Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A shift to the left?

I have to confess that I don’t find this argument convincing. I agree that a reputation for incompetence has hurt Republicans and the Bush Administration; and that may be enough substantially to harm Republican prospects in 2008. But almost everything hinges on how Iraq looks and the confidence voters have that a candidate can deal with it.

Of course, this assessment is subject to revision if there’s a substantial economic downturn associated with slowness in the real estate market.

The other shifts in public opinion that the authors identify--a modest movement back toward the welfare state and a modest uptick in secularism--don’t, I think, shift the political ground substantially, at least not on their own. I’m not convinced, for example, that young seculars will remain secular once they marry and have children. Of course, that won’t likely happen by 2008, but it’s also highly unlikely that Republicans will nominate someone as closely identified with religious conservatives as is GWB.

A concern with the fate of the least among us isn’t restricted to the political Left, and there continues to be room for debate on how best to proceed in these matters. There are certainly those in the Democratic Party who’d like to roll back (almost) everything Republicans have accomplished since the Reagan years, but I don’t think they command the kind of support necessary for such a radical change. And I think that any Democrat elected in 2008 will have her hands full with Iraq for quite some time. What’s more, I’m not convinced that Congressional Democrats will be able to muster the numbers and the political acumen to assemble a record compelling enough to confirm and solidify this modest shift in public opinion.

In sum, I think that the likeliest outcome in 2008 is a closely-fought victory for one or the other party (with the situation in Iraq determining the winner); I doubt that the Congressional split will be more than marginally different from what it is now (leaving Republicans with at least the power of obstruction). In other words, I’m no more than moderately pessimistic about 2008, and actually fairly confident that Democrats will not succeed in bringing about the kinds of long-term changes they desire.

Update: Here’s one basis for the authors’ argument.

Share and Share A Lot

The Democrats “articulate no basic philosophy to guide their decisions,” complains Linda Hirshman on the New Republic website, and their lack of “a clear and coherent message” means that even if Democrats run the table in November 2008 “they will never build a political movement.” Worst of all, this lack of coherence “is a totally self-inflicted wound. For more than 70 years, the Democrats have had a perfectly good philosophy: liberalism.”

It may surprise NLT readers to learn that Democrats have forsaken liberalism. Hirshman complains that Democrats avoid calling themselves “liberals,” a word FDR used proudly but which Democrats have locked in the attic since the Dukakis debacle of 1988. Her real complaint, however, goes beyond semantics. “For more than three centuries liberalism has meant the belief in increased sharing of social goods,” says Hirshman, and Democrats who don’t embrace this belief will squander their chance to realize “a liberalism of collective responsibility” like those in western Europe.

It’s always annoying when a tenured professor (or, in Hirshman’s case, a retired one) scorns the timidity of politicians who have to win contested elections. By the time Hirshman has completed her argument for liberalism, however, the Democrats who distance themselves from it seem more like statesmen than cautious vote-seekers. Her ideas about sharing are the heart of the problem. It’s a word that conveys a quality of volition not . . . well, entirely germane to dealings between citizens and governments that can imprison them. Hirshman’s is an old wish, that communitarian-sounding words will dispel any fears of authoritarian-sounding actions. Try skipping your Social Security “contributions” for a year, though, and see how much understanding you get from the IRS about declining to share your paycheck with the other kids in the lunchroom.

What circumstances justify the enforced generosity Hirshman calls “sharing?” The real challenge would be to imagine any that don’t. Pre-industrial liberalism was about sharing power, she says, so it worked to limit absolutist governments. The Industrial Revolution promoted a new liberalism based on a “new sharing,” one “grounded in a deep belief . . . in the significance of the human capacity for pleasure and pain and meaningful work.”

A government whose agenda is constrained by the breakthrough discovery that people prefer pleasure to pain, and meaningful work to drudgery, is a government constrained by nothing. Thus, Hirshman’s argument for national health insurance rests on the premise that a “large segment of [the] population, who can feel pain,” aren’t able to alleviate it on their own. Chances are, however, that an even larger segment of people feel they’re stuck in a crappy job. Hide your wallet before you ask Prof. Hirshman what we should do for them.

More Shameless Self-Promotion

Those in or near Nashville on October 5-6 won’t want to miss these illuminating lectures.

Today’s Rat Choice Challenge

From Ratzinger, "On the Theological Basis of Prayer and Liturgy":

...there is a a God of revelation. This was already formulated in the philosophy of the ancients, but it has acquired greater force in the modern scientific and technological world. It can be put like this: a rationally constructed world is determined by rationally perceived causality. To such a scheme the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant. But if this approach is adopted, it must be followed consistently, for what applies to God applies equally to man. If there is only one kind of causality, man, too, as a person is excluded and reduced to an element in mechanical causality, in the realm of necessity; freedom, too, in this case is a mythical idea. In this sense it can be said that the personalities of God and man cannot be separated. If personality is not a possibility, that is, not present, in the "ground" of reality, it is not possible at all. Either freedom is a possibility inherent in the ground of reality or it does exist.

Nietzsche Family Circus

This site is worth bookmarking and checking every morning.

First Amendment survey

The estimable Professor Friedman (to whom I wish a happy new year) calls our attention to this survey, described in this press release. Those affiliated with the First Amendment Center wring their hands over the percentage of respondents who regard the U.S. as a Christian nation and would permit, for example, teachers to lead prayers. I’d focus on the overwhelming support for the freedom to practice one’s own religion (97% say it’s "essential" or "important") or to practice no religion (89%), though (to be sure) only 56% believe that the freedom of religion applies to all groups and 28% believe that fringe groups shouldn’t enjoy that freedom. 60% of respondents agree that "people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups," up from 46% in the 2000 survey. Whatever the respondents mean when they say "Christian nation," it’s a far cry from a theocracy. I also suspect that the "fringe groups" that the respondents had in mind are not Buddhists or Hindus.

I’m actually more troubled by other responses. For example, while 64% of the respondents could identify freedom of speech as part of the First Amendment, less than 20% could name any other specific right listed. Furthermore, despite the focus on freedom on speech in this particular snapshot of the public mind, 62% of respondents strongly or mildly agree that the government ought to be able to restrict the amount of money a candidate contributes to his or her own campaign; and 64% agree--strongly or mildly--that the government "should be able to place restrictions on the amount of money a private individual can contribute to someone else’s election campaign." Equality trumps liberty here.

And then there’s this: while 57% of the respondents don’t think that government content regulation of television should be extended to cable and sattelite systems, slightly over 60% strongly or mildly support some version of the fairness doctrine, even applied to newspapers. I can only hope that the explanation for this willingness to support the abrogation of the freedom of the press is connected with the perception, held by roughly 60% of the respondents, that the news media are biased in their reporting of stories and that “[t]he falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.” At least then it would be a (mistaken) response to a perceived problem, rather than mere support for a kind of paternalism.

I agree with the folks at the First Amendment Center that we have a long way to go in educating people about their fundamental freedoms. One solution is for ever more people to sign up for this or this, and for other colleges and universities to emulate them.

Harry Potter and religion

Mark Shea has interesting things to say to Christian and atheist critics of J. K. Rowling. Don’t read this if you haven’t yet read the book (but plan to).

I’m proud of my students

Serendipitously today, I had contact with two former students who are both serving in the Army.

I received an email from a young man who graduated in 2000 and joined up after 9/11. He’s on his second tour in Iraq, serving this time as an advisor to the ISF. He’ll be in Atlanta next month, and I’ll share with you anything he’s willing to share with me (and the wider world).

A young woman--currently in the reserves while finishing up law school--visited with a class (after which we had lunch). She has the opportunity, while in law school, to do some work on the Hamdan case, working with this professor. I’m not fully in agreement with what I know of her views on the case, but I respect her immensely, both for her willingness to serve in the military (eventually as a reserve JAG officer) and to take serious and principled positions that might well not be popular with some of her military colleagues. She made a tough choice in school (Oglethorpe isn’t exactly overrun with ROTC students) and another one now.

Say what you want about American higher education, but that such folks come out the other end of the pipeline leaves me with some hope.

Thompson and Reagan

Is Fred Thompson somehow like Reagan, or parallel to Reagan? Andy Busch opines.  

NRO’s education week

In my current blogging funk, I’d neglected to mention that this is NRO’s education week. Pieces worth reading include Mike Deshaies on civic literacy (updating us on a topic we discussed at great length here), George Leef on why too many--not too few--people go to college, and John J. Miller on how well things are going at Hillsdale. There’s so much more that I don’t have time to read it all. You should dip in where something piques your interest.

Liberal and conservative brains

Claremont’s John J. Pitney calls our attention to a very, very widely reported study that, in the words of its authors, concludes:

Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.

In other words, self-described "liberals" (among the 43 college students tested) are more responsive to changes in stimuli than are self-described conservatives.

This will surely, and has already, led to all sorts of liberal triumphalism about how liberals are "smarter," more open to ambiguity, and more willing to change as circumstances change than are conservatives. Of course, this presumes (as the authors would have us presume) that the change in stimulus is connected with a real-world event. It could also be a change in mere appearances or a change that isn’t itself central to the phenomenon on which we’re supposed to focus. And, even if the events are "real," Aristotle long ago noted that willingness to change may be a virtue in "science" without being a virtue in politics.

Another implication of this research is that "liberal" and "conservative" dispositions may, in a sense, be "hard-wired." We’re liberal or conservative--more precisely, more or less open to change--not because we’re persuaded by argument, but because of the way our brains work. I guess we can all stop arguing.

But seriously, this line of analysis would seem to make it easier to explain how one-time conservatives become liberal (they are exposed to evidence that their brain functions predisposed them to respond to) than how one-time liberals become conservative. It also would seem to have a hard time explaining how some "liberal" politicians stuck with old policy prescriptions that had apparently been discredited by the evidence. Or might it be the case that people with "liberal brains" are "conservatives" in the face of an entrenched "liberal" orthodoxy?

One last point: one of the principal authors has spent a lot of time studying the social psychology of conservatism, attracting the attention of The New Atlantis with this piece, and defending himself here. He also summarizes some of his work here. I wasn’t shocked to learn that he’d made a modest donation to HRC in 2005; he’s just wired that way.

Update: Our friend Jonah G. poses some incisive and entertaining questions about the research and relays a note from a neuroscientist who has actually looked at the research. If you thought the number of subjects was small (43), apparently the number of conservatives was ridiculously small (7). There are other potential problems with the research that I’ll leave you to read for yourselves. And I’ll pose one further question myself: is there a difference between thinking and reacting to perceptions?

Rat Choice Theory and the Return of Reason

Plus a bit of shameless self-promotion. Everyone anywhere near Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. won’t want to miss this timely conference.

No Pictures, No News

The Israelis apparently conducted a major operation against Syria in recent days, but since there is no video, we aren’t hearing anything about it in the American press. Bears watching. Warm-up for a raid on Iranian nuke facilities?

Hat tip: Roger Simon.

Religion and politics poll

Here’s the latest Pew poll (pdf form here; the questionnaire is here), focusing on the religion of the candidates and of the respondents.

Note that the presumptive frontrunners from New York are regarded as the least religious of the major candidates (the respondents are probably correct about RG, but not about HRC, who is a garden-variety liberal Methodist). Of course, those who are more suspicious of her religiosity are disinclined to like her on any ground; they just can’t believe that she’s got faith in anything other than herself. The report’s authors note that religiosity has a positive valence: those who regard a candidate as religious tend to like that candidate. But that may get the order of causality wrong; at least for a certain proportion of the people, the affection precedes the ascription of religiosity. In other words, for many people the candidate’s religiosity isn’t the first thing they look for, and they don’t look too closely in any event.

Allow me to draw a conclusion about this for HRC: emphasizing her religiosity isn’t going to help her with the faith-based anybody-but-Hillary crowd. With others, if she can overcome the challenge of likeability, she doesn’t need to stress religion; if they come to like her, they’ll by and large think of her as "religious enough."

It’s also noteworthy that in August 2007, more people perceive the Democrats as unfriendly to religion than in August 2004, when John Kerry was displaying his incredible ineptitude at appealing to religious voters. The concerted efforts to portray the party as "faith-friendly" don’t appear to be working very well.

But I’m not convinced that they matter all that much, since Iraq and the economy are the dominant issues. And while there are distinctive "religious" voices on all sides of those issues, I don’t think that they are the loudest and most influential. As a result, religion may well "mean less" in 2008 than it has in recent elections. Whether this will be the "new norm" or an aberration remains, of course, to be seen.

No Such Thing as a Stupid Question? Not So Fast, My Friend!

Thanks to Peter for linking to my piece on 9/11 and the meaning of victory against the "new " terrorism.

I thought I would share this post to NRO’s military blog, The Tank, regarding my impression of yesterday’s Petraeus/Crocker hearing.

As I watched Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker field questions during the House hearing yesterday, I was reminded of a personal experience. As a young Marine captain, I was assigned to the US Army Field Artillery School to teach artillery tactics. My mentor there was an Army captain who remains the best teacher I have ever known. Before I actually got to teach, I observed my mentor as he took a class of brand new lieutenants through the course. During one session, a student asked him a question. I’ll never forget Howard’s reply. "Lieutenant, we all know that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but I want you to know that yours is the closest to one I have ever heard."

So it was with the ambassador and the general. I don’t believe I have ever heard so many inane and repetitive questions in my life. It’s one thing to push the Democratic story line, but couldn’t these guys come up with some decent questions? How Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker kept straight faces is beyond me. One thing is apparent. There has been a precipitous drop in congressional military experience. This applies to staff as well. God help the Republic.


Today is six years after the event that, even if we will otherwise, can’t leave behind us simply as a memory. I was in class when someone ran in and told us that something was going on. We ran to a TV and started watching right after the first plane hit. I didn’t understand. I remember the confusion and the tears of students when it became, somehow, clear to everyone that this was an attack. Someone pointed to spots on the screen that seemed to be falling from the still-standing buildings. It was breath-taking when we realized that they were people jumping from the burning buildings. Hearts stopped and grown men wept. That’s when I realized that I probably would not have made a good general.

I saw some of Petreus’(and Crocker’s) testimony yesterday, and there was more today which I haven’t seen. There is no need to re-work the political jockying and the short and self-serving speeches by politicians (or the screech of the crowd). I merely want to say that I am impressed by the general’s seriousness, and am glad he is in charge of operations (and too bad he wasn’t fully in charge at the start of things). His careful articulation of the situation as it is now and the possibilities were good, and hopeful (and not utopian). Also prudent. Make some bow to getting some Marines out pretty quickly and then some soldiers, this gives everyone a little room for movement (and rhetoric) and allows him some six months to get back to work. Congress will not be able to prevent that; the withdrawal debate will be cut short. And that is all good. I do hope we don’t pretend to be Athenians and treat him as one of our generals who has displeased us. I think the American people are too sensible for that. And I am grateful.

Mac Owens on the war on terror. And the non-optimistic George Will has his say. Here are some videos from six years ago which should be shown on every TV station today, as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes it’s good to both weep and become angry. After all, we are not generals.


Cleveland, not smoking

It is bad enough that Cleveland doesn't have a football team: "In their first game in 15 years without iconic coach Bill Cowher stalking the sideline, the Steelers blitzed, battered and bullied their way to a 34-7 win over the hapless Browns, whose season opener couldn't have gone much worse." The full story is here. But, what irks me even more is the anti-smoking policy in the stadium that was built on "sin taxes" (i.e., tobacco mostly). No somiking anywhere in the stadium and if you step outside for a smoke you can't get back in! A friend who was at the game informs me that people were being fines $75 for smoking and some were handcuffed and taken away...One guy said, "give me a ticket for $225 because I plan to have three more cigarettes while I'm here." I wonder what they would do if you smoked a Cuban?
Categories > Sports

Thompson’s Critics Mirror Reagan’s

Michael Scherer of Salon writes, somewhat disapprovingly, "no one expects Thompson to run an issue-based campaign." To substantiate this claim, Scherer adds: The rest of his stump speech is conservative cliché. ’Security. Unity. Prosperity,’ reads the campaign motto on the side of the bus -- whatever that means. He talked about opposing abortion, securing the border, supporting the Second Amendment, seeking conservative judges, opposing gay marriage and favoring a strong national defense. Presumably, Scherer is irritated because Thompson would not spell out detailed policy plans for Social Security, a position on the fair tax, and Labor Department statistics on the question of an approaching recession. As a criticism, that’s fair enough--as far as it goes. But notice that the positions Thomspon articulates against abortion, securing judges for the courts, opposing gay marriage and supporting defense are described as clichés. Thompson may not be another Reagan, but the criticism of him from the other side is beginning to sound an awful lot like the criticism Reagan got. If I were Thompson I think I might consider this to be a good development.

No Left Turns Mug Drawing Winners for August

Congratulations to this month’s winners of a No Left Turns mug! The winners are as follows:

Ben Robinson

Ivan Kenneally

Stacy Maxey

Ken Limmer

Emilia Rose Kette

Thanks to all who entered. An email has been sent to the winners. If you are listed as a winner and did not receive an email, contact Ben Kunkel. If you didn’t win this month, enter September’s drawing.

Osama’s Star Turn, Take Two

Quite a number of NLT discussants are incensed over my post blow, The NYT Speaks: Osama Listens. (See the comments thread.) Well, they better fire up their indignation engines for David Brooks’ comments on the New Hour the other night:

But you read this thing, and it’s like he’s been sitting around reading lefty blogs, and he’s one of these childish people posting rants at the bottom the page, you know, Noam Chomsky and all this stuff.

You can’t help read it and not laugh at it, occasionally, because it is just absurd. It’s flying this way, and that way, weird conspiracy theories, and mortgages, global warming. He throws it all in there.

The one thing that leapt out -- and Bruce Hoffman and the others mentioned this -- was how Western it is. And a friend of mine, Reuel Gerecht, points out that there’s this argument that Western ideas never permeated into the Arab world, but in fact it’s all -- I mean, a lot of the worst ideas from the West have permeated in, and he’s picked up Noam Chomsky, and he’s picked up some of the anti-globalization stuff. And that’s what infuses this.