George Will and AEI’s Jonah Goldberg discuss the broad changes affecting American politics and conservatism.
(14:00)This is an outgrowth of the Flight 93 election syndrome which is that the end is nigh unlesspeople listen to people like us.It’s a way of pumping up the grandeur and magnificence and importance of people whosay, “We stand at Armageddon, and things have never been worse, but they might get worsetomorrow unless radical things are done.”Jonah: Right, and people who disagree with you must shut up for we are at an existentialcrisis.George: Exactly, existential crisis, but the self-dramatizing, things aren’t that bad.I mean, I’m not happy.No one writes political philosophy if they’re content, right?Because you’re irritated about something or anxious or afraid or something.But I just think this hysteria is to be ignored.Jonah: I quote you in one of my previous books.There’s a story you tell about how when you first got your syndicated column, you calledGeorge…William F. Buckley, “How the heck am I going to write two columns a week?”What was his advice to you?George: He said, “The world irritates me three times a week.”He wrote three times a week.He said, “The world irritates me.”And it turns out it’s true, the world irritates or amuses or piques my curiosity 100 timesa year.I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have three or four things I wanted to write about.
Here’s my succinct request to Donald Trump and all the Democrats and Republicans trying to unseat him.
The founders wanted to create a new kind of country where individuals — and individual communities — could pursue happiness as they saw fit. They didn’t achieve that instantaneously, and we still don’t have it in meaningful respects, but they set up the machinery to make it achievable. This doesn’t mean the founders were against unity in all circumstances. Their attitude could be described as in necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. In essential things unity, in non-essential things liberty, and in all things charity. In other words, they understood that unity was a powerful tool, best used sparingly and only when truly needed. Odds are good that this was — or is — the basic, unstated rule in your own family. Good parents don’t demand total unity from their children, dictating what hobbies and interests they can have. We might force our kids to finish their broccoli, but even then we don’t demand they “celebrate broccoli!” I wish my daughter shared my interest in certain things, but I have no interest in forcing her too, in part because I know that’s futile. Spouses reserve unity as an imperative for the truly important things. My wife hates my cigars and has a? fondness for “wizard shows.” But we tend to agree on the big things. That seems right to me.
What is fascinating to me is that in the centuries since the Enlightenment, unbridled unity, enforced and encouraged from above, has been the single greatest source of evil, misery, and oppression on a mass scale, and yet we still treat unity like some unalloyed good.
Just Drop It
Okay enough of all that. Let’s get to the here and now. Joe Biden promised this week that if he’s president, he will unite the country. Newsflash: He won’t. Nor will any of the other Democrats. Donald Trump won’t do it either — and certainly hasn’t so far. George W. Bush wasn’t a uniter. Barack Obama promised unity more than any politician in modern memory — how did he do?
For the reasons spelled out above, our system isn’t designed to be unified by a president — or anybody else. The Era of Good Feelings when we only had one party and a supposed sense of nationality was a hot mess. It’s kind of hilarious to hear Democrats talk endlessly about the need to return to “constitutional norms” in one moment and then talk about the need to unify the whole country towards a singular agenda in the next. Our constitutional norms enforce an adversarial system of separated powers where we hash out our disagreements and protect our interests in political combat. Democracy itself is not about agreement but disagreement. And yet Kamala Harris recently said that as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to do exactly what she wants, and if they don’t she’ll do it herself. You know why Congress might not do what she wants it to do? Because we’re not unified on the issue of guns. In a democracy, when you don’t have unity, it means you don’t get the votes you need. And when you don’t get the votes you need, you don’t get to have your way. Constitutional norms, my ass.
So here’s my explanation for why I don’t want politicians to promise national unity. First, they can’t and shouldn’t try. Tom Sowell was on the 100th episode of my podcast this week, and one of the main takeaways was that we shouldn’t talk about doing things we cannot do. Joe Biden has been on the political scene since the Pleistocene Era. What evidence is there that he has the chops to convince Republicans to stop being Republicans? When President Bernie Sanders gives the vote to rapists and terrorists still in jail, will we be edging closer to national unity? When President Warren makes good on her bribe of college kids with unpaid student loans, what makes you think this will usher in an era of comity and national purpose?
But more importantly, when you promise people something you can’t deliver you make them mad when you don’t deliver it. I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Democrats spend their time calling every inconvenient institution and voter racist is that they are embittered by Barack Obama’s spectacular failure to deliver on the promises he made and the even grander promises his biggest fans projected upon him. When you convince people they’re about to get everything they want and then you don’t follow through, two reactions are common. The first is a bitter and cynical nihilism that says nothing good can be accomplished. The second is an unconquerable conviction that evil people or forces thwarted the righteous from achieving something that was almost in their grasp. The globalists don’t want us to have nice things! The corporations keep the electric car down! The Jooooooooz bought off Congress! The Establishment pulled the plug! The Revolution was hijacked! The system was rigged! The founders were Stonecutters!
This points to something I’ve been writing about for two years now. Trump defenders want to defend everything Trump does outside of the lines of normalcy on the grounds that he is a disrupter. There are several problems with this argument, but I’ll focus on two. The first is that much of Trump’s disruptiveness is characterological, not programmatic or ideological. If you want to defend the president’s prerogative to question the value of NATO, that’s fine. That’s one kind of disruption, to be sure. But his personal behavior from his pettiness, impulsiveness, and constant mendacity is disruptive, too. And you can’t expect people un-besotted with him to compartmentalize the two the way you do. Trump’s erratic behavior is endearing to some and worrisome to others. Expecting those endeared to find it troubling is as foolhardy as expecting the worriers to find it charming, particularly if the worrier has a responsibility to act.
Second, Trump supporters simultaneously celebrate his disruptiveness, and even his violation of democratic norms, but are scandalized when he provokes equally disruptive or norm-violating responses. When I hear Kevin McCarthy complain that Nancy Pelosi’s quasi disinvitation to deliver the State of the Union is “beneath” the office of the speaker, or when I hear praetorian pundits denounce the profane language of his opponents as if they shock the conscience of Trump supporters, I want to resort to the international sign-language gesture for Onanism.
If you are going to anoint a Cincinnatus who lays down his golf bag to save the Republic for being willing to break the rules and fight for ends heedless of traditional means, you should probably avoid clutching your pearls when partisans and even non-partisan institutionalists alike behave as if there are no guard rails for them either.
But here’s the question: In your heart, do you think it’s believable that the president told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress? I mean, do you really think given his character, history, and temperament that it’s inconceivable that he would do such a thing?
I think it’s believable because we already know that the president has no problem with lying and encouraging others to lie about his dealings with Russia (and a few other things). During the campaign and after being sworn in, he categorically denied business dealings — ongoing or potential — with Russia. Before Cohen told Mueller that he had lied to Congress, Trump’s position was unequivocal... So yeah, sure, the BuzzFeed story may be wrong in whole or in part, and if it is, BuzzFeed should pay dearly for it. But the fact that the story is so believable is both damning and significant.
There’s an old joke about how the best form of government is the “good Czar.” The problem is that if you create a system dependent on the wisdom of a good Czar, you leave society defenseless against the rise to power of a bad Czar.
This insight, perhaps more than any other, is at the heart of the American political system envisioned by the founders. If men were angels, we wouldn’t need government, and if you could guarantee that every Czar is an angel, you wouldn’t need democracy, checks and balances, or divided government of any kind, either.
.. The founders were acutely aware of this, which is why they opposed an established church like the Church of England. They saw how minority faiths had been persecuted in the name of national solidarity. The exhaustion after the religious wars of Europe minted the right to be wrong in the eyes of the majority or the state. In other words, they championed pluralism. As Ben Sasse writes in Them, we should all see ourselves as members of minorities.
.. The founders, especially James Madison, understood that the kind of national solidarity Reno desires and Rousseau celebrated is not scalable for a large, diverse, ultimately continent-spanning nation — at least not while preserving liberty. Even Rousseau thought his (largely totalitarian) conception of the General Will could not work on a polity larger than his beloved Geneva.
The way to prevent tyrannical invasions into the liberties of others was to divide power, not just between the three branches of government, but between the central government and the states and smaller jurisdictions. Each state has divided government, as do most cities and even towns and counties. And it’s not just state power. Institutions, starting with organized religion, must be given substantial immunity to interference by the state – at any level.
Delaware’s John Dickinson put it well at the Constitutional Convention: “Let our government be like that of the solar system. Let the general government be like the sun and the states the planets, repelled yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly and harmoniously in their several orbits.”
.. This is preposterous. The New Dealers wanted to crush the normal divisions of power (and had considerable success). Planners like Rex Tugwell thought they were smarter than the market and could set the prices for everything from Washington. They believed individuals could have enough knowledge to plan other peoples’ lives better than they could. That’s not bottom-up-trial and error from the little platoons of society (nor is it Catholic subsidiarity). It’s what Hayek called the Road to Serfdom.
.. And even if this ridiculous pipe dream were to come to be, how corrupting would it be of those institutions in the long run? The very thing that has corrupted the elites Rusty denounces would in all likelihood corrupt the new elites too. How faithful is Catholicism in China today? How much witness did the Russian Orthodox Church bear in the old Soviet Union? Hell, give some religious “leaders” a taste of good radio ratings or a sweet land deal and a little fame these days and you can see how far they stray. Imagine what compromises they might make for the greater good and for the cause of national solidarity when they had real power. Power and status are more seductive than 30 pieces of silver.
.. Conservatism Inc. these days is the lusting for the power, relevance, and fame we see all around us, and I guess Rusty wants his slice.