Clarifying The Stakes

I have often remarked upon the dramatic changes during my lifetime in what people consider “conservative.” I’ve speculated about the causes, pointed to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the contemporary GOP, and speculated that the current “conservative” movement (note quotation marks) is basically an intellectually incoherent expression of MAGA’s underlying fear and racism.

The fear and racism are certainly there, but recently I came across an essay in Persuasion that described an all-too-coherent philosophy underlying the current assault on the American Idea. 

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of contemporary American conservatism. The more familiar—traditional conservatism—holds that the founding principles and institutions of the American polity remain sound but have been distorted by waves of progressive activism that have eroded our commitment to individual liberty and limited government. The task is to preserve these fundamentals while restoring their original meaning and function. 

The second kind of conservatism claims that America was flawed from the start. The focus on individual rights comes at the expense of community and the common good, and the claim that government exists to preserve individual liberty creates an inexorable move toward moral anarchy. These tendencies have moved us so far from traditional decency and public order that there is little of worth left to “conserve.” Our current situation represents a revolution against the forces—religion, strong families, local moral communities—that once limited the worst implications of our founding mistakes. The only remedy for this revolution is a counter-revolution. Instead of limited government, we need strong government capable of promoting the common good and defending moral common sense against the threat posed by unelected elites.

This proposed counter-revolution has little to do with conservatism as traditionally understood. It seeks not to limit the flaws in our founding principles but to replace them. Specifically, it is a revolt against liberalism, the political theory rooted in the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of Independence. This New Right is unabashedly anti-liberal, at the level of philosophical principle as well as political practice.

The essay distinguishes between different kinds of anti-liberalism. Fascism, for example, finds legitimacy in the “culture and spirit of a specific people.”  Then there is what the essay calls integralism, defined as a distinctive form of religious anti-liberalism that originated within Catholicism.

It arose many centuries before the emergence of liberalism, as a justification for the integration of Catholicism and political power that began under the Roman emperor Constantine and was completed in 380 by emperor Theodosius I, who embraced Christianity not only as his personal religion but also as the religion of his realm. At the end of the next century, Pope Gelasius I formalized the Catholic understanding in his famous distinction between priestly and royal authority. In matters concerning religious practice and ultimate salvation, Gelasius argued, political authorities are required to submit to the authority of the Church. 

The essay proceeds to outline the history of this melding of church with state, and its eventual decline, thanks to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. While MAGA voters are highly unlikely to have heard of integralism, its resurgence among intellectuals on the Right is clearly influencing and shaping our current culture war. “Integralism” is at the root of current attacks on the very basis of the Enlightenment liberalism that undergirds America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Liberal philosophy distinguishes between public and private, and prohibits government from invading the zone of personal autonomy. Liberals may argue about where the line between public and private should be drawn, but they agree that the distinction exists and–more importantly– that it is morally fundamental.

Integralists “reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.” They reject the goal of a legal or public culture that is neutral– that accommodates different beliefs about morality and/or religion.

That philosphical approach explains a lot.

For Integralists, culture war is the only war: seeing neutrality as a myth, they see the battle as Manichean, a war between advocates of personal autonomy and defenders of (their version of) traditional morality. 

This explains one of the most confusing aspects of Republicans’ U-turn from their former commitment to limited government. These “common good constitutionalists” want a government with the power to impose their version of the good society on everyone.

If political power always shapes culture, as increasing numbers of traditionalists are coming to believe, they will conclude that they must seize and use this power—if necessary, without the limits they have long advocated.

It’s a war between fundamental–and irreconcilable–world-views. One is consistent with American constitutionalism; one is unambiguously not.

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Another Looming Threat

Is it time to re-examine some aspects of the U.S. Constitution? Undoubtedly. Is it incredibly difficult to amend that document in today’s polarized political environment? Yes. Does the undeniable accuracy of those observations support the growing movement to convene a Constitutional Convention?

Absolutely not.

Every so often, a reader will remind me that there is a stealth movement by far-Right activists to call such a convention–a reminder that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because the goals of those ideologues are entirely inconsistent with the values of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

A recent article from the Intelligencer explained who those activists are and what they hope to achieve.

On a recent spring morning outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol, a group of activists gathered to terminate the Constitution. Around 100 people drove in to Harrisburg from all over the state, showing up clad in white T-shirts and buttons depicting an American flag that nests COS, short for Convention of States, in the star area. Claiming endorsements from the likes of John Eastman, Sean Hannity, and Ron DeSantis, COS is a deep-pocketed right-wing movement that is quietly campaigning for states to call a constitutional convention, the first since 1787. “The government is out of control,” said Roy Fickling, a construction-industry retiree sitting on the balustrade. “It’s the only way to stop them.”

Just after 9 a.m., Rick Santorum waded into the crowd to deliver a speech about the “complete destruction” of America and the urgent need for a convention to radically amend the nation’s supreme law. “This is an existential fight,” said the Republican former Pennsylvania senator who is now a COS senior adviser. “It’s not about politics. The people on the left do not want the same America as you do. This is about good and evil.” The crowd applauded. He then went on to talk about trans issues. “The reality is this is a moment where we need patriots, just like we did in 1776.”

This effort is marketed as a move to cure what these activists see as the most pressing problems of the nation: ballooning debt and a “tyrannical” federal government.

Article V of the Constitution lays out two amendment mechanisms. The first is the one with which we are familiar. It has been used successfully 27 times. Congress passes an amendment by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and three-fourths of the states ratify it. The second process has never been used; it requires two-thirds of the states to pass resolutions calling for a convention where delegates from the states can propose amendments.

To anyone disheartened by congressional gridlock, Article V may seem like a seductive idea. While proposed amendments would theoretically also have to be ratified by 38 states, that is cold comfort to the legal scholars who see calling a convention as a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. “The only precedent is the Philadelphia convention from 1787, and they ended up junking the Articles of Confederation and writing a whole new constitution,” said David Super, a professor at Georgetown Law. So far, COS has won 19 states of the 34 necessary to force such a convention.

The last century saw three major Article V movements, two of which reached 33 and 32 states.

While the idea may seem too outlandish to catch on, so did others. The independent-state-legislature theory made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Second Amendment was once viewed by legal scholars as a clause regulating militias.  Abortion was a constitutional right for half a century.

We live in unsettled times…

The article identifies Meckler–the head of COS– as part of a “vast web of billionaire-funded right-wing efforts pushing radical movements to consolidate power under the guise of populism.”

The article is lengthy, delving into the background of Meckler, who comes across as a talented con man. It documents his transformation from moderate Left to hard Right–a transformation that made him useful to right-wing donors and led in turn to COS.

Meckler pitched the idea to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a clearinghouse for conservative policy, which became a key proponent, and COS began racking up state resolutions in the South and endorsements from Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and James O’Keefe. In 2016, COS hosted a mock convention, where over 100 state lawmakers adopted amendments that would, among others, repeal the income tax and allow a vote of 30 state legislatures to nullify federal laws. Critics of COS “actually said something truthful,” Meckler told Mark Levin, another supporter. “They said, ‘This is intended to reverse 115 years of progressivism,’ and we say, ‘Yes, it is.’”

The Convention of States is just one more threat–as if we needed another!– to the American Idea….

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Hamilton County And An Age-Old Story…

Back in 1995, when I was still at Indiana’s ACLU, I wrote a column about a “recurring fantasy” of mine, which I described as follows: a caveman discovers that he can produce drawings of the animals he hunts on the walls of his cave. Excited by the possibilities of his art, energized by the creative act, he produces a drawing–only to have it rubbed angrily off the cave wall by someone in his tribe who declares that the depiction of animal genitalia is indecent.

The first artist encounters the first censor, and a dynamic is born that is with us still!

Here in Indiana, there has been a takeover of the Hamilton County library board by some current descendants of my imagined angry tribesman. (Hamilton County is one of the “doughnut counties” surrounding Indianapolis, which occupies all of Marion County.)The new board immediately moved to “protect” children by requiring the library staff to review all of the books available to teenagers in the Young Adult section (at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of $300,000 ). Reports are that, out of the 1,859 physical books examined thus far, 1,385 have been moved from the Young Adult section to the Adult or General section.

One of the book moved was John Green’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars,” and Green sent–and publicized– an appropriately outraged message to the Board, triggering a national outcry, and a local petition to “Stop Censorship at Hamilton East Public Library.” (When I last looked, that petition had garnered some 3500 signatures.) As I write this, the turmoil has resulted in the (welcome) replacement of the library board’s president, a strong supporter of “protecting” children from reading  about things they can easily access on the internet and elsewhere.

The insistence that this exercise has been in furtherance of “parental rights” is equally ridiculous; a genuine concern for parental rights would respect the rights of all parents to determine what materials their children can access–not the right of some parents to determine what everyone else’s children can read.

No one said these people are smart. Just rabid.

I confess that I have never been able to understand the frantic need of so many of our fellow-citizens to control the habits and behaviors of the rest of us–habits and behaviors that do not affect them.

Nat Hentoff once wrote that the human animal’s urge to censor is stronger than its sex drive. In my days with the ACLU, I dealt regularly with folks who were absolutely convinced that they knew better than you and me what books we should read, what art we should see, and what musical lyrics the government should allow us to hear.

For those of us who believe that ideas matter, that literature and art are intensely important activities through which humans explore ideas, censorship poses a threat to our most important values. The government that can determine which ideas are worthy of consideration– and/or the age at which we should be allowed to consider them– is a government with power over the most important of all human functions–the power of the intellect.

In my long-ago fantasy, the caveman and his critic take their respective arguments to the leader of the cave clan. The censor insists that he and his friends find the drawing indecent, and argues that allowing smut in the cave will debauch the children and undermine the clan’s community standards. Another member argues the case for the artist: a society unwilling to consider all ideas will never leave the caves, will never reach the stars. A society willing to be ruled by the fears of the many will be deprived of the genius of the few.

In my dream, the leader considers the arguments and rules in favor of freedom of artistic expression. Civil liberties are born.

That, of course, was my fantasy. It remains to be seen whether civil liberties–not to mention common sense– will prevail in Hamilton County….Or, for that matter,  elsewhere in Indiana.

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A Cost/Benefit Analysis

Freedom of the press isn’t just implied in the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause, although that clause clearly extends to the media. According to historians, the country’s founders wanted to explicitly protect press information-gathering, because democratic processes depend on an informed electorate.

That understanding–that constitutional principle–is what makes a police raid on a Kansas newspaper so appalling. (When a reader first alerted me to this, I was certain there had to be more to the story–that the initial reports must have been wrong. I was the one who was wrong.)

As NPR has reported:

The small-town Kansas newspaper raided by police officers on Friday had been looking into allegations of misconduct against the local chief just months ago, according to the paper’s publisher, raising further concerns about the law enforcement officers’ motives.

The Marion, Kansas police department confiscated computers, cell phones and a range of other reporting materials from the office of the Marion County Record — the sole local paper in a small city of about 2,000 residents. Officers spent hours in the newsroom. It also seized material from one of its journalist’s homes. Eric Meyer, the publisher and co-owner of the newspaper, said his 98-year-old mother passed away the day after police raided her house, where Meyer was staying at the time. He said he believes the stress from the raid contributed to her death.

The background to the raid is particularly telling: the Record had conducted “routine background checks” just before police chief Gideon Cody took office. That “routine check” was evidently informed by anonymous tips the paper received after it ran a story about his candidacy for the police chief position.

Cody was sworn in as Chief in June, after retiring from the Kansas City Police Department in late April. Meyer was quoted as saying that “It was alarming, to say the least, the number of people who came forward, and some of the allegations they made were fairly serious. We were simply looking into the question.”

When a reporter asked Cody to comment on the allegations, Cody threatened to sue the paper, and the department stopped providing routine information to the newspaper. And then,

County magistrate judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant on Friday morning, authorizing the Marion police department to raid the Record. The warrant cites suspected “identity theft” of a local restaurant owner as the reason for the raid.

On Friday, just after the raid, the Record requested access to the probable cause affidavit — the document that would outline why the judge saw reason to authorize the raid — from the Marion County District Court.

But the court’s written response, reviewed by NPR, indicates that document may not exist.

There’s more, and it will undoubtedly all come out as other media outlets investigate the threat posed to press freedom by this episode. But what is especially troubling is that this bit of official thuggery comes at a time when local newspapers are disappearing. 

As an article in the Atlantic noted, local newspapers don’t just serve democracy–they also save tax dollars. The article cited a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, revealing that San Juan County, Utah, had paid a single law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. The story also reported that the firm had overcharged the county, the poorest in the state, by $109,500. Embarrassed, the firm paid the money back.

That one story retrieved for taxpayers a sum that was triple the reporter’s annual salary. As the author of the article noted, funding local news would more than pay for itself.

In addition to providing citizens with the information needed to make democracy work, in addition to the tax dollars saved when government is under the eye of media watchdogs, local newspaper reports feed community , especially in rural areas. A recent article from the Washington Post focused on that function.

At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community… 

Similar newspapers once bound together communities everywhere. A century ago, The Post, too, carried items on the humdrum comings and goings of local residents. Though the news became impersonal in big cities, community papers continued to be at the core of rural and small-town America.“

As a Local News Initiative official puts it, local news organizations are the glue that hold the community together. When there’s a void of local news, people revert to the blue and red echo chambers and national news sources that confirm their own belief sets, and it aggravates partisanship.”

That Kansas sheriff obviously doesn’t care.

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The Roberts Court

Linda Greenhouse is an astute observers of the U.S. Supreme Court, so when I see her byline on an article, I read it carefully. Last Sunday, she provided an 18-year overview of the Roberts Court,— providing readers with a chilling description of what Americans have lost since John Roberts assumed the position of Chief Justice.

Greenhouse noted that the just-completed term was in many respects the capstone of Roberts’ 18-year tenure. As she writes,

To understand today’s Supreme Court, to see it whole, demands a longer timeline. To show why, I offer a thought experiment. Suppose a modern Rip Van Winkle went to sleep in September 2005 and didn’t wake up until last week. Such a person would awaken in a profoundly different constitutional world, a world transformed, term by term and case by case, at the Supreme Court’s hand.

When Roberts joined the Court, Greenhouse says there was a “robust conservative wish list.” She then enumerates the items on that wish list:  overturning Roe v. Wade, reinterpreting the Second Amendment in order to turn gun ownership into a constitutional right, the elimination of race-based affirmative action in university admissions, the elevation of religion within the legal landscape (Greenhouse doesn’t say it, but what was wanted was the elevation of Christianity–not just “religion”)–and a drastic reduction of federal agencies’ regulatory power.

Despite the fact that William Rehnquist, the prior Chief Justice, was a committed conservative, the Court had not accomplished a single one of those goals. Greenhouse describes the case decisions that had failed to accomplish that conservative wish list– establishing precedents that would seem to preclude their realization.

That was how the world looked on Sept. 29, 2005, when Chief Justice Roberts took the oath of office, less than a month after the death of his mentor, Chief Justice Rehnquist. And this year? By the time the sun set on June 30, the term’s final day, every goal on the conservative wish list had been achieved. All of it. To miss that remarkable fact is to miss the story of the Roberts court.

t’s worth reviewing how the court accomplished each of the goals. It deployed a variety of tools and strategies. Precedents that stood in the way were either repudiated outright, as the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision did last year to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, or were simply rendered irrelevant — abandoned, in the odd euphemism the court has taken to using. In its affirmative action decision declaring race-conscious university admissions to be unconstitutional, Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion did not overturn the 2003 Grutter decision explicitly. But Justice Thomas was certainly correct in his concurring opinion when he wrote that it was “clear that Grutter is, for all intents and purposes, overruled.”

Likewise, the court has not formally overruled its Chevron decision. Its administrative-law decisions have just stopped citing that 1984 precedent as authority. The justices have simply replaced Chevron’s rule of judicial deference with its polar opposite, a new rule that goes by the name of the major questions doctrine. Under this doctrine, the court will uphold an agency’s regulatory action on a major question only if Congress’s grant of authority to the agency on the particular issue was explicit. Deference, in other words, is now the exception, no longer the rule.

Lawyers point out that the major questions doctrine was invented out of whole cloth; it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Constitution or prior case law. Greenhouse notes its utility to a rogue Court: “how to tell a major question from an ordinary one? No surprise there: The court itself will decide….it’s hard to envision an issue important and contentious enough to make it to the Supreme Court not being regarded as major by justices who flaunt their skepticism of the administrative state.”

You really need to click through and read the entire essay, because Greenhouse does a masterful job of explaining the disingenuous reasoning that allowed the Court’s majority to impose its reactionary policy preferences while ignoring “settled” law.

The web designer case was among the most egregious:

The court has created a religious opt-out from compliance with laws that govern the commercial marketplace…. [Gorsuch’s] opinion cites many First Amendment precedents, including the right not to salute the flag, the right of private parade organizers not to include a gay organization among the marchers and the right of the Boy Scouts not to retain a gay scoutmaster.

But none of those precedents are relevant, because none involved discrimination by a commercial entity.

The essay concludes that the Court “has become this country’s ultimate political prize…  from the perspective of 18 years, that conclusion is as unavoidable as it is frightening.”

Absent a Blue wave in 2024, it will only get worse.

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