“Common-good capitalism,” a recent proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is capitalism minus the essence of capitalism — limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions. Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism” is Christian authoritarianism — muscular paternalism, with government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons. This is the Constitution minus the Framers’ purpose: a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living. Such respect is, he says, “abominable.”
Vermeule would jettison “libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology.” And: “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go, insofar as they bar the state from enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources.” Who will define these duties? Integralists will, because they have an answer to this perennial puzzle: If the people are corrupt, how do you persuade them to accept the yoke of virtue-enforcers? The answer: Forget persuasion. Hierarchies must employ coercion.
Common-good constitutionalism’s “main aim,” Vermeule says, is not to “minimize the abuse of power” but “to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.” Such constitutionalism “does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy” because the “law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits,” wielded “if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them.” Besides, those perceptions are not really the subjects’, because under Vermeule’s regime the law will impose perceptions.
He thinks the Constitution, read imaginatively, will permit the transformation of the nation into a confessional state that punishes blasphemy and other departures from state-defined and state-enforced solidarity. His medieval aspiration rests on a non sequitur: All legal systems affirm certain value, therefore it is permissible to enforce orthodoxies.
Vermeule is not the only American conservative feeling the allure of tyranny. Like the American leftists who made pilgrimages to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, some self-styled conservatives today turn their lonely eyes to Viktor Orban, destroyer of Hungary’s democracy. The prime minister’s American enthusiasts probably are unfazed by his seizing upon covid-19 as an excuse for taking the short step from the ethno-nationalist authoritarianism to which he gives the oxymoronic title “illiberal democracy,” to dictatorship.
In 2009, Orban said, “We have only to win once, but then properly.” And in 2013, he said: “In a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions.” Elected to a third term in 2018, he has extended direct or indirect control over courts (the Constitutional Court has been enlarged and packed) and the media, replacing a semblance of intragovernmental checks and balances with what he calls the “system of national cooperation.” During the covid-19 crisis he will govern by decree, elections will be suspended and he will decide when the crisis ends — supposedly June 20.
Explaining his hostility to immigration, Orban says Hungarians “do not want to be mixed. . . . We want to be how we became eleven hundred years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, authors of “The Light that Failed,” dryly marvel that Orban “remembers so vividly what it was like to be Hungarian eleven centuries ago.” Nostalgia functioning as political philosophy — Vermeule’s nostalgia seems to be for the 14th century — is usually romanticism untethered from information.
In November, Patrick Deneen, the University of Notre Dame professor whose 2018 book “Why Liberalism Failed” explained his hope for a post-liberal American future, had a cordial meeting with Orban in Budapest. The Hungarian surely sympathizes with Deneen’s root-and-branch rejection of classical liberalism, which Deneen disdains because it portrays “humans as rights-bearing individuals” who can “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” One name for what Deneen denounces is: the American project. He, Vermeule and some others on the Orban-admiring American right believe that political individualism — the enabling, protection and celebration of individual autonomy — is a misery-making mistake: Autonomous individuals are deracinated, unhappy and without virtue.
The moral of this story is not that there is theocracy in our future. Rather, it is that American conservatism, when severed from the Enlightenment and its finest result, the American Founding, becomes spectacularly unreasonable and literally un-American.
Joe Biden Is Problematic
No amount of growth or good intentions will change this fact.
All five of these things are simultaneously true:
- Joe Biden is the Democratic front-runner and may well be the nominee.
- He is by far the favorite candidate among black voters.
- He was a loyal vice president to Barack Obama, and the two men seem to have shared a deep and true friendship.
- He, like the other Democratic candidates, would be a vast improvement over Donald Trump.
- And, Biden’s positioning on racial issues has been problematic.
This issue exposed itself again Thursday during the presidential debate in Houston. Moderator Linsey Davis put a question to Biden:
“Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’
You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
Biden could have taken responsibility for his comments and addressed the question directly, but he didn’t. Instead, he gave a rambling, nonsensical answer that included a reference to a record player. But, the response ended in yet another racial offense in which he seemed to suggest that black people lack the natural capacity to be good parents:
We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear four million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
His language belies a particular mind-set, one of a liberal of a particular vintage. On the issue of race, it is paternalistic and it pities, it sees deficiency in much the same way that the conservative does, but it responds as savior rather than with savagery. Better the former than the latter, surely, but the sensibility underlying the two positions is shockingly similar. It underscores that liberalism does not perfectly align with racial egalitarianism, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary.
On Sunday, Biden made a speech on race in Birmingham commemorating the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in which he said on the issue of how racism and racial hatred affect black people:
“We know we’re not there yet. No one knows it better. My mom used to have an expression, ‘You want to understand me, walk in my shoes a mile.’ Those of us who are white try, but we can never fully, fully understand. No matter how hard we try. We’re almost, we’re almost at this next phase of progress in my view.”
Progress. That is the wall behind which white America hides, including white liberals. (Even many black leaders have absorbed and regurgitate the progress narrative.) It expects black people to swell and applaud at their effort. But, how is that a fair and legitimate expectation? Slavery, white supremacy and racism, are horrid, man-made constructs that should never have existed in the first place. Am I supposed to cheer the slow, creeping, centuries-long undoing of a thing that should never have been done?
Malcolm X was once asked if he felt that we were making progress in the country. He responded: “No. I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
I don’t even think that’s progress. That just returns the situation to a common baseline before the crime was committed.
Furthermore, it’s not what Biden says in prepared remarks that’s problematic, it’s what he says off the cuff and under pressure that to me reveal an antiquated view on racial matters and racial sensitivities.
It was the way he advocated for the 1994 crime bill, a bill that contributed to America’s surging mass incarceration, which disproportionately affected black and brown people in this country.
The bill did some good, but the harm it did cannot be overlooked or understated. Rather than fully owning up to to the disastrous aspects of the bill, Biden has over the years bragged about it and defended it.
It was in the way he described then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007 as an African-American who was “articulate and bright and clean.” Clean? As opposed to what?
This critique of Biden isn’t personal. I bear no ill will for the man. But, a fact is a fact, and no amount of growth, change or well-intentioned good-heartedness has the ability to erase it.
Liberties; The Alpha-Beta Macarena
She has a point. Women are impressed by swagger and paternalism in presidential candidates, just as men are.
.. She devised the Good Father model for Bill Clinton. It was an obvious idea. But we live in a time when politicians don’t trust the contents of their own minds, when externalities are more important than internalities.
.. In the ’96 race, Harry Thomasson told Mr. Clinton to wear lighter suits. Then Mr. Morris told Mr. Clinton not to. Now Ms. Wolf approves of Mr. Gore’s switch from navy to tan.
It’s deliciously Byzantine. Mr. Gore, whose shot at the presidency is in jeopardy because Mr. Clinton had a preoccupation with sex, has turned to an author with a preoccupation with sex to save him.
And now, after turning Mr. Clinton, the predator, into the Good Father, Ms. Wolf will try to turn Mr. Gore, a good father, into more of a predator.
The price of electing saviours in Latin America
ON JULY 1st Mexicans are set to elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador as their next president. Since they twice rejected him, in 2006 and 2012, by coalescing behind the opponent with the best chance of winning, that requires some explanation. Mr López Obrador is of the left, but he is a would-be saviour rather than a social democrat. Instead of a better future, he promises to return Mexico to a better, safer past of strong, paternalist government. He invites voters to trust in him, rather than in democratic institutions. As the last two contests showed, in normal circumstances he would not win.
.. But Mexicans are not looking for politics as usual. Under the outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, they suffer rampant crime and corruption, and mediocre economic growth. Each day 85 people are murdered. Voters “want blood”, in the form of systematic punishment of corrupt politicians
.. Many think that centrist politicians have failed them and that things cannot get any worse.
.. Brazilians are in a similar mood ahead of their election in October.
.. one of the front-runners in the opinion polls is Jair Bolsonaro, a crudely authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic former army officer. Brazil, unlike Mexico, has a run-off vote; Mr Bolsonaro may well figure in it but is unlikely to win it.
.. A recent poll found that 62% of respondents aged 16-24 would leave if they could.
.. It is not the first time Latin Americans have turned, in an emergency, to would-be saviours. In 1990 voters in Peru found one in Alberto Fujimori, an obscure former university rector. A political outsider, he was elected when his country faced a terrorist insurgency, hyperinflation and economic meltdown. When he sent tanks to shut down the congress two years later, polite society was appalled but ordinary Peruvians cheered. Mr Fujimori won a second term in 1995.
..Or take Venezuela. The collapse of the oil price in the 1980s and 1990s weakened a stable social democracy, hollowing out its welfare state, causing bank failures and exposing corruption. In anger, Venezuelans turned to an army lieutenant-colonel, Hugo Chávez, who had led a failed coup ..
.. As the oil price surged again, he became a popular hero. But long before his death in 2013 he had propelled his country towards its current feral state of corruption, brutality and penury.
.. Colombians in 2002 were suffering the tightening grip of the FARC guerrillas over much of the national territory as well as a recession and a banking crisis. They normally chose moderate presidents, but they elected Álvaro Uribe, an intense conservative who promised to be “the first soldier of Colombia” and to double the size of the security forces.
Mr Fujimori and Mr Uribe saved their countries, but in both cases there was a dark side. Mr Fujimori governed as a dictator and resorted to systematic bribery. Mr Uribe appointed officials with links to right-wing death squads.
.. When voters choose candidates they normally wouldn’t, the negative consequences are long-lasting. In Venezuela, Colombia and Peru these include political polarisation.
.. This lasting polarisation is what may face Mexico and Brazil. It is the high price that countries pay when the political establishment fails in its most basic functions of protecting the lives of citizens or preventing the pilfering of public money. When that happens, it is hardly surprising that voters look elsewhere. But the problem with saviours is that, sooner or later, countries have to try to save themselves from them.