The most pervasive hatred in American politics – of which I am trying to wean myself – is also the least chastised. It is the obsessive hostility to professional politicians and the transactions of everyday politics. Jonathan Rauch dubbed it “politiphobia.” In his essay “How American Politics Went Insane,” which is a sort of addendum to his recent book Political Realism, Rauch said:

Using polls and focus groups, [political scientists John R.] Hibbing and [Elizabeth] Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even _exists_. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

If politicians won’t do the job, then who will? Politiphobes, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, believe policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by _ENSIDS_: empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers. These are leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions. _ENSIDS_ can be politicians, technocrats, or autocrats – whatever works. Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.

Chances are that politiphobes have been out there since long before Hibbing and Theiss-Morse identified them in 2002. Unlike the Tea Party or the Working Families Party, they aren’t particularly ideological: They have popped up left, right, and center. Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies of 1992 and 1996 appealed to the idea that any sensible businessman could knock heads together and fix Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama pandered to a center-left version of the same fantasy, promising to magically transcend partisan politics and implement the best solutions from both parties.

From this point of view, there are “obvious, commonsense solutions,” which “special” interests have undermined. Most political conflict does not come from the clash of rivalrous goods or honest discord between legitimate interests. It comes from selfish indulgence – when it’s not the result of some conspiracy. A wholesome unity lies just beyond our reach, if only we had the right leadership.

The promise is as alluring as it is false. This unease and unhappiness with conventional politics is, I expect, genuine, but it cannot be eradicated. It is an example of what Karl Popper called “the strain of civilization,” which must be borne by those who live in – and reap all the advantages of – an open society.

J. D. Vance on Culture

J. D. Vance believes in human agency. As someone who climbed out of poverty, Vance finds the commonplace denial of agency “incredibly insulting.” In wide-ranging interview with Rod Dreher on contemporary politics and his new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, Vance said:

Obviously, the idea that there aren’t structural barriers facing both the white and black poor is ridiculous. Mamaw recognized that our lives were harder than rich white people, but she always tempered her recognition of the barriers with a hard-noses willfulness: “never be like those a–holes who think the deck is stacked against them.” In hindsight, she was this incredibly perceptive woman. She recognized the message my environment had for me, and she actively fought against it.

There’s good research on this stuff. Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers. The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease. If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so why judge an addict for drug use.” This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans. On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction — in that way, it does mimic a disease. On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it. It’s this awful catch-22, where recognizing the true nature of the problem actually hinders the ability to overcome.

Interestingly, both in my conversations with poor blacks and whites, there’s a recognition of the role of better choices in addressing these problems. The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. Since _Hillbilly Elegy_ came out, I’ve gotten so many messages along the lines of: “Thank you for being sympathetic but also honest.”

I think that’s the only way to have this conversation and to make the necessary changes: sympathy and honesty. It’s not easy, especially in our politically polarized world, to recognize both the structural and the cultural barriers that so many poor kids face. But I think that if you don’t recognize both, you risk being heartless or condescending, and often both.

Too many liberals balk at such talk of culture and dismiss it as blaming the victim. But for Vance, culture is something too palpable to ignore:

[D]omestic strife and family violence are cultural traits — they’re just there, and everyone experiences them in one form or another. I learned domestic strife from the moment I was born, from more than 15 stepdads and boyfriends I encountered, to the domestic violence case that nearly tore my family apart (I was the primary victim). So predictably, by the time I got married, I wasn’t a great spouse. I had to learn, with the help of my aunt and sister (both of whom had successful marriages), but especially with the help of my wife, how not to turn every small disagreement into a shouting match or a public scene. Too many conservatives look at that situation, say “well that’s a cultural problem, nothing we can do,” and then move on. They’re right that it’s a cultural problem: I learned domestic strife from my mother, and she learned it from her parents.

Vance recognized that too many his fellow conservatives invoke “culture” and move on, which he called a “total copout.” He was equally exasperated with the “weird refusal” of too many liberals “to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”

Liberals have to get more comfortable with dealing with the poor as they actually are. I admire their refusal to look down on the least among us, but at some level, that can become an excuse to never really look at the problem at all.

The entire interview is worth your time.

I like to keep autobiography to a minimum, and I am not going to change now. I grew up middle class, but some of the people who were closest to me were poor and white. The one person who was closer to me than anyone else did not escape. He self-destructed, and he damaged — and even ended — the lives of others. When Vance’s describes cultural entropy, I see him.

Beyond Hate

There is something inadequate about describing last weekend’s massacre as “hate.” The word is too amorphous, like a semantic fog. It obscures the conscious and sustained movement behind such atrocities.

However conflicted Omar Mateen may have been about his identity, he chose to become a jihadist. Mateen joined the ranks of theocrats the world over who execute those they deem sexually deviant. And if Mateen were himself gay, it would hardly be unprecendeted. Some Muslim men, as jihadist expert Will McCants said, “who feel ashamed of their ‘sinful’ behavior commit violence on behalf of ISIS to redeem themselves.” Rather than being mutually exclusive, internalized stigma and Islamist fanaticism are more likely to reinforce each other.

We should make it harder for violent fanatics to arm themselves, and I support David Frum’s reform aggenda. We should not, however, reduce the issue to “hate plus guns.” Doing so would be obtuse, for reasons explained well by James Kirchick:

Denouncing hatred, guns and evangelical Christians is easier, not to mention more intellectually comforting, than confronting the dangers of a new-old form of religious obscurantism adhered to by untold millions of people who belong to groups that we – not they – have positioned as benign objects of our well-meaning attempts at equalitarian uplift. For products of a free society, which greatly values sensitivity to others, and wishes to continue enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while forthrightly condemning the sins of racism, sexism and homophobia, its unsettling to imagine that other people don’t want the same things we do. In fact, they want to kill us, for reasons that we simply cannot undo, if we want to remain who we are – especially if we are gay, female or Jewish, or atheists, or like to read the wrong books, or look at cartoons.

That’s the truth. Yet for the self-anointed community of the good, anything is easier than dealing with the reality of a fascistic political movement that cloaks itself in religious language and religious hatreds, enjoys meaningful support in Muslim communities and even among Muslim religious leaders, and which routinely uses brutal violence to erase the basic human rights and often the lives of everyone who fails to adhere to their medieval theocratic dictates. Desperate to transform violent oppressors into the Christ-like oppressed, the regressive left averts its gaze, and, more often than not, boldly blames the victims.

Clearly, progressive leaders are not speaking candidly about the darker varieties of Islam. The conservative Ramesh Ponnuru suspects there is “a hidden argument behind this delicacy about terminology,” and I suspect he is right. Ponnuru said:

What motivates it, if I’m right, is not just a concern that using the wrong terms will grant legitimacy to terrorists and convince non-violent Muslims we’re against them. There’s also a concern that the wrong terms will convince non-Muslim Americans to think we’re at war with Muslims, too, and thus encourage bigotry. But this seems like a self-defeating tactic. If our choices are to view all Muslims as our enemies or to insist that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” as Clinton has said, some people are going to choose door number one.

However noble the lie may have once been, it is still a lie. It is also something fewer and fewer of those on the receiving end are buying. Most Americans recognize this fascistic movement has something to do with Islam. They may not know much about Sayyid Qutb, and they may not know much about Muslism resistance to Islamism. But they do know the claim this has “nothing to do with Islam” is false. And they probably care less about any admirable motives behind the claim than being talked down to like incorrigible bigots.

The insult is only made worse by progressive double standards. If ideology mattered in Charleston, South Carolina at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then it mattered in Orlando, Florida at Pulse. Otherwise, it gives the impression that the political motives behind a terrorist attack only matter to progressives when it’s rhetorically convenient.

Direct Action Draws Blood

Liberal democracy requires a way of living and arguing together without resorting to violence against political opponents. By assaulting their peaceful opponents, activists in San Jose, California made clear that they reject these bounds. They are not seeking to persuade a majority but to punish heretics for wrongthink.

Coercive “direct action” can work, when the goal is inflicting pain and spreading fear. As a writer at Salon said back in 2014:

Intimidation tactics targeting the employees of major corporations are nothing new and have a history of success: Indeed, animal rights activists achieved some major victories in securing the closure of animal testing facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s through the intimidation of key investors. This intimidation was deemed terrorism, but, hey, it worked.

The author was referring to the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences. The campaign included “home demonstrations” and several bombings.

For years, illiberal egalitarians told us they were embracing a “diversity of tactics.” They spoke less of civil disobedience and more of “direct action,” which includes riots and assaults. They rejected the norms against political violence as too restrictive and reduced nonviolence to a private matter of personal choice. A thuggish vanguard claimed the authority to use whatever means they deem necessary, regardless of the law or the interests of anyone outside their movement. Challenges by the center left to this privilege have been too few and too faint.

But acquiescence comes at a price. A free society has two kinds of restraints on political violence, hard and soft. Hard restraints are the criminal penalties for specific threats and harms. Soft restraints are things like social censure. These are not legally actionable. They are norms that must be enforced informally by civil society. The more these are worn down by fanatics, the more we must rely on force to restore order.

Liberals already accept an obligation to enforce norms against activist violence – when the threat comes from the far right. We do not rationalize the bombing of abortion clinics as some kind of rough justice. We do not mistake the bomber’s rage for moral authority. We do not kneel before their imperious conscience. We condemn such acts, clearly and unequivocally, as political extortion.

A dirty little secret of activism is that the threat of violence adds punch to a movement’s demands. After a few bombs explode at a health clinic or a research laboratory, a protest outside the house of a related physician, researcher, or investor, for example, conveys a different message. When a movement is diffuse (as with any “leaderless resistance”), most activists can both enjoy the advantages of violence and maintain some degree of plausible deniability for the harm done in the name of their cause.

Progressive leaders and cultural elites only make matters worse when they explain away the moral culpability of activist goons. There will always be some activists who are tempted to use violence. The more “not excusing but” excuses made for them, the more license they will take. Because liberal democracy means nothing to those who believe their conscience is absolute and beyond reproach.

Update: (August 19, 2016) Noah Rothman linked the increase in activist violence to the authoritarian campaigns against “hate speech.” If “hate speech” is a traumatic act of violence, then its repression by violence is a matter of self-defense:

For an unacceptably large number of progressive activists, a violent response to speech has not only become excusable but obligatory. Such undemocratic behavior is the natural outgrowth of an increasingly mainstream progressive worldview in which the distinctions between speech and violence have been blurred beyond recognition.

Central to the ethos of a new class of progressive activist is the notion that “hate speech” can be traumatic, and not in a figurative sense. They contend that this trauma is not different from genuine physical violence. The conflation of speech with violence has resulted in the acceptance of real violence as an equivalent of free speech.

Too many progressive leaders have indulged and validated furies they do not comprehend and cannot contain. In their hubris, they remind me the rage mongers on the right who brought us Donald Trump.

Update: (August 16, 2016) Original post has been revised and expanded for clarity.


One of the most disturbing prospects of a Donald Trump presidency is what the man could do with the powers of the executive branch. The danger comes less from drones or surveillance than from prosecutorial discretion. Benjamin Wittes explained it well:

A prosecutor — and by extention, a tyrant president who directs that prosecutor — can harass or target almost anyone, and he can often do so without violating any law. He doesn’t actually need to indict the person, though that can be fun. He needs only open an investigation; that alone can be ruinous. The standards for doing so, criminal predication, are not high. And the fabric of American federal law — criminal and civil law alike — is so vast that a huge number of people and institutions of consequence are ripe for some sort of meddling from authorities. A template here is how former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli was able to harass climate scientists he didn’t like. This stuff is not hard to do, and you don’t even need to win to succeed.

The Justice Department has some institutional defenses against this sort of thing, but they are far weaker than the intelligence community’s institutional defenses against abuses. They mostly do not reside in statute or in the sort of complex oversight structures that [Jennifer] Granick complains in the case of NSA are not restrictive enough. They reside in the Levi Guidelines, in certain normative rules about contacts between the Justice Department and the White House, in norms that have developed over the years in the FBI. And they reside in the hearts of a lot of replaceable people. Ultimately, they reside in an institutional culture at the Justice Department, and that is precisely the sort of thing a tyrant leader can change.

The reason this great vulnerability exists — and is probably irremediable without grave damage to our legal system — is that our system actually depends on prosecutorial discretion for a lot of good things. It’s what prevents the mechanical application of the law in a fashion that would itself be tyrannical. It’s what allows focus on the most important offenses. It’s what allows the justice system to be nimble, focusing on drug cartel crimes in the 1980s and 1990s and shifting to terrorism and internet crimes in the subsequent decade.

Wittes stressed that no institutional fix can “tyrant proof” the presidency. The “relative unity and vertical integration” of the office, which are also its strengths, make that impossible. There are simply too many ways to abuse its powers. And though a thug president might be impeached and convicted, it would take not only a simple majority in the House but a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Better then not to elect a vindictive goon who openly threatens his critics with persecution in the first place.

This last point is something on which American liberals should linger. No permanent legal framework can vanquish the perennial threats to liberal values. No ideal constitution can relieve us of the burden of confronting illiberal demagogues in the political arena. Pursuing such a project, as John Gray has argued for years, is a fool’s errand.


Activists against order-maintenance policing are getting exactly what they demanded. Police officers throughout the nation are scaling back. The reason, as Heather Mac Donald explained, is simple:

Policing is political. If the press, the political elites, and media-amplified advocates are relentlessly sending the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it. This is not unprofessional conduct; it is how policing legitimacy is calibrated. The only puzzle is why the activists are so surprised and angered that officers are backing off; such a retreat is precisely what they have been demanding.

The surprise and anger — and the lack of shame — makes a perverse kind of sense. Demanding change is, among other things, a way to affirm one’s righteousness. Any change that exacerbates injustice, however, is a threat to one’s pride. Impugning any such change as false, distracting, or insufficient, deflects blame. It also avoids the awkward question of whether the activists know what they are talking about.

This is hyperactivism. It occurs when activists place the performance of their own righteousness above all else, including the consequences of their own proposals — even when those consequences are lethal.

Update: (June 22, 2016) As usual, Peter Moskos said it well:

The problem isn’t criticism of police, the problem is an effort to reign-in what some people see as out-of-control racist policing. This is being accomplished by concerted lawsuits, paperwork requirements, public accusations of racism, and, in Baltimore’s case, straight up criminal prosecution of police officers who arrested a man who later died.

And anybody who even attempts to discuss these issues, even in a thoughtful and nuanced manner, such as FBI director Comey, could be slapped down by none other than President Obama himself!

And no, I don’t like the term “Ferguson Effect” either, but enough with the semantics. Lives are being lost. Maybe “viral video effect” will catch on, but the “Ferguson Effect” is the term most people are using to describe a very real phenomenon of less proactive policing leading to more crime. So be it.

And now be enguard for specious arguments about “declining legitimacy” from the police-are-the-problem brigade. The problem isn’t legitimacy. The problem isn’t even poverty (that is a separate problem). The problem is violence linked to public drug dealing and people who believe that policing has no effect on preventing violence. Too many people criticize even effective policing and really do want police to do less. They’re not evil people. They’re just wrong.

Civil servants must answer conflicting demands by the public. They must reconcile these conflicts, which means tradeoffs. If enough people balk at an initial tradeoff, then civil servants may need to adjust. But when activists balk at every plausible adjustment, then the activists should take a hard look at their own demands. They should practice some of that accountability they preach for everyone else.

No Enemies on the Left

In What’s Left?: How Left Lost Its Way, British polemicist Nick Cohen dealt with the sorry state of the contemporary left and liberalism. Despite some differences with Cohen over “humanitarian intervention,” I think the book has many sharp and necessary insights. It was originally published in 2007, but it was republished in 2015 – just as the Labour Party elected the crackpot Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

In one of the most astute observations in the book, Cohen described a “consoling myth” that relieves liberals of any responsibility to confront their enemies on the left. It is the myth of the liberal-left family, and it goes something like this:

The totalitarian left may be a little wild on occasion, like an unruly teenager, but it is still family and its dirty laundry must never be washed in public. As with other passionate adolescents, the totalitarian left may at times appear preferable to the cautious and pragmatic old fuddy-duddies who win elections: more honest, more dedicated, more idealistic, more truly left.

The familial bond, in this analogy, is a shared commitment to political ends. But between genuine liberals and illiberal egalitarians, there is no such bond. When freedom of speech, due process for the accused, and the presumption against political violence impede their march to utopia, these principles will be trampled.

Last August, Cohen lamented the lack of support his position has received over the years from “mainstream commentators and politicians of the centre left.” They did not wish to criticize “our side.” They focused on right-wing bigotry, while ignoring anti-Semitism on the left. “They didn’t want to puncture the phoney air of righteousness which surrounds left-wing politics like a cloying perfume, or ‘distract’ themselves from the fight against the Tories.”

In other words, acquiescent liberals did not want to “give ammunition to the enemy.” This practice, as George Orwell said in “Through a Glass, Rosily,” is less than honest:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively”, which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

Now, if one divides the world into A and B and assumes that A represents progress and B reaction, it is just arguable that no fact detrimental to A ought ever to be revealed.

[ . . . . ]

The trouble is that if you lie to people, their reaction is all the more violent when the truth leaks out, as it is apt to do in the end. Here is an example of untruthful propaganda coming home to roost. Many English people of goodwill draw from the left-wing press an unduly favourable picture of the Indian Congress Party. They not only believe it to be in the right (as it is), but are also apt to imagine that it is a sort of left-wing organisation with democratic and internationalist aims. Such people, if they are suddenly confronted with an actual, flesh-and-blood Indian Nationalist, are liable to recoil into the attitudes of a [Colonel] Blimp. I have seen this happen a number of times. And it is the same with pro-Soviet propaganda. Those who have swallowed it whole are always in danger of a sudden revulsion in which they may reject the whole idea of Socialism. In this and other ways I should say that the net effect of Communist and near-Communist propaganda has been simply to retard the cause of Socialism, though it may have temporarily aided Russian foreign policy.

There are always the most excellent, high-minded reasons for concealing the truth, and these reasons are brought forward in almost the same words by supporters of the most diverse causes. I have had writings of my own kept out of print because it was feared that the Russians would not like them, and I have had others kept out of print because they attacked British imperialism and might be quoted by anti-British Americans. We are told *now* that any frank criticism of the Stalin regime will “increase Russian suspicions”, but it is only seven years since we were being told (in some cases by the same newspapers) that frank criticism of the Nazi regime would increase Hitler’s suspicions. As late as 1941, some of the Catholic papers declared that the presence of Labour Ministers in the British Government increased Franco’s suspicions and made him incline more towards the Axis. Looking back, it is possible to see that if only the British and American peoples had grasped in 1933 or thereabouts what Hitler stood for, war might have been averted. Similarly, the first step towards decent Anglo-Russian relations is the dropping of illusions. In principle most people would agree to this: but the dropping of illusions means the publication of facts, and facts are apt to be unpleasant.

The whole argument that one mustn’t speak plainly because it “plays into the hands of” this or that sinister influence is dishonest, in the sense that people only use it when it suits them. As I have pointed out, those who are most concerned about playing into the hands of the Tories were least concerned about playing into the hands of the Nazis. The Catholics who said “Don’t offend Franco because it helps Hitler” had been more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand. Beneath this argument there always lies the intention to do propaganda for some single sectional interest, and to browbeat critics into silence by telling them that they are “objectively” reactionary. It is a tempting manœuvre, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest. I think one is less likely to use it if one remembers that the advantages of a lie are always short-lived. So often it seems a positive duty to suppress or colour the facts! And yet genuine progress can only happen through increasing enlightenment, which means the continuous destruction of myths.

This way of thinking is exceedingly provincial. It takes the sprawling, shifting multitude of conflicts and factions, and it recasts in terms that are small and familiar. But it’s not just a consolation. It’s also a cop-out.