Why are Republicans getting so little done? Because their agenda is deeply unpopular.

By Paul Waldman, Washington Post, June 2, 2017

Excerpt – Every new president tries to claim a mandate for his agenda, that because he won the election that means the public supports everything he wants to do. But ask yourself this: Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?…The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses and have a president happy to sign whatever they put on his desk…Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington and make it harder for them to focus on their agenda, which is true to a degree. But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

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Every new president tries to claim a mandate for his agenda, that because he won the election that means the public supports everything he wants to do. But ask yourself this: Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the biggest items on their agenda, starting with health care. The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan. Republicans are arguing among themselves about whether it should be done slowly or quickly, but the whole point of the exercise is to undo that expansion so that they can fund a large tax that mostly goes to the wealthy.

The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.

Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:

Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.

It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:

Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.

That’s partly because there are some substantive differences among Republicans about what tax reform should include, but it’s also because they know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?

So they realize that it’s not going to be very popular. In other circumstances, that might be less of a problem — they could say, “That’s okay, it’s important to us, so we’ll just push it through.” George W. Bush passed two big tax cuts that were largely similar to what Republicans want to do now, didn’t he? But there’s a difference. When Bush signed his first tax cut in June 2001, his approval rating was at around 55 percent. When he passed his second tax cut in May 2003, his approval was around 65 percent (it was early in the Iraq War, when everything seemed to be going well). Right now Trump is at around or below 40 percent in many polls, so neither he nor Congress is getting the benefit of the doubt.

Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find. The Paris accord is extremely popular, so Trump’s decision to pull out probably won’t go over well. The overwhelming majority of the public opposes ongoing GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. There’s little support for the drastic cuts in government spending Republicans advocate. They’re about to start a push to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in a remarkably shameless bit of Orwellian spin, characterizes as a way to stop indulging Wall Street. But Americans aren’t exactly demanding that the nation’s beleaguered bankers be liberated from their crushing burden of government oversight.

The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses and have a president happy to sign whatever they put on his desk. All Republicans feel nervous these days — their president is unpopular, so is their party, and there’s the real possibility of a Democratic wave in 2018 that sweeps many of them from office. That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.

Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington and make it harder for them to focus on their agenda, which is true to a degree. But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

While You Obsessed Over Trump’s Scandals, He’s Fundamentally Changed The Country

By Sam Stein, huffingtonpost.com, 05/31/2017

 Excerpt – The president has immense power and, despite the Russia saga, he is using it….This is a defining feature of the Trump administration: While scandal and squabble, palace intrigue and provocative tweets suck much of the oxygen out of the room ― and leave the impression of mass government disfunction ― a wide array of fundamentally Trump-minded reform is taking place.

“All of this smoke is missing the steady progress that the modern Republican Party is achieving,” said Grover Norquist, the longtime anti-tax advocate. “The idea that Trump isn’t getting anywhere is wrong. Those free market guys are picking up maybe not all the marbles in the world, but a large quantity of them. And we haven’t thrown away any marbles.”…

But legislative progress is only one vehicle that moves a president’s agenda. And there have been profound policy changes on a variety of administrative fronts, often obscured by scandals emerging from the White House….

The president’s retrenchment will have immense, generations-long geopolitical ripple effects….On regulatory policy, Trump’s impact has far outpaced the coverage it’s often received…Trump has made moves that will fundamentally alter the way our economy operates and individuals live their lives. His appointment of Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission is one of them. Pai is poised to dismantle net neutrality rules, moving away from treating online content as a public utility and toward a system that allows cable and telecom industry interests to control content and traffic. “That appointment,” Norquist said, “is [determining] 16 percent of the economy.”  Deportations of undocumented immigrants have grown steadily under Trump’s watch, especially among noncriminals. And Trump has had a profound impact on women’s health… Indeed, the Trump administration has seemed to make the most progress when the epicenter of action is removed from the White House itself. At some point, Trump, Sessions and the rest of the Cabinet will run out of the low-hanging regulatory changes they can easily make. At that juncture, they will be limited in the policies they can promulgate. But by then, they will have already instituted substantial reforms, many of them without the public’s knowledge and hard to reverse. Democratic operatives are waking up to the idea that the party should stop acting as if Trump is a rudderless president, desperately trying to pass an agenda as it’s anchored down by continuous scandal ― but rather, prosecute a case against Trump’s actual policy achievements. “Democrats aren’t making a mistake by focusing on Russia, because it is potentially the biggest political scandal in U.S. history,” said Pfeiffer. “And the pressure they are putting forward has led to new revelations. But there will be a time when voters are interested in stuff beyond this. We aren’t there yet, but it would be incumbent upon the party to point this out.”

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The president has immense power and, despite the Russia saga, he is using it.

On the morning of May 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed that he had instructed federal prosecutors to begin pursuing lengthier prison sentences for drug offenders.

It was a draconian change in approach that flew in the face of a growing bipartisan agreement on sentencing reform. “He’s completely discarded what has been an emerging consensus about how best to keep the country safe,” said Matthew Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman. “[O]ne of the most extreme voices in the country on criminal justice policy just happened to be put into the most important job for shaping its future.”

The move was then largely buried under an avalanche of Donald Trump-related news.

Just hours after Sessions’ policy was revealed, the president tweeted that he may have taped conversations with his recently-fired FBI director, James Comey. With less than 140 characters, Washington was abuzz again over Trump’s potential ties to Russia, which Comey had been investigating.

This is a defining feature of the Trump administration: While scandal and squabble, palace intrigue and provocative tweets suck much of the oxygen out of the room ― and leave the impression of mass government disfunction ― a wide array of fundamentally Trump-minded reform is taking place.

“All of this smoke is missing the steady progress that the modern Republican Party is achieving,” said Grover Norquist, the longtime anti-tax advocate. “The idea that Trump isn’t getting anywhere is wrong. Those free market guys are picking up maybe not all the marbles in the world, but a large quantity of them. And we haven’t thrown away any marbles.”

One reason behind the perception that Trump’s agenda has largely foundered is that it’s made painfully little legislative progress. His efforts to push health care reform through Congress have advanced incrementally, but many hurdles remain. Tax reform appears unlikely to come before the summer, if at all. Trump’s budget won’t get a vote, and his relationship with Congress seems to fall somewhere between fractious and nonexistent.

But legislative progress is only one vehicle that moves a president’s agenda. And there have been profound policy changes on a variety of administrative fronts, often obscured by scandals emerging from the White House.

Take reports that Trump will leave the Paris Agreement on climate change, the milestone global accord to lower carbon emissions in the face of overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming.

The president’s retrenchment will have immense, generations-long geopolitical ripple effects. Yet on Wednesday morning, it competed for media attention alongside the fallout from Trump’s bizarre Twitter typo the night before and the backlash against comedian Kathy Griffin’s vulgar depiction of a severed Trump head.

On regulatory policy, Trump’s impact has far outpaced the coverage it’s often received. He’s made it harder for workers to set up retirement accounts and has delayed the implementation of workplace safety rules. He repealed a regulation protecting workers from wage theft and allowed employers with spotty labor records to get government contracts. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has hit the brakes on a rule that would require firms to report worker injury data online. Trump has given coal companies permission to dump debris into local streams and canceled requirements for reporting methane emissions. Both the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines have been allowed to proceed, and coal companies have been allowed to again lease on public lands.

Elsewhere, Trump has made moves that will fundamentally alter the way our economy operates and individuals live their lives. His appointment of Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission is one of them. Pai is poised to dismantle net neutrality rules, moving away from treating online content as a public utility and toward a system that allows cable and telecom industry interests to control content and traffic. “That appointment,” Norquist said, “is [determining] 16 percent of the economy.”  

Much attention has focused on the way the courts and Congress have stymied Trump’s immigration policy. But even absent a travel ban or a border wall, he has dramatically altered the government’s approach. Deportations of undocumented immigrants have grown steadily under Trump’s watch, especially among noncriminals.

And Trump has had a profound impact on women’s health. He drastically expanded the so-called global gag rule, restricting a larger pool of funding from groups that mention or promote abortion, and he is poised to gut a mandate requiring employers to cover birth control for employees, broadening exemptions to the requirement that extend well beyond religious-affiliated groups.

These are just the domestic consequences of Trump’s presidency. On foreign affairs, his reach is far greater and restraint more limited.

Trump’s ability to do all this is not, as his administration would argue, evidence of an unappreciated wizardry at governance. He has simply utilized the powers afforded to the executive branch.

“He has a lot of leeway, and that’s why winning the White House is so important and losing it is so painful,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to former President Barack Obama. “The fact is, the bureaucracy is set up in the way that career professionals at government agencies are able to get things done in the way that the class of clowns around Trump aren’t able to.”

Indeed, the Trump administration has seemed to make the most progress when the epicenter of action is removed from the White House itself.

Kevin Ring, the president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he was heartened to see Republicans and Democrats alike pushing back on Sessions’ sentencing guidelines. The impact of the policy change may be overstated, he says, as lawyers and judges could still determine they don’t want to abide by the tougher sentencing guidelines. But Ring concedes that Sessions had proved himself to be a competent and effective governing agent in ways that set him far apart from his boss.

“In every other battle, it is like, ‘Who is winning, Jared [Kushner] or [Steve] Bannon?’ Who is winning Trump’s blessing? And without it, they can’t go forward,” Ring said. “Sessions is at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue [where the DOJ is located] and doing whatever he wants. Which is not to say he isn’t doing what Trump wants. But he certainly has enough authority and discretion to move full speed ahead on all these fronts.”

At some point, Trump, Sessions and the rest of the Cabinet will run out of the low-hanging regulatory changes they can easily make. At that juncture, they will be limited in the policies they can promulgate. But by then, they will have already instituted substantial reforms, many of them without the public’s knowledge and hard to reverse.

Democratic operatives are waking up to the idea that the party should stop acting as if Trump is a rudderless president, desperately trying to pass an agenda as it’s anchored down by continuous scandal ― but rather, prosecute a case against Trump’s actual policy achievements.

“Democrats aren’t making a mistake by focusing on Russia, because it is potentially the biggest political scandal in U.S. history,” said Pfeiffer. “And the pressure they are putting forward has led to new revelations. But there will be a time when voters are interested in stuff beyond this. We aren’t there yet, but it would be incumbent upon the party to point this out.”

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The Lawless Presidency

By David Leonhardt, New York Times, June 6, 2017

Excerpt – Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society…. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law. President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader…Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions. The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written. Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

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Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society.

You can read Aristotle, Montesquieu, John Locke or the Declaration of Independence on this point. You can also look at decades of American history. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law.

President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader. He has instead flirted with Louis XIV’s notion of “L’état, c’est moi”: The state is me — and I’ll decide which laws to follow.

This attitude returns to the fore this week, with James Comey scheduled to testify on Thursday about Trump’s attempts to stifle an F.B.I. investigation. I realize that many people are exhausted by Trump outrages, some of which resemble mere buffoonery. But I think it’s important to step back and connect the dots among his many rejections of the rule of law.

They are a pattern of his presidency, one that the judicial system, Congress, civic institutions and principled members of Trump’s own administration need to resist. Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions.

Trump has erased this distinction.

He pressured Comey to drop the investigation of Trump’s campaign and fired Comey when he refused. Trump has called for specific prosecutions, first of Hillary Clinton and more recently of leakers.

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is part of the problem. He is supposed to be the nation’s head law-enforcement official, but acts as a Trump loyalist. He recently held a briefing in the White House press room — “a jaw-dropping violation of norms,” as Slate’s Leon Neyfakh wrote. Sessions has proclaimed, “This is the Trump era.”

Like Trump, he sees little distinction between the enforcement of the law and the interests of the president.

COURTS, UNDERMINED. Past administrations have respected the judiciary as having the final word on the law. Trump has tried to delegitimize almost any judge who disagrees with him.

His latest Twitter tantrum, on Monday, took a swipe at “the courts” over his stymied travel ban.

Let’s walk through the major themes:

LAW ENFORCEMENT, POLITICIZED. People in federal law enforcement take pride in trying to remain apart from politics. I’ve been talking lately with past Justice Department appointees, from both parties, and they speak in almost identical terms.

They view the Justice Department as more independent than, say, the State or Treasury Departments. The Justice Department works with the rest of the administration on policy matters, but keeps its distance on law enforcement. That’s why White House officials aren’t supposed to pick up the phone and call whomever they want at the department. There is a careful process.

It joined a long list of his judge insults: “this so-called judge”; “a single, unelected district judge”; “ridiculous”; “so political”; “terrible”; “a hater of Donald Trump”; “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country”; “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

“What’s unusual is he’s essentially challenging the legitimacy of the court’s role,” the legal scholar Charles Geyh told The Washington Post. Trump’s message, Geyh said, was: “I should be able to do what I choose.”

TEAM TRUMP, ABOVE THE LAW. Foreign governments speed up trademark applications from Trump businesses. Foreign officials curry favor by staying at his hotel. A senior administration official urges people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing. The president violates bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, thus shrouding his conflicts.

The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written.

Again, the problems extend beyond the Trump family. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has used political office to enrich himself. Sessions failed to disclose previous meetings with Russian officials.

Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

The Collapse of American Identity

By ROBERT P. JONES, New York Times, MAY 2, 2017

We’re losing a shared consensus of who we are to diverging political narratives.

EXCERPT – After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.” Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence…The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs. But recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nationfrom 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.…The two political parties may not share much, but each is increasingly aware that the other has embraced a radically different vision of America’s identity and future….There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s….The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power. For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian…This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, is the author of “The End of White Christian America.”

Full text

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

But recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

An Associated Press-NORC poll found nearly mirror-opposite partisan reactions to the question of what kind of culture is important for American identity. Sixty-six percent of Democrats, compared with only 35 percent of Republicans, said the mixing of cultures and values from around the world was extremely or very important to American identity. Similarly, 64 percent of Republicans, compared with 32 percent of Democrats, saw a culture grounded in Christian religious beliefs as extremely or very important.

These divergent orientations can also be seen in a recent poll by P.R.R.I. that explored partisan perceptions of which groups are facing discrimination in the country. Like Americans overall, large majorities of Democrats believe minority groups such as African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims and gay and transgender people face a lot of discrimination in the country. Only about one in five Democrats say that majority groups such as Christians or whites face a lot of discrimination.

Republicans, on the other hand, are much less likely than Democrats to believe any minority group faces a lot of discrimination, and they believe Christians and whites face roughly as much discrimination as immigrants, Muslims and gay and transgender people. Moreover, only 27 percent of Republicans say blacks experience a lot of discrimination, while 43 percent say whites do and 48 percent say the same of Christians.

Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

Americans of both political parties sense the unraveling of a broadly shared consensus of American identity, although they cite different reasons for feeling that way. About seven in 10 Republicans and Democrats fear that the United States is losing its national identity, the A.P.-NORC survey found. The two political parties may not share much, but each is increasingly aware that the other has embraced a radically different vision of America’s identity and future.

These responses are shifting the political magnetic field that defines the parties. Republican leaders are finding strong support among their base for the Trump administration’s executive order barring travel to the United States from particular Muslim-majority countries. But their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was dramatically derailed by factions within their own party.

Democrats, on the other hand, are enjoying energetic backing from their base for pro-immigration and pro-L.G.B.T. stances, but they are experiencing increasing opposition to their support for free trade.

There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

But during these eras, white Christians were still secure as a demographic and cultural majority in the nation. The question at stake was whether they were going to make room for new groups at a table they still owned. Typically, a group would gain its seat in exchange for assimilation to the majority culture. But as white Christians have slipped from the majority over the past decade, this familiar strategy is no longer viable.

White Christians are today struggling to face a new reality: the inevitable surrender of table ownership in exchange for an equal seat. And it’s this new higher-stakes challenge that is fueling the great partisan reorientation we are witnessing today.

The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power.

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, is the author of “The End of White Christian America.”

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What Is the Far Right’s Endgame? A Society That Suppresses the Majority.

By Rebecca Onion, Slate.com, June 23, 2017  Full text below

Nancy MacLean, historian and professor at Duke University, in her new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America* – an intellectual biography of James McGill Buchanan, explains how this little-known libertarian’s work is influencing modern-day politics.

excerpt – When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified. Over the course of the next few decades, the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education—or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing—to anyone.

This radical vision has become the playbook for a network of people looking to override democracy in order to shift more money to the wealthiest few, historian and professor at Duke University Nancy MacLean argues in her new book, an intellectual biography of James Buchanan called Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.* Buchanan’s life story, she writes, is “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”

I spoke with MacLean about Buchanan’s intellectual evolution and its legacy today. We discussed whether it’s helpful or counterproductive to call the network of organizations funded by Charles Koch a “conspiracy,” the line of influence between Buchanan and what’s going on in MacLean’s home state of North Carolina, and that time Buchanan helped Chile’s dictator craft a profoundly undemocratic constitution. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

RO – So why is James Buchanan so unknown? He had a Nobel Prize; how did he manage to fly under the radar?

NM,,,He was very interested in making an impact over the long term and training other people, and he seemed to be content to talk to powerful people more than to talk to public audiences. His books were really written for other scholars, not so much the general public.

RO – Can you put him in relationship with other people, besides Friedman, who might be more familiar to us today?

NM – Buchanan’s distinctive mission was to make a case against government. …  everyone should be understood as a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage. He said we should think of politicians, elected officials, as seeking their own self-interest in re-election……..basically he writes more like a social philosopher, someone studying the social contract… by the mid-1970s he concluded …that there was no way… that people who were not wealthy, who were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing. So that was a very dark work. It was called The Limits of Liberty. He actually said in that work that the only hope might be despotism. And he went from writing that to advising the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution…to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority….more about the relationship between Koch and Buchanan…[Koch] is deeply ideological an…someone who’s quite messianic…This is not someone who’s just trying to lower his tax bill. He wants to bring in a totally new vision of society and government, that’s different from anything that exists anywhere in the world or has existed because he is so certain that he is right. I think it’s more chilling because it doesn’t correspond to the ideas we have about politics.

Right, like he’s not trying to get a particular person elected. You mention several times Buchanan was very against that idea, that the point was to get a particular person elected. The point, for him, was to change the whole system… Koch funded Buchanan’s center, as well as other projects, at George Mason University. One of Buchanan’s ideas that Koch liked was the concept of making a flurry of changes all at once so that people have a hard time opposing them.

Yes, and in the same year that Koch invested all this money in George Mason, [economist] Tyler Cowen got a commission by the Institute for Humane Studies to produce this review of places where economic liberty has made big advances. Cowen advocates what he calls a “Big Bang.”…

RO – I’d like to talk more about the way racism works in Buchanan’s intellectual project. You write in the conclusion to the book that this school of thought advocates “enlisting white supremacy to ensure capital supremacy.” Is it possible to disentangle those two?

NM – as we try to think about what’s going on with these voter suppression measures, the only thing that’s actionable is racial discrimination. Right? And so people think of voter suppression efforts as being motivated by racism. These are these good old boys who hate black people and that’s why they’re doing this.

I think too many people on the left have really underestimated Koch’s intelligence and his drive, and also misunderstood his motives.… they understand that African Americans, because of their historical experience and their political savvy, understand politics and government better, in a lot of ways, than a lot of white Americans. And they are a threat to this project because they will not vote for it. So they want to keep them from the polls. Similarly, young people are leaning left now, and they don’t accept a lot of these core ideas that come from this project, so this project has been very determined to keep young people from the polls. Frankly, if they could keep women away, they would, too. Because they understand that women suffrage opened the way to greater government involvement in the economy, and greater social provision and regulation. We make a mistake when we think these are just reactionary prejudices, and we need to see them as shrewd calculations to keep people who would oppose this vision away from the polls.

RO – So it’s about power, money.

NM – Not just money. I think it’s also much more about this psychology of threatened domination. People who believe it will harm their liberty for other people to have full citizenship and be able to work together to govern society. And that somehow that goes much deeper than money to me. It’s hard to find the right words for it, but it’s a whole way of being in the world and seeing others. Assuming one’s right to dominate.

RO – Your book calls Buchanan’s ideas a “stealth plan.” How can we, on the left, avoid falling into the trap of conspiracy-theory thinking while trying to understand this movement?

NM - One of the challenges is that our language is not up to the threat that we’re facing…this is not a conspiracy, by definition. A conspiracy involves illegality, and the people who are funding, and supporting and promoting this operation have extremely good lawyers and I think they actually do believe in the rule of law, and they are being, with the possible exemption of nonprofit tax law, scrupulously legal in what they are doing.

So conspiracy is not a good word. But on the other hand, this is a vast and interconnected and not honest operation…. The reality is that they are gerrymandering with a vengeance, to a degree we’ve never seen before in our history; they’re practicing voter suppression in a way we’ve not seen since Reconstruction; they are smashing up labor unions under fake pretenses, not telling people that they actually do want to destroy workers’ ability to organize collectively

They’re doing a lot of things for strategic reasons and not being honest with the public about it. That suggests to me that we need a new vocabulary for grasping what we’re dealing with here. I guardedly used the term “fifth column” in the book, and you know, there’s problems with that term too, but at least it gets at the fact that these wealthy donors that Charles Koch has convened are deeply hostile to the model of government that has prevailed in the United States and in many other countries for a centurywhat we need to convey to people is that this is a messianic cause, with a vision of the good society and government that I think most of us would find terrifying, for the practical implications and impact that it will have on our lives.

We are at a crucial moment in our history, and we will not get another chance, by this cause’s own telling. They say again and again that this is going to be permanent, and they’re very close to victory. So I think we need to be really clear-eyed about understanding this and reaching out to one another without panic.

The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing. That’s why they’re doing things in the deceitful and frightening ways that they are.

And that, I think, is a sign of great power for the majority of people, who I think are fundamentally decent, and agree on much more than we’re led to believe.

*Update, June 22, 2017: This article has been updated to add MacLean’s academic credentials.

Full text

When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified. Over the course of the next few decades, the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education—or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing—to anyone.

This radical vision has become the playbook for a network of people looking to override democracy in order to shift more money to the wealthiest few…I spoke with MacLean about Buchanan’s intellectual evolution and its legacy today…Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

RO – So why is James Buchanan so unknown? He had a Nobel Prize; how did he manage to fly under the radar?

He had a very different personality from somebody like Milton Friedman. I think of them as kind of a yin and yang. Friedman was very sunny, and Buchanan was kind of a darker figure. Friedman was always very anxious to be in the limelight, and Buchanan was not like that at all. He was very interested in making an impact over the long term and training other people, and he seemed to be content to talk to powerful people more than to talk to public audiences. His books were really written for other scholars, not so much the general public.

Can you put him in relationship with other people, besides Friedman, who might be more familiar to us today?

People might be familiar with the Mont Pelerin Society, the international invitation-only group that began in 1947 launched by Friedrich Hayek. That society included Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Buchanan, ultimately Charles Koch (which I think not many people know!), and many others.

Friedman and Hayek put much more emphasis on making the case for free markets, whereas Buchanan’s distinctive mission was to make a case against government. … His basic idea is that people had been wrong to think of political actors as concerned with the common good or the public interest, when in fact, according to Buchanan’s way of looking at things, everyone should be understood as a self-interested actor seeking their own advantage. He said we should think of politicians, elected officials, as seeking their own self-interest in re-election. And that’s why they’ll make multiple costly promises to multiple constituencies, because they won’t have to pay for it. And he would say agency officials—say, an official at the EPA—would just keep trying to expand the agency, because that would expand their power and resources.

Now there were other people who actually tested that empirically and found out that it didn’t hold, so it’s really a caricature of the political process, but it’s a caricature that’s become very, very widespread right now.

You mentioned a few times in the book that Buchanan didn’t really do empirical research. So what was he writing from?

He was also trained in game theory at the Rand Corporation, so he uses a lot of that. But basically he writes more like a social philosopher, someone studying the social contract.

Did his ideas change over time?

The core ideas kind of stayed the same. What did change over time was his own outlook. It became much darker over the years. His first big book in his field, which is called public choice economics, was titled The Calculus of Consent, and it came out in 1962 and was co-authored with Gordon Tullock. It was the work for which Buchanan was most recognized in his Nobel citation. In that work, he seemed to believe that somehow people of good will could come to something close to unanimity on the basic rules of how to govern our society, on things like taxation and government spending and so forth.

And by the mid-1970s he concluded that that was impossible, and that there was no way that poor people would ever agree … there was no way that people who were not wealthy, who were not large property owners, would agree to the kind of rules he was proposing. So that was a very dark work. It was called The Limits of Liberty. He actually said in that work that the only hope might be despotism.

And he went from writing that to advising the Pinochet junta in Chile on how to craft their constitution. This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” [and was designed] to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority.

So yeah, it’s pretty dark.

Tell me more about the relationship between Koch and Buchanan.

I think too many people on the left have really underestimated Koch’s intelligence and his drive, and also misunderstood his motives. There’s been brilliant work by journalists, really good digging on the money trail and the Koch operations, but much of that writing seems to assume that he is doing this just because it’s going to lower his tax bill or because he wants to evade regulations, personally. I think that really misgauges the man. He is deeply ideological and has been reading almost fanatically for a very long time. I see him as someone who’s quite messianic. He’s compared himself to Martin Luther and his effort being like the Protestant Reformation. When he invested in Buchanan’s center at George Mason University, he said he wanted to “unleash the kind of force that propelled Columbus.”

This is not someone who’s just trying to lower his tax bill. He wants to bring in a totally new vision of society and government, that’s different from anything that exists anywhere in the world or has existed because he is so certain that he is right. I think it’s more chilling because it doesn’t correspond to the ideas we have about politics.

Right, like he’s not trying to get a particular person elected. You mention several times Buchanan was very against that idea, that the point was to get a particular person elected. The point, for him, was to change the whole system.

Right. You asked how the two men connected. I only have the documentary trail that I found. But from what I found, I believe that they first came in contact or first began to work together about 1969 or 1970, and that was in the context of the campus upheaval against the war in Vietnam, and for black studies, and so forth. Buchanan wrote a book about the campus unrest that applied his particular school of thought to it. Koch had an operation called the Center for Independent Education, and that center took Buchanan’s book and turned it into a kind of pamphlet that could be circulated more broadly.

In 1970, Koch joined the Mont Pelerin Society. Once he got in, he began to advertise his many different organizations and efforts and try to recruit and get people to events and so forth, through Mont Pelerin. Buchanan helped with the founding of the Cato Institute and with various other intellectual enterprises that were close to Charles Koch’s heart, like this thing called the Institute for Humane Studies.

And then Koch funded Buchanan’s center, as well as other projects, at George Mason University. One of Buchanan’s ideas that Koch liked was the concept of making a flurry of changes all at once so that people have a hard time opposing them.

Yes, and in the same year that Koch invested all this money in George Mason, [economist] Tyler Cowen got a commission by the Institute for Humane Studies to produce this review of places where economic liberty has made big advances. Cowen advocates what he calls a “Big Bang.”

Interestingly it’s that same phrase that gets used by Civitas, the Koch-affiliated organization in North Carolina, after they take over the state legislature here in 2011. I actually have to give the North Carolina Republican-led General Assembly some credit for this book because I was struggling through Buchanan’s ideas, trying to understand the implications, because he did write in a somewhat abstract manner. And then the General Assembly came in in North Carolina and just made it all so clear. I saw the practical measures being taken and was like, “Oh, this is what he’s talking about! That’s what this is!” I should have put them in the acknowledgements.

I’d like to talk more about the way racism works in Buchanan’s intellectual project. You write in the conclusion to the book that this school of thought advocates “enlisting white supremacy to ensure capital supremacy.” Is it possible to disentangle those two?

So this is a challenge for the left because some of our categories, I think, are not very supple, and are also driven by the political world in which we operate. So for example, as we try to think about what’s going on with these voter suppression measures, the only thing that’s actionable is racial discrimination. Right? And so people think of voter suppression efforts as being motivated by racism. These are these good old boys who hate black people and that’s why they’re doing this.

I think too many people on the left have really underestimated Koch’s intelligence and his drive, and also misunderstood his motives.

—Nancy MacLean

I think actually what’s going on is that these people are extremely shrewd and calculating, and they understand that African Americans, because of their historical experience and their political savvy, understand politics and government better, in a lot of ways, than a lot of white Americans. And they are a threat to this project because they will not vote for it. So they want to keep them from the polls.

Similarly, young people are leaning left now, and they don’t accept a lot of these core ideas that come from this project, so this project has been very determined to keep young people from the polls. Frankly, if they could keep women away, they would, too. Because they understand that women suffrage opened the way to greater government involvement in the economy, and greater social provision and regulation.

We make a mistake when we think these are just reactionary prejudices, and we need to see them as shrewd calculations to keep people who would oppose this vision away from the polls.

So it’s about power, money.

Not just money. I think it’s also much more about this psychology of threatened domination. People who believe it will harm their liberty for other people to have full citizenship and be able to work together to govern society. And that somehow that goes much deeper than money to me. It’s hard to find the right words for it, but it’s a whole way of being in the world and seeing others. Assuming one’s right to dominate.

Your book calls Buchanan’s ideas a “stealth plan.” How can we, on the left, avoid falling into the trap of conspiracy-theory thinking while trying to understand this movement?

One of the challenges is that our language is not up to the threat that we’re facing. As a scholar, I understand the problem of conspiracy theories. I don’t want to be seen as promoting a conspiracy theory. Not least because this is not a conspiracy, by definition. A conspiracy involves illegality, and the people who are funding, and supporting and promoting this operation have extremely good lawyers and I think they actually do believe in the rule of law, and they are being, with the possible exemption of nonprofit tax law, scrupulously legal in what they are doing.

—Nancy MacLean

So conspiracy is not a good word. But on the other hand, this is a vast and interconnected and not honest operation. They say these anodyne things about liberty—like the title of one book is Don’t Hurt People And Don’t Take Their Stuff! And that’s not what this is about. The reality is that they are gerrymandering with a vengeance, to a degree we’ve never seen before in our history; they’re practicing voter suppression in a way we’ve not seen since Reconstruction; they are smashing up labor unions under fake pretenses, not telling people that they actually do want to destroy workers’ ability to organize collectively … I could go on and on.

They’re doing a lot of things for strategic reasons and not being honest with the public about it. That suggests to me that we need a new vocabulary for grasping what we’re dealing with here. I guardedly used the term “fifth column” in the book, and you know, there’s problems with that term too, but at least it gets at the fact that these wealthy donors that Charles Koch has convened are deeply hostile to the model of government that has prevailed in the United States and in many other countries for a century.

While I think we need all the great investigative work that’s being done to try to show us how these organizations that are being presented to the public as separate are actually coordinating together, I don’t think that just laying that out is enough. I think that what we need to convey to people is that this is a messianic cause, with a vision of the good society and government that I think most of us would find terrifying, for the practical implications and impact that it will have on our lives.

We are at a crucial moment in our history, and we will not get another chance, by this cause’s own telling. They say again and again that this is going to be permanent, and they’re very close to victory. So I think we need to be really clear-eyed about understanding this and reaching out to one another without panic.

The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing. That’s why they’re doing things in the deceitful and frightening ways that they are.

And that, I think, is a sign of great power for the majority of people, who I think are fundamentally decent, and agree on much more than we’re led to believe.

*Update, June 22, 2017: This article has been updated to add MacLean’s academic credentials. (Return.)

 

 

People are looking for a ‘Religious Left.’ This little-known network of clergy has been organizing it.

Acts of Faith

By Julie Zauzmer April 26  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/04/26/people-are-looking-for-a-religious-left-this-little-known-network-of-clergy-has-been-organizing-it/?utm_term=.bd8fdb27ae3d

When Linda Sarsour got involved in planning a massive Women’s March for the day after President Trump’s inauguration, she needed dozens of speakers to give brief remarks onstage. Sarsour, a Muslim activist, quickly found diverse and willing participants of faith, including a rabbi from California, a nun who travels the country.

All were women she had last seen in November at a gathering of a new network of eminent religious leaders. This little-known group — which has 18 members, all of them prominent in religious organizations and highly active in national politics — is quietly seeking to bring together a “Religious Left” to counterbalance the decades-old Religious Right by supporting liberal politics with the imprimatur of faith.

Among the members: Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist whose prayer for America video gained national attention last month after the shooting of a Sikh man in Washington; the Rev. William Barber II, whose stirring address at the 2016 Democratic National Convention set social media aflame; and Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first gay bishop, who gave a prayer during a pre-inauguration event in 2009 for President-elect Barack Obama.

“It’s sort of like getting the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschels, the Dorothy Days, the Fannie Lou Hamers of our time together and creating a sense of community,” said the Rev. Katharine Henderson, the president of Auburn Seminary in New York.

Henderson helped launch this high-powered network. The seminary — a bit of a misnomer, since it does not train new clergy nowadays, but does offer continuing education for faith leaders further in their careers — first convened the members of the network, whom it terms “senior fellows,” in 2015.

With funding from several philanthropic foundations, the senior fellows communicate online and by phone year-round and meet in person twice a year. It is during these meetings that the fellows — most of them heads of major congregations or activist organizations — put their heads together to discuss how the organizations they lead can work in concert. At the most recent meeting, held last month at a retreat center in Sedona, Ariz., much of the talk was about what each fellow’s congregants were doing to resist the Trump administration’s policies, and how their organizations could more effectively mobilize together.

“The thing that’s really important about this group is the opportunity to speak candidly, to puzzle together: How do we do this justice work?” Sister Simone Campbell, who leads the Nuns on the Bus social justice group, said during the Sedona meeting. When the Nuns on the Bus drove to the Republican National Convention in August, Campbell recruited others from this network to join their demonstration.

The fellows send each other links to petitions to sign. Sarsour’s fundraiser in which she asked her Muslim community to pay to repair a Jewish cemetery vandalized in Missouri was inspired in part by the interfaith discussions in this group. Jews then donated to repair mosques set on fire in Florida and Texas.

“We’re really seeing in this moment that our communities are learning to support each other, and some of that was born in this space,” Henderson said.

The hope for a “Religious Left” has risen in light of the protest activism since Trump’s inauguration, with a flurry of headlines predicting its revival and other writers scoffing at the idea.

[How Trump is paving the way for a revival of the religious left]

Clergy and other people of faith were at the forefront of liberal activism throughout the early 20th century, campaigning successfully for reforms in prisons, mental health and political corruption, among many issues. Most notably, African American preachers led the civil rights movement and were joined in their marches and voter registration efforts by liberal white ministers and rabbis.

But scholars and pundits have been skeptical that religion could again be a significant motivating factor for liberal activists, like it still is for many conservatives. The would-be Religious Left is far less centralized than the right. The Religious Right, as organized by Jerry Falwell and others starting in the late 1970s, is dominated by white evangelical Protestants and joined by mostly white, conservative Catholics who share goals such as preventing abortions.

The left would be a more diverse coalition — black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and humanists might all join in, depending on the issue. Organizing all those constituents around a moral mission, when their theologies and their demographics are so different, is a daunting idea.

In addition, clergy tend to be less influential within the Democratic Party than they are in the Republican Party, since the Republican base skews much more religious. When nonbelievers are the biggest “faith” group in the Democratic Party, how could anyone expect Democrats to turn to clergy as readily as leaders of political activism?

[The ‘Nones’ are the Democratic party’s biggest faith constituency]

“Clearly there’s a religious left, and by a religious left I mean people who are led to politically liberal conclusions
on the basis of their faith,” said Steven Shiffrin, a sociologist at Cornell University who has written a book on the subject. “But are secularists ready to follow ministers? I would say generally not.”

Shiffrin said that the association of Christianity with the Religious Right in the public mind — and particularly the fierce, religion-based opposition to expanding LGBT rights — has led liberals to express more hostility toward religion than at any time he’s ever witnessed, even in the days of the free-love, down-with-convention liberalism of the ’60s and ’70s.

That doesn’t bode well for a network of clergy taking the helm of the anti-Trump liberal groundswell, he said.

Many of the Auburn senior fellows already see themselves as leaders of the amorphous, nationwide movement that has spurred protests almost weekly since Trump’s inauguration. Discussing the idea of “the resistance” at their Sedona retreat, several said they felt that the new hashtag was something their faith-based organizations had been part of for years.

“We had movements happening. Now what’s happening is things are just so hot-mess crazy that more and more people are pulled in,” said the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of the fellows whom Sarsour recruited to speak at the Women’s March, agreed. “Resistance is a muscle all of us built, resistance ministries,” she said. “This is a muscle that’s been working for many years to build. And now when we’re called to the front lines, we’re ready.”

“We worked way too hard, some of us, for 25 years” to see progressive gains undone now, said Bishop Yvette Flunder. She talked about her California church’s work on protecting voting rights, undoing gerrymandering and defending women’s access to abortion, and she encouraged the other fellows to discuss how they could all collaborate on those goals.

That’s the sort of behind-the-scenes networking that Auburn hopes will fuel progress, whatever you call it — the Religious Left, #TheResistance, or just good works. “It’s that kind of investing in relationships that means that when things start exploding in the world, then you know who to call,” Henderson said.

Henderson sees an essential role in that activism for ministers, rabbis, imams and other leaders of faith. “A lot of the work that needs to happen in our country is soul work,” she said. “People are not going to be inspired and excited, necessarily, by numbers and statistics and data …. In terms of inspiring people and reminding them of their best selves, pricking the moral conscience of individuals and the nation, that’s religious work. That’s faith work.”

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