B After The Fact

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Now that I finally have learned to use hyperlinking, I can refer you to E.J. Dionne's op-ed about states rights for me but not for thee, without violating too many statutes.

I kind of sort of wish I had the courage to say these things myself, instead of referring to others, but Nat Hentoff's article in this week's Village Voice about the power the administration seeks, and is getting, to designate American citizens as enemy combatants, makes all the e-mails I get about whether so-and-so can beat a sitting President, any sitting President, just so-much eye wash. It makes all the e-mails I get about how the Foxies want a limited government, just so much hog wash. You can trust Bush, and you can trust Ashcroft, and you can trust Rumsfeld, and you can trust Ridge, but can you trust the guys who come next, and can you assume that we will, at the split second we want to, have the power to make these new laws go away.

Power can always, always, create a war-like crisis. Can be my guy just as easily. Probably won't be though.

(Still to come --- in seeming contradiction --- why we like big government)

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

What am I talking about when I rail against states rights? I mention it a lot on the blogsite, and I have just posted E.J. Dionne’s article from today’s Washington Post below:

There are a lot of ways to look at it, but let me put it like this:

States Rights is a doctrine that says that the Constitution, fairly read, is a limited partnership agreement among the states concerning how they would coordinate the business amongst them.

Despite the fact that the Constitution starts with the words “We The People,” it doesn’t have much to do with the people at all.

Even the Bill of Rights doesn’t have much to do with people, except in the very limited sense that it prevents the Federal government from passing laws limiting speech, religion, etc. It says nothing about what the states can do.

When people, like John Ashcroft and Gayle Norton, speak of their admiration of Jefferson Davis and states rights, they are admiring this construct, which theoretically ought to have nothing to do with racism and slavery.

In the event however, a conflict arose over whether the Federal power could be used to enforce the rights of some states to favor slavery, over the rights of other states to oppose it. Lincoln said that “This government cannot permanently endure, half-slave and half-free.” From the standpoint of the Constitution, in 1857, it is unclear how a state opposed to slavery could refuse to permit a slaveholder from Missouri from bringing his slave into Minnesota and living as man and slave. (Dred Scott). In the Constitution, the rights of the states to permit slavery should always overrule the rights of some people to be opposed to it. I will leave the rest of that argument to those who can address it with more passion.

So when Lincoln later said that the nation was an experiment of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he was overstating the construct. Day to day life in North America may in fact have been government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but the governing document, the Constitution, did not say that.

In this sense, the conflict of the Civil War can be said to be a conflict concerning differing views of what is meant by “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The North won (duh) and put in a few amendments to the Constitution, and it was these amendments that, for the first time, prohibited the states from taking certain actions against their citizens. But the ability of the Federal government to enforce these amendments is also a matter of some dispute. For a century or so, it was a matter of fierce dispute.

When I criticize people like Gingrich (who I take very seriously and very respectfully as a thinker who I happen to have a profound disagreement with), DeLay, Archer, Norquist, Ashcroft, Gail Norton or Karl Rove (who I think are all simply corporate tools who are trying to kill a way of life, and will lead directly to my personal death --- see below), it is their insistence that a pre-Civil War, pre-New Deal, pre-World War II reading of the Constitution is the best way, come what may, that I most disagree with.

I am not sure what future Gingrich and movement conservatives think they are going back to. And since this is an open work in progress, I hope to be able to come to some of my findings on this eventually.

However, I do know where George W. Bush thinks he’s going. And those who have been following along know where I think that is. But I will put that on the record next time.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

I have been reluctant to publish this post, although it really reflects the whole reason I started this exercise, and even though it is similar to similar cries in the dark that I have made in personal letters to some of you, or in letters to the editor, over the last 10 years. So let me make a lawyer's point and say that what follows in this post is a draft. All future posts that relate to this draft (and I hope they will be many) will serve to refine, qualify, or perhaps strongly reinforce these points as I work this through, in public, in future installments. I would like to sit down and write all this out in a book. But I may not be able to get to anything so systematic.


David Brooks in the June 30th edition of the Weekly Standard complains that “Democrats Go Off the Cliff”. He doesn’t understand why Democrats say such horrible things about Bush. He says that “(i)t’s mystifying. Fury rarely wins elections. Rage rarely appeals to suburban moderates.” I am sure he was writing the same thing when Republicans attempted to close the Federal government, and failing to do that decided to impeach the President instead. Democratic fury at Bush is a speck of dust in the whirlwind of Republican fury at Clinton.

In the July 6th New York Times Magazine, James Traub says (sort of) that Democrats are too process-oriented for their own good, and they would be better off it they were more partisan. . In a funnier way, it is also the subject of today’s Doonesbury.

David Brooks complains that in the May 1st edition of The American Spectator, Harold Myerson (I was unfamiliar with both magazine and author prior to that reference) compared President Bush to Jefferson Davis. However, Brooks did not explore the point, except in the nature of an incredulous shake of the head.

When you get to Myerson’s article, titled “The Most Dangerous President Ever,” you find that Myerson doesn’t really explore the point either. He compares Bush to Davis as a twist ending to a general indictment of how conservative Bush is. Mostly he is comparing Bush to Reagan. Myerson does say of Davis (Bush?) that “he was willing to tear up the larger political order, which had worked reasonably well for about 60 years, to advance his factional cause.”

Traub misses the greater point that process is the result. Keeping the experiment of government under this Constitution going is more important to Democrats than any individual outcome.

Brooks and Myerson both miss their own point. Reagan said that government is the problem. Reagan never said that no government at all was the solution. Newt Gingrich sort of said that. Tom Delay says it more clearly now. There is now a critical mass of people in the government who agree with him. Not a majority, but a critical mass, who believe that no government at all is the solution.

Movement conservatism is radical. It is iconoclastic. It believes that a great many things are more important than keeping the government going, and a great many more things than that are more important than living under this Constitution. It is in that respect that people who follow movement conservatism are like people who seceded from the Union.

Republican lawmakers can be more result-oriented than Democratic lawmakers because Republican lawmakers care less about whether the Constitution works or not.

The basic division is not, as Traub contends, the sharpness of the elbows, but whether or not there is an American people outside of the Constitution.

I say that there is no real American people outside of the Constitution. I say that 500 years (since Columbus) or 400 years (since Jamestown) is not long enough to build the American people. I say without the Constitution, it all flies apart.

The supporters of the notion that there is an American people don't need to worry about the Constitution. They are comfortable that there is some sort of innate greatness of the American people. This greatness would overcome any obstacle. Must be something in the water. Must be something in the gene pool of the kinds of people willing to come here. People who believe that there is an American people are more comfortable voting for one of theirs, even if they disagree with him on an issue-by-issue basis. Let us assume for the moment that this feeling that "he's one of us" is the key to George Bush’s personal support. It is no small thing.

Now we are told that Hispanics are the largest minority group. Now we are told, by a Supreme Court consisting almost entirely of Republican appointees, that consenting adults do not need the consent of the government. If there is a real American people outside of the Constitution, will these people integrate this next wave? Will they stand by idly if they feel they are being outvoted, if they feel that the Constitution irretrievably does not reflect their values? Do these American people believe that easy absorption into the American people is a fundamental part of being an American (so that my argument collapses on itself)? Have we already absorbed these populations? Are they all now Americans by common consent?

Another way of looking at it is to say that secession (leading to the Civil War) became the only option once the Southern states realized that they had permanently lost their ability to control the Federal government on the slavery question. Southerners did not want states rights. They wanted Federal control.

We may be at the beginning of an equally damaging rear guard action of those who believe that the Constitution was made for the benefit of a certain kind of person, and a certain kind of person only. They think that if the Constitution no longer serves them, the government ought to be shut down. They tried it before. They’ll try it again.

One big difference between movement conservatism and those states that seceded from the Union is the reaction of the opposition. During the 19th century, it was understood by everyone that there was a philosophical point where a state would exercise its right to secede. People voting for Abraham Lincoln might not have really believed that the South would secede, but they were aware of the threat. The theory of the state’s right to secede was well understood, had been tossed back and forth for about 50 years, and people had strong feelings about it both ways.

Newt Gingrich and the Republicans attempted to close the government down. They had the power to do that, but not the power to consolidate the gain. At the time, the press made it sound as if the Republicans were concerned about the size of the government, or the level of taxation. However, anyone who is looking understands that Newt Gingrich was upset at the idea of a government that could not be manipulated by people like him. There is a lot of high flying talk to Newt, but is it all just a fancy way of dressing up resentment that great granddaddy Gingrich lost the Civil War? I have no idea.

People now wish to close the government down (to reverse the result of the Civil War?), and to do so in such a way that we like it. Cut taxes, wait for a fiscal crisis, then contend that the government cannot operate under the circumstances. I do not think I misstate people like Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist when I attribute this strategy to them. (Where is Karl Rove on this?) Norquist has been very straightforward about it. The so-called liberal media is not listening. Notwithstanding all of the channels on premium cable, it appears that the Gingrich revolution will not be televised.