Our identity politics could use some Madisonian wisdom.
Mark Lilla is always worth reading, even if he is not always convincing. His latest book makes a straightforward argument that can be reproduced in a syllogism: The Democratic Party is the only hope for America; identity politics is tearing the Democratic Party apart; therefore the country is imperiled by identity politics.
We have come to the end of this little series of observations and reflections on the Resistance. Perhaps a little retrospect is in order, before concluding with Socrates.
Every so often our politics produces something relatively new, something worth watching and thinking about.
The protestors who pressured Yale University into scrubbing the legacy of John C. Calhoun—racist, slaveholder and forthright apologist for African bondage; statesman, philosopher and critic of excessive executive power and American imperial ambitions; and, unto Saturday, namesake of a residential college at the alma mater where he was valedictorian of the class of 1804—have no palate for moral nuance, so assume they have no taste for irony either. Consequently, they are probably unaware that the identity politics they champion are Calhounian to their core.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Trump candidacy is the way in which it involves a Republican (or, if you will, the Republican nominee) employing tactics or promoting programs that are related in some way to those used by the Democrats at times. This makes Trump much less attractive to those who favor limited government. But it raises the question whether he might be able—unintentionally of course—to raise the consciousness of the Democrats to the problems with their approach.
Start with strong executive power. President Obama and the Democrats embrace strong executive power. There are many reasons for this. One is that the Democrats want a government that can pass large numbers of regulations and is quick-acting. Another is that the Democrats do not want to be limited by the public opinion constraints of the legislature. But, of course, executive power is dangerous and is problematic, especially when one is on the receiving end of it.
While Republican Presidents have used executive power, they have not used it—especially in the domestic sphere—to the extent that Democrats have. And they have not played as fast and loose with the law as President Obama has.
Many people have the impression, not without reason, that a President Trump would be willing to aggressively use executive power. This concerns the Democrats, especially since much of Trump’s agenda is anathema to them. Could this persuade the Democrats that executive power is a dangerous thing that should be constrained? It is hard to say, but if Trumpian executive power doesn’t persuade them, what would?
The race for Texas governor offers a chance for substantial debate on policy. The leading Republican, Greg Abbott, is for limited government on economic matters, supports greater restrictions on abortion and is more conservative on social issues. The leading Democrat, Wendy Davis, is for somewhat more expansive government than Texas now has, favors abortion rights, and is less conservative on social issues.
But campaign coverage has instead focused on the biography of Davis and the comments of a singer supporting Abbot. Davis is being attacked for discrepancies in the biography she put forward and for her behavior in a marriage that ended in divorce. Abbot is being assailed for the incendiary and reprehensible comments of Ted Nugent. These disputes do not tell us much, if anything, about how either candidate would perform as governor, or the efficacy of the policies they have proposed. The candidates’ previous experience in the offices of Attorney General (Abbott) and state senator (Davis) seems far more relevant. To be sure, both candidates seem to have invited these controversies; Davis by making her biography a central part of her campaign and Abbott by welcoming Nugent’s support, not for his understanding of policy, but because of his celebrity.
The focus of the campaign, however, reveals much about modern politics. It demonstrates that much of political debate is not about what policy objective is preferable or what results a candidate’s agenda will have. It is instead about making citizens feel comfortable about themselves and indeed morally superior to others.