Who Are We?

Bret Stephens is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. There are policy positions he takes with which I disagree, but he’s an old-fashioned conservative–that is to say, sane–and on occasion he writes something with which I emphatically do agree.

He recently wrote a column about the Russian assault on Ukraine, arguing that this is a moment for America to believe in itself again. 

Being true to ourselves doesn’t require pretending that our history has been an unblemished story of righteousness. 

Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little?

Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right. When Bill O’Reilly asked Donald Trump in 2017 how he could “respect” Putin when the Russian president is “a killer,” the president replied: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

As Stephens reminds us, countries are better–and better off– when they proceed with “more self-awareness, less moral arrogance, greater intellectual humility and an innate respect for the reality of unintended consequences.”

But neither people nor countries are well served by the defects of those virtues: self-awareness that becomes a recipe for personal or policy paralysis, intellectual humility that leads to moral confusion, a fear of unknown risks that becomes an asset to an enemy. These are some of the deeper risks we now face in the contest with the Kremlin.

Stephens analyzes the reasons for Putin’s fixation on Ukraine, and the self-deceptions that have motivated his decision to “re-unify” at least this part of the old USSR. But then he turns to the United States–and what we want to believe about ourselves.

The United States used to have self-belief. Our civilization, multiple generations of Americans believed, represented human progress. Our political ideals — about the rule of law, human rights, individual liberties, democratic governance — were ideals for all people, including those beyond our borders. Our literature spoke to the universal human experience; our music to the universal soul. When we fought wars, it was for grand moral purposes, not avaricious aims. Even our worst blunders, as in Vietnam, stemmed from defensible principles. Our sins were real and numerous, but they were correctable flaws, not systemic features.

It goes without saying that this self-belief — like all belief — was a mixture of truth and conceit, idealism and hubris, vision and blindness. It led us to make all sorts of errors, the acute awareness of which has become the dominant strain of our intellectual life. But it also led us to our great triumphs: Yorktown and Appomattox; the 13th and 19th Amendments; the Berlin Airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall; the Marshall Plan and PEPFAR.

The only place I departed from Stephens’ analysis was with his concluding paragraph:

These victories were not the result of asking, “Who are we?” They came about by asking, “Who but us?” In the crisis of Ukraine, which is really a crisis of the West, we might start asking the second question a little more often than the first.

My own conclusion is that “who but us?” reeks of self-aggrandizement. What has so impressed me about the way President Biden has managed this crisis is that he hasn’t pontificated about America’s obligation as the only country that can stop aggression. Instead, he has taken to heart that old management axiom that you can get a lot done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. Biden has re-invigorated NATO and forged agreement among democratic countries (and even some that aren’t so democratic) to employ carefully targeted sanctions likely to destroy Russia’s economy and ensure that the oligarchs around Putin experience a world of hurt.

The pertinent question is the one Stephens first identified: who are we? And the answer is, we are a country with sound and valuable ideals–granted, a country that often falls short of those ideals–a country with a majority of citizens who are devoted to those ideals, but who are currently demoralized by a loud and angry tribal minority that is working to abandon the principles the rest of us struggle to achieve.

Ukraine is fighting Russia. We are fighting the enemy within.


Describing Mike Pence

Every Monday, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens have a “conversation” on the op-ed page of the New York Times. As I have noted on several occasions, I am a huge fan of Gail Collins, who argues for the liberal side in those conversations, and although I disagree with Bret Stephens–representing the conservative side– on a number of issues (not all), he makes me nostalgic for the time when Republicans a/k/a conservatives could be engaged in actual discussions. Today,  they prefer to emulate monkeys throwing poo….

Unlike the inarticulate Trump Republicans hurling verbal poo, Stephens also has a real talent for witty invective, and that talent was on display in his conversation with Collins last Monday.

The column was titled “The Mike Pence Saga Tells Us More Than We Want to Know,” and after touching on a number of other issues, including New York’s mayoral primary and Trump’s Ohio rally, the conversation turned to Indiana’s ex-Governor and America’s ex-Vice-President, Mike Pence.

Here’s that portion of their back-and-forth:

Bret: You know, I probably spend more time thinking about Mike Pence than I ought to, given my high blood pressure. He reminds me of Mr. Collins, the unctuous clergyman in “Pride and Prejudice” who’s always bowing and scraping to the overbearing, tasteless, talentless Lady Catherine de Bourgh while he lords it over the Bennet family because he stands to inherit their estate. Alternatively, Pence could be a character out of Dickens, with some ridiculous name like Wackford Squeers or Mr. Pumblechook.

Gail: Wow, great analogies. Plus, it is indeed possible you spend more time thinking about Pence than you ought to.

Bret: Here’s a guy who makes his career on the Moral Majority wing of the Republican Party, until he hitches his wagon to the most immoral man ever to win a big-ticket presidential nomination. Phyllis Schlafly deciding to elope with Larry Flynt would have made more sense. Then Pence spends four years as the most servile, toadying, obsequious, fawning, head-nodding, yes-sirring, anything-you-say-boss vice president in history. He’ll do anything for Trump’s love — but not, as the singer Meat Loaf might have said, attempt to steal the presidential election in broad daylight.

For this, Trump rewards Pence by throwing him to a mob, which tried to hunt him down and hang him. But even now, Pence can’t get crosswise with his dark lord, so the idea of him ever taking the party in an anti-Trump direction seems like a fantasy.

Those of us who follow such things have watched as Pence tries to appeal both to Trumpers and to the majority of Americans who were appalled at efforts to withhold certification of the election results. He is continuing his adulation of his “dark lord” while insisting that his courageous fidelity to the Constitution kept him from refusing to perform his electoral duty. That balancing act is unlikely to mollify either the crazies who form the base of today’s GOP or anyone who spent four years observing Mike Pence. (It’s especially unlikely to endear him to Indiana voters, who found his preference for pontificating over governing during the prior four years very tiring).

Pence’s effort to cast himself as a defender of the Constitution is coming at the same time as Bill Barr’s equally tardy effort to distance himself from the Big Lie. (“It’s all bullshit.”)

Neither man is very persuasive, but the efforts are instructive. When two of his biggest sycophants attempt to distance themselves from the disaster that is Trump, it is a clear sign that his influence is waning–that those who were happy to carry his water when he was in office don’t expect him to regain power or influence–or be in any position to do them any good. (It’s too little, too late–Bill Barr is never going to regain the respect of the legal community, and Pence never had the respect of anyone other than a few naive fundamentalists.)

Wackford Squeers sounds about right…


Beyond Left And Right

Bret Stephens–the New York Times columnist– is too conservative for my taste, by which I mean I tend to disagree with his positions on issues. But he is conservative within a traditional American liberal democratic framework.

If that observation seems odd to our contemporary American ears, it is because the language of politics has been debased. Years of Rush Limbaugh and his clones turned “liberal” into an epithet devoid of meaningful content, and the radicalization of the GOP has confused “conservative” with Neanderthal.

Which brings me back to a recent Stephens column with which I do agree.Mostly.

Stephens says the U.S. needs a Liberal Party. He dutifully recites the reasons third parties routinely fail in a system that is set around a two-party duopoly, but he also argues that both the GOP and the Democratic Party are historically weak. I’m unconvinced that things have changed enough to make a third party viable, but in the process of his discussion, he makes a very important–and very under-appreciated–point.

By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.

All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike.

But now the basic division in politics isn’t between liberals and conservatives, as the terms used to be understood. It’s between liberals and illiberals.

Stephens points to the illiberalism of both the Right and the far Left, pointing on the right to  “Stephen Miller on immigration, Steve Bannon on trade, Josh Hawley on elections and Marjorie Taylor Greene on every manner of lunatic and bigoted conspiracy theory.” On the Left, he excoriates excesses of the “Me too” movement and the so-called “cancel culture.” He says that the illiberal Right is by far the most dangerous, because it is capable of winning elections and, when it loses, willing to subvert them.

Whether you agree with his specific critiques or not, I think he is absolutely correct about the need to reinforce and restore the underlying liberal consensus that democracy requires-what he describes as the “capacious” liberal faith within which we can argue in good faith about what “sensible” regulations look like, and the extent of the “social supports” that cushion the vagaries of a market economy.

Today, we characterize those debates over specific policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” but they can only occur within a larger, widely accepted liberal democratic framework that embraces a government protective of individual autonomy, based upon consent of the governed (as reflected by the votes of the citizenry)and committed to equality before the law.

Specific policy debates are, as Stephens says, parochial quarrels within that shared liberal faith.


An Un-sedated Colonoscopy

Gail Collins is one of my very favorite columnists. Lately, I have especially enjoyed her weekly “Conversations” with Bret Stephens. Collins is liberal and Stephens is conservative-but-not-batshit-insane, so their Monday Times discussions have been both informative and entertaining.

We can all use some entertainment these days, so I thought I’d share some “highlights” from Monday the 10th.

The linked column  began with a discussion of Trump’s recent speech to his golf club buddies. Both Collins and Stephens agreed that this “allegedly presidential speech” was really just a campaign rant about Joe Biden —” interspersed with reminders that the virus and everything that followed in its wake is ‘China’s fault.'”

Stephens pointed out that the President’s recent “Executive Orders” were unconstitutional (only Congress controls the nation’s purse). That was followed by the following exchange:

Gail: Before I had to listen to him address the nation via his cheering golf partners, I was going to ask you how far the Trump terribleness had driven you. We talk all the time about our mutual desire to clean out the White House. But what about the Senate? Are you rooting for a Republican majority? For Mitch McConnell? For Susan Collins? Tell all.

Bret Stephens: Gail, when it comes to Donald Trump’s Republican Party, I’m a reluctant member of the “destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it” school. Obviously I’d much rather see Susan Collins keep her seat than Mitch McConnell keep his post as majority leader, for the same reason that I want moderate Republicans to prevail within the party.

But the most important thing is for the G.O.P. to take such a shellacking in November that they will remember it as the political equivalent of an unsedated colonoscopy.

The thought of handing today’s iteration of the GOP the equivalent of an un-sedated colonoscopy cheered me immensely. I could almost forgive Stephens for some of what I consider his retrograde policy positions.

Stephens followed that zinger up with a good summary of what (the few remaining) rational, unTrumpian Republicans find so unacceptable in this administration:

The kind of Republican Party that didn’t think the term “family values” meant an enrichment scheme for Trump’s children and in-laws; that believed in the power of immigrants to refresh and reinvent the nation; that understood that Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un were the enemy, not Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer; that respected federalism even if it meant deferring to the wishes of Democratic governors and mayors; and that worshiped at the political altars of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, as opposed to P.T. Barnum and Archie Bunker.

Later, he excoriated the Trump supporters–the “Mark Levin types whose default setting is certitude and fury. And Sean Hannity types whose default is obsequiousness and fury. And Tucker Carlson types whose … ” Well, you know.

And– in yet another bodily reference– Stephens noted that

The only good thing that might have come from putting a libertine at the head of the G.O.P. was to get the party to unconstipate itself. And he couldn’t even get that right.

The column became more serious with a discussion of potential Biden running mates, and then concluded with the following exchange:

Gail: Whenever we get on this subject a wave of sadness overtakes me. Still yearning for Elizabeth Warren. But really, anybody who’s part of a change of administration would be OK by me in the long run. One thing I have to give Trump credit for is a general lowering of expectations.

Bret: Gail, rest assured that before the year is out he’ll lower them some more.

I keep thinking about that initial description of what is needed in November: a defeat that Republicans would experience as an un-sedated Colonoscopy.

Believe it or not, I know a lot of formerly dependable GOP voters who would be happy to contribute to such a defeat, if they thought it would lead to a resurrection of the party they had originally joined.

Personally, I’m with the guy in one of those “former Republican” ads who says he’d vote for a can of tomato soup if it would deliver the country from the chaos of Trump. It reminded me of my sister’s declaration that she’d vote for toenail fungus over Trump.

Our job is to make sure everyone who feels that way casts a vote, and that it gets counted!



I’ve gotten used to “whataboutism”–most vividly illuminated by Republicans who respond to every criticism of Trump with “But what about Hillary’s emails!” There are lots of other examples: think of the people who respond to incidents of racist violence with “But what about black on black crime?”

What is so infuriating about this particular deflection technique is how intellectually dishonest it is. Whatever one’s position with respect to Hillary’s emails or black on black crime, they are irrelevant to the issue being raised. 

Recently, Bret Stephens wrote a “whataboutism” column for the New York Times decrying liberal intolerance and excoriating left-wingers who “believe all the old patriarchal hierarchies must go (so that new “intersectional” hierarchies may arise), who are in a perpetual fervor to rewrite the past (all the better to control the future), and who demand cringing public apologies from those who have sinned against an ever-more radical ideological standard (while those apologies won’t save them from being fired).”

Stephens is a conservative, so coming across a conservative takedown of the column was particularly satisfying.

Tom Nichols is the author of The Death of Expertise (a book I recommend highly, by the way). Nichols is a conservative professor at the Naval War College, and like Stephens, a Never-Trumper. He took to Twitter to respond to Stephens’ column, and the thread was captured by AlterNet.I’m reproducing it in full, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

Yes, I read the Bret Stephens piece. Ho hum. Yes, the intolerant left is a threat. Stipulated. However, I have excoriated people on the left for most of my career. But only opposing Trump produced harassment, demands to fire me, and death threats. Cancel culture, indeed. /1
I mean, I have blistered everyone from Obama to Hillary Clinton, and across the seas to Putin and Assad. For years, I was an outspoken conservative. But I never encountered McCarthyist thuggery like the kind I’ve gotten from the Cult of Trump. So spare me the hand-wringing. /2
I am not blind to the totalitarian streak on the left. I wrote about it – and at The Federalist, back in the day, no less. Amazingly, no one on the left tried to get me fired for it or told me I’d be hung as a traitor or left endless f-bombs on my voicemail at work. Imagine. /3
Look, the Democrats always have short-pants Stalinists in their midst. The GOP has always had theocratic wanna-be ayatollahs in *their* midst. The difference is that the GOP is now in power and owned, completely, by its fringe – one that is frantic with fear and anger. /4
The people who want to pull down statues without reading the nameplates (or without reading a book) are idiots. Many are the children of privilege. Some are even stupid enough to think they’re leading a revolution. They’re not. Calm down. /5
Leftist revolution here is about as likely as the Civil War 2.0 porn that Trump’s kooks love so much (not least because those same young people would freak out if no-kidding socialism was ever implemented).
Meanwhile, right-wing attacks on the Constitution? Happening now. /6
“Oh noes, the college kids are gonna take over the country!” is one of those cyclical things that conservatives worry about – usually as an indication of how little faith conservatives have in their own ideas and how much they fear their own personal weaknesses./7
But what about the culture war, right? Here’s an open secret: most GOPers never really cared that much about the culture war. They say they do, and they wave the flag and decry the behavior of poor people and brown people and people in cities, but that’s mostly a show. /8
How can I say this? Because you don’t see much of that culture war reflected in the personal behavior of most self-identified conservatives, who are as decadent as anyone else. These are not Amish stoics. They just don’t like *other* people being decadent, too. /9
What are they, then? They’re white people, who liked the world (or imagine they did) the way it looked when they were kids, and use the culture war as a proxy for resentment and nostalgia. The behavior of political evangelicals since 2016, especially, finally outed all that. /10
You want me to worry about college Marxists? Yeah, I’ll get right on that as soon as we dislodge the febrile anti-constitutionalists of the GOP.
I have plenty of concerns about the left. But right now, I’d like to deal with the obvious and demonstrated threat from the right. /11
I’ve been hearing about leftists taking over the country since I was a kid. It was supposed to happen in the 60s, after the 80s, etc etc. And the culture war, such that is, was over decades ago. But I never thought I’d have to fight over the Constitution – with the *right*. /12
So take all your fears of rampaging drag queens and how Joe Biden is controlled by the College Spartacists, and put ’em in a sock, pally. I’ll be first in line to oppose extremist left-wing dumbassery – once we defeat far more dangerous people like Barr and McConnell. /12x

You go, Tom!