Americans believing the most fantastical lies?

I told you so…..

Comments