The classical liberal strand in Western political philosophy has historically opposed special government privileges for groups and prized equality before the law. Classical liberals favored eliminating the benefit of clergy and the privileges of the nobility. They fought against slavery. And, unlike some progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they opposed Jim Crow.
Whether classical liberalism should embrace laws that prevent private actors from treating people unequally on the basis of characteristics, like race and sex, is a more complicated question. But in my view, given the long history of Jim Crow in the United States, laws against discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity were justified to break ingrained habits encouraged by government discrimination against African-Americans. But here again the classical liberal view molded these laws into general prohibitions against discrimination, not special privileges for certain groups.
In the 1960s and 1970s progressives began to transform these laws into mechanisms of social engineering that took account of race in their planning. But for a brief period in Reagan administration, the classical liberal strand of universalism reasserted itself as part of the core ideology of the Republican party. The result was an effort to treat laws on discrimination as general prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, no matter which race and ethnicity was at issue. Colorblindness was banner under which the movement marched.
Sadly, this movement has dissipated.
During the 1990s, victory in the Cold War seemed more than just a triumph over the Soviet Union.
From my many friends who are Democrats, I hear a common complaint: the Republican Party is a party of obstruction while the Democratic party is much more accommodating. Of course, the first reaction of most Republican would be to note the many not so accommodating actions of Democrats, from the attempt to filibuster Justice Samuel Alito to the refusal to negotiate any reforms in social security with the newly reelected George W. Bush. But such back and forth is pretty fruitless and may miss a more fundamental point.
It is not at all clear that it is rational for parties to engage in the same amount of obstruction. The rational amount of obstruction depends on how easy it is to repeal the policy being obstructed. If it is easy to repeal the policy, it does not make sense to pay the political price for obstruction, because the policy can be readily ended when the party comes to power. But if the policy is hard to repeal, obstruction becomes a more natural course.
Thus, the real question on the rationality and justification for obstruction is whether the Republican and Democratic parties face the same political terrain for repealing the legislation they oppose. And I do not believe they do, particularly when it comes to the creation or expansion of entitlements.
Though American politics at the grassroots is polarized and divided, sharp commentators have written thoughtfully about the similarities between the parties as a practical matter. I would add that the similarities extend to their leaders.
While George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not be further apart ideologically, their attitudes toward governing suffer from the same flaw. Bush said he was “the Decider,” to which Obama rejoined: “I won.” Both ran roughshod over public opinion.
Washington forgives many things, from Oval Office indiscretions to executive abuses. But neither laughter nor defeat makes the pardonable cut, and George H.W. Bush has endured both, in each case for precisely the quality that most commends him: prudence.
Presidential power scholar Stephen Knott discusses in this latest edition of Liberty Law Talk his book Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, recently released in paperback form by University Press of Kansas. Knott has a point in this book. He argues convincingly that the vituperative critics of George W. Bush’s use of executive power, in many instances, were willfully ignorant of the historical use of these powers. Past presidents, ranging from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and certain presidents in the twentieth century, defended and exercised powers similar to those…
With the Islamic State’s invitation to sympathizers everywhere to join in murdering Americans, U.S. public opinion favors destroying this nefarious force. Accordingly, politicians of both parties—especially those up for election—are competing to see who can issue the most bellicose statements.
But popular sentiment notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that our ruling class has learned anything new, that it is shedding the ways that have opened hunting season on Americans, or that it is setting about destroying America’s enemies.
I’ve always thought that the brouhaha over signing statements was much ado about nothing. During the presidency of George W. Bush, liberals discovered signing statements and decided they were bad and connected to a “lawless” executive enthralled by an idiosyncratic and dangerous theory of a unitary presidency. Except that signing statements as such had nothing to do with theories of the unitary executive, signing statements had long been issued by presidents across the ideological spectrum, and it was less that evident why signing statements in and of themselves were supposed to be dangerous. Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has gone back to business as usual on many facets of executive power that were denounced by liberals just a few years ago, signing statements included.
But my esteemed colleague Mike Rappaport raises a more interesting question about signing statements.
Transparency in government is a public good, because it helps us understand what government is doing, including what favors its officials dole out to private citizens. Being invited to a state dinner is of no small significance. For the hundred or so citizens not in public office who are invited, it is not only a memorable event but a boost to one’s reputation and an advertisement of one’s proximity to power. But for the rest of us, learning who goes is one way to understand what the President cares about and who his core supporters are.
President Obama’s guest lists are sadly much less transparent than those of President George W. Bush. Other than government officials they list the affiliations only of journalists. Compare the guest list to President Obama’s state dinner for Francois Hollande to George Bush’s list for the dinner for Queen Elizabeth II. (I have not studied the lists of all state dinners, but I have no reason to believe these are atypical).
What could be the reason for this selective information? Unfortunately, only cynical explanations are plausible.