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Back in 2009, I wrote a book titled “Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence.” It was intended as a rebuttal to then-emerging arguments that America’s low levels of trust were a response to the country’s increasing diversity–that our differences had eroded our ability to trust our neighbors, and that interpersonal distrust had extended to our governing institutions.

As I argued then–and still believe–that conclusion gets it backwards. I think the degree of “generalized social trust” is dependent upon our ability to trust our social and governing institutions. In other words, when we cannot trust our government or the business community or religious institutions, that skepticism infects our views of our neighbors.

No matter which analysis is correct, the absence of that “generalized social  trust” is a major problem. Without it, systems cannot operate, authorities cannot govern. And the fact of its absence has been confirmed by numerous polls and studies.

As Governing Magazine reported in September,

The last half century has been a period of great disillusionment. In the 1950s the American people overwhelmingly trusted their government, their president, news sources, educational systems, and basic American institutions from the Justice Department to the Department of Defense. Today the American people are largely disaffected and cynical about those same institutions. A recent NBC News poll indicated that 74 percent of the American people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. According to Gallup, the American people’s general confidence in their national institutions is at an all-time low, averaging 27 percent, down from just under 50 percent in 1979.

In the last year alone the people have reported significant losses in respect for 16 national institutions: The police have a 45 percent approval rating, down 6; the American health-care system 38 percent, down 6; organized religion 31 percent, down 6; public schools 28 percent, down 4; the Supreme Court 25 percent, down 11; the presidency, 23 percent, down 15; the criminal justice system 14 percent, down 6; television news 11 percent, down 5; and Congress, as usual at the bottom of the barrel, with only 7 percent approval, down 5. And yet the incumbency re-election rate for members of Congress is nearly 95 percent.

The article reminds us that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson opined about the “social harmony without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

An increasing number of Americans are convinced that our national institutions–especially government– are no longer working. In my book–written during the George W. Bush administration (which in retrospect looks almost benign)– I argued that fish rot from the head. In other words, news of multiplying, numerous scandals– about the administration, about businesses like Enron and WorldCom, revelations about abuses in the churches, reports of unethical behaviors in major league sports– had eroded the public’s trust in most of America’s institutions, very much including government.

As the Governing article put it,

Our national political system is in a state of advanced paralysis. The culture wars (broadly defined) indicate that we are at the very least two nations now, urban blue and rural red, and neither grants much legitimacy to the other. You hear people saying, “I don’t want to live in Nancy Pelosi’s America” or “I don’t want to live in Donald Trump’s America.” And yet, at least for the foreseeable future, we have to share the continent.

The article considered the potential reasons for the erosion of trust: perhaps–given the fact that we now have so much information and news. our cynicism and disillusionment aren’t irrational. Maybe we were naive before, and now we aren’t. But a significant factor  has been the drumbeat of  Republican rhetoric for much of the last 50 years.

The American public has been inundated with denunciations of government and government agencies, especially following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. (It was Reagan who said, “The top nine most terrifying words in the English Language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” )

Beginning with the Gingrich insurgency in 1994 and taking on more aggression in the politics of the Tea Party and more recently the Freedom Caucus, Republican anti-government conservatives have made their way to Washington, D.C., with the express purpose of dismantling parts of the national government…The Trump presidency was particularly corrosive.

It’s hard to disagree with the article’s conclusion that a nation is held together by trust in shared purpose and shared values, and  that national  cohesion is lost when we no longer believe that our fellow citizens share our values or merit our trust.

In my research for the book, I found substantial scholarship emphasizing the role of fear in generating distrust. Citizens in societies with robust social safety nets and low crime rates are significantly more trusting than countries where many citizens live more precarious lives. The implications of those findings should inform American policy.

Unfortunately, ideological blinders make that recognition unlikely..

Identity Politics

Typically, diatribes against so-called identity politics are aimed at “woke” folks advocating for the civic equality of marginalized groups, presumably to the detriment of  the common good. I want to argue for a different–and infinitely more troubling–definition, one that helps explain America’s current divisions.

Several recent events and observations have prompted this reflection. A few days ago, I attended a meeting of a group of Hoosiers concerned about Indiana’s lopsided support of Republican candidates, even when those candidates were obviously and dramatically flawed. What several of us implicitly recognized was the changed nature of political choice.

These days, Hoosiers and other American voters are not engaged in debates over policy. The policy preferences and beliefs that used to determine whether people identified with Republicans or Democrats–free trade, welfare policy, foreign policy–no longer drive that choice, and a frighteningly large number of Americans haven’t the faintest idea what positions the parties or candidates embrace–or even know enough about the issues to form a coherent opinion.

Worse still, most don’t care.

I previously noted that the very welcome result in Georgia’s Senate run-off was an uncomfortably close one–that 1,700,000+ voters cast ballots for a manifestly unqualified and arguably mentally-ill candidate.

A couple of days ago, in his daily Newsletter, Robert Hubbell noted the durability of GOP base support for Trump, despite behaviors most Americans would once have seen as immediately disqualifying:

In the three weeks since he announced his 2024 presidential bid, Trump has met with antisemites, Nazi supporters, white nationalists, and QANON members at Mar-a-Lago and called for the “termination of the Constitution.”That is the worst “roll-out” of a presidential campaign in history. And yet, Trump has a 40% favorability rating while President Biden has a 42%favorability rating. We dismiss Trump at our peril.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that America is now experiencing a tribal war. Our differences are not based upon contending positions on matters of policy or candidate quality; they are based upon the irreconcilable world-views of the “tribes” of which we consider ourselves part.

Policy differences can be compromised; irreconcilable world-views cannot.

Over the past few decades, we Americans have sorted ourselves into a Red tribe and a Blue tribe. The Republican Party has never been a “big tent” in the same way the Democratic Party was and still is, but it was far more capacious than it is today. There were liberal Republicans, and a significant number of Republicans for Choice (a group to which I once belonged). Foreign policy positions ranged from isolationist to interventionist.

Today, the GOP has purged virtually all “outliers.” The MAGA party has largely morphed into the White Christian Nationalist Party, with internal differences narrowed to degrees of racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of “the libs.” A “moderate” Republican today is one who limits his public pronouncements of such sentiments because he still recognizes how ugly they sound. (I use the male pronoun because most of these culture warriors are men, but not all; loony-tune shrews like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are full-fledged members of the cult.)

Everyone who doesn’t fall within the GOP’s ambit–everyone who isn’t prepared to join the cult–is either a Democratic-leaning Independent or a Democrat, with the result that what was once that party’s “big tent'” is now a huge one, stretching from never-Trump Republicans to middle-of-the-road voters to self-identified democratic socialists. (That makes achievement of consensus the equivalent of herding cats, but that’s an issue for a different post.)

People now go to the polls to vote for their tribe, their team. America has always had an unfortunate tendency to view political contests like team sports; these days, “my team” has hardened into “my tribe, my people,” and voting has become a contest between “real Americans” and “woke liberals.” The attributes of the candidates, their positions on or evasions of the issues have largely faded into irrelevancy.

So…what now?

I fervently hope that we are simply on the cusp of permanent, largely positive social change, and that it is resistance to that change that has engendered the outpouring of fury, bile and hysteria from what Steve Schmidt calls “the belligerent minority.”  I hope that the inclusive, so-called “woke”  culture these folks so detest has become too embedded to be overturned.

I actually do believe that to be the case. But in the meantime, those of us who aren’t part of the cult need to understand what is motivating the legions who vote for people like Herschel Walker and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and who continue to support Donald Trump–and we need to actively oppose them.

Whoever said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” wasn’t kidding.


Who Said It’s A Gift To See Ourselves As Others See Us?

It was Robert Burns, who wrote:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion.

Well, seeing ourselves as others see us might not keep us from blundering, but it is clearly a path to humor. My son who lives in Amsterdam recently sent me this reaction to America’s 2016 election  from a Netherlands comedian, and it is just too good not to share.

Doom and gloom can wait until tomorrow…


It Isn’t Just The Bar Exam…

The New Republic recently printed an essay devoted to one of the many, many less tragic but nonetheless unfortunate consequences of the decisions issued this term by our rogue Supreme Court–the fact that the Court has upended the lives of students studying for the bar exam.

I know whereof the author speaks. A couple of weeks before the essay appeared, I had lunch with a good friend and his daughter, who had just graduated from the University of Michigan law school and was studying for the bar exam. She had been an excellent student, but was now stymied about how to answer questions about what she’d been taught were basic principles of American jurisprudence. What should she do in the wake of the Court’s string of radical departures from what she’d been taught was settled law?

Snark that I am, I suggested starting every answer with “Until this year, the law was…” But of course, that assumes the exam consists largely of essay questions.

As the author of the article in the New Republic put it

Picture the scene: It’s the summer after I graduated from law school and a day that ends in y, which means I’m currently hunched over a workbook, attempting to answer practice questions for the multistate bar exam. Such cramming for the bar is a universal rite of passage in the legal field—one that every lawyer in America remembers going through. But right now, law school graduates across the country are experiencing the ordeal a little differently. Because this year, a lot of the laws we are trying so hard to memorize are, as of just a few weeks ago, no longer actually the law.

The author shared a multiple-choice question that has undoubtedly been on several such exams, and then described the dilemma: of the three choices, “B” was correct. At least it should be correct. Except now, not so fast…

Or, well, “B” used to be the right answer. It was the right answer when we graduated from law school at the end of May. It was the right answer through most of June, as we studied the elements of substantive due process—the principle that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect fundamental rights from government interference, like the rights to personal autonomy, bodily integrity, self-dignity, and self-determination. For decades, these interests formed the outline of a constitutionally protected right to privacy, whose framework we’ve spent the summer copying onto flashcards and trying to recount in practice essays.

But this substantive due process right to privacy was just dealt a body blow by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson that the U.S. Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.

After enumerating several of this session’s other dramatic “U turns” to constitutional jurisprudence, he writes:

And the hits keep on coming: Next there’s a question on the “case or controversy” requirement laid out under Article III of the Constitution, stipulating that federal courts only have the power to resolve legal questions arising out of an actual dispute between real parties. That’s been a basic principle of judicial review since 1793, and yet I know that the multiple-choice option I mark for correctly stating this rule completely contradicts the Supreme Court’s disastrous climate decision in West Virginia v. EPA—a case over an environmental regulation that never took effect, no longer exists, and never created any real dispute between actual parties. Then I drop my pencil and put my head in my hands….

In order to practice law, every newly licensed attorney in the year 2022 has to take an exam testing their grasp of legal principles that are no longer legal and laws that are no longer the law. That an unelected panel of ideological extremists could change so many critically important pieces of America’s legal architecture overnight—radically remaking our laws on abortion, separation of church and state, climate change, the rights of criminal defendants, Native American sovereignty, gun control, the capacity of the administrative state to keep us safe, and more—all with zero input from or accountability to the American people, demonstrates how completely unmoored this court is from the principles of democratic governance.

It isn’t only students cramming for the Bar Exam who find themselves suddenly adrift. Pretty much every lawyer I know is gobsmacked..

Me too. I recently collaborated with Women4Change Indiana on a series of civic education videos meant to explain the operation of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Court’s ahistorical and deeply dishonest departures from what I knew as settled legal principles has made several of those videos inaccurate.

I encourage you to click through and read this very poignant essay--and the author’s very pointed criticisms of the judicial extremists who are decimating the rule of law.



The Problem With A Two-Party System

What do you do in a 2-party system when one party goes off the rails?

Americans tend to view European multi-party systems with incomprehension, if not disdain; how do the representatives of different parties form coalitions to support particular policies? Isn’t the electoral competition of multiple parties an invitation to chaos? We Americans prefer our Manichean dualism, the “either/or” of “right or wrong” (or actually, the tribalism of “us versus them.”)

It’s time to recognize that two-party systems have considerable downsides, too. 

In reality, our two major parties have always been collections of not-necessarily-consistent factions. They haven’t always been really big tents, but each party has historically encompassed a variety of philosophies. When I was much younger, the complaint was that the tents were too commodious–that having to choose between Republican and Democrat didn’t really provide the voter with a way to declare a clear policy preference, the way a Brit voter for the Green Party could, for example.

As the GOP has become far, far more monolithic, we can see the downside of that once-desired clarity. For one thing, there’s currently no political home for sane, principled conservatives, many of whom are appalled by what has become of a once-traditional party. (Remember when many Republicans were “fiscal conservatives and social liberals”?) 

To the extent that some of those homeless conservatives have reluctantly become Democrats, the Democratic Party faces a huge challenge.

Democrats have always had a bigger tent than Republicans, and have accordingly  had trouble enforcing anything that looks like party discipline. (What was that old saying? I don’t belong to an organized political party–I’m a Democrat.) With the addition of disaffected former Republicans, Democratic strategists find themselves  trying to herd cats–trying to achieve something approaching consensus among legislators and voters who come from very different places on the political spectrum.

It’s one thing to note that the devolution of the GOP into a conspiracist cult is a huge headache for the Democrats. A much bigger worry is what that devolution means for American democracy. As Jennifer Rubin has written,

A new survey from Bright Line Watch, an organization that monitors democratic practices, provides some interesting insights but little solace about Republicans’ commitment to democracy. They might say they support democratic principles (e.g., “All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights”), but they fail to embrace the most fundamental democratic principle: acceptance of election results and the peaceful transfer of power.

The most basic disconnect from reality (and democratic values) remains the 2020 presidential winner. The survey reports, “94% of Democrats say [President] Biden is the rightful winner compared to just 26% of Republicans — a split that has also remained remarkably stable since Biden took office.” As a result, only 42 percent of Republicans have confidence in the outcome of elections compared to 80 percent of Democrats. That raises a question that was so prominent throughout the Senate runoffs in Georgia: Why vote if you think the whole thing is rigged?

Rubin notes that political scientists “are especially alarmed” by the number of  GOP candidates who do not accept the results of the 2020 election–not just those running for Congress, but at least 10 GOP candidates for secretary of state in five battleground states. Putting partisans who endorse Trump’s “Big Lie”  in charge of administering elections  poses a huge threat to election integrity from within.

The transformation of one major party into an illiberal, authoritarian movement is the greatest threat to democracy we face. It manifests itself in the “anti-fraud” measures (when there is no fraud) to restrict access to the ballot and to put partisans in charge of election administration; in the GOP’s decision to rally around House members who spout virulent racism and depict violence against Democrats; and in the real potential that the John Eastman memo becomes the 2024 post-election game plan for Republicans.

Unless and until all 50 Democratic senators realize that “bipartisanship” on voting and democracy reforms is impossible with a party infected with anti-democratic impulses, they will fail to install the guardrails needed to protect the country from these authoritarian forces.

In multi-party systems, members of a Green Party can find common ground with legislators from a Labor Party or a Conservative party on a number of issues. In today’s U.S.,  however,”bipartisanship” requires lawmakers who are trying  to enact reasonable policies to work with people who are steeped in racist conspiracy theories and are clearly untethered to reality.

Research confirms that there are many more sane voters than the Trumpers who control today’s GOP, but they need to vote and those votes need to be accurately counted. When the Whigs disappeared, they hadn’t gerrymandered themselves into positions of power disproportionate to their numbers. Today’s Republicans have.


Note: like most of you, I am watching–with fear and disbelief–the Russian assault on Ukraine. I have no foreign policy expertise, and there are numerous sources of genuinely informed news available, so I don’t intend (at this point, at least) to post about it. That said, I will make two observations: first, President Biden has spent much of  his career immersed in foreign policy, and I have confidence in his leadership at this very perilous moment; second, the Trump party’s reflexive support for Putin isn’t simply on the wrong side of history, it is reminiscent of the Americans who sided with Hitler and the Nazis at the outset of WWII.