Category Archives: Political Philosophy

The Declaration Under Siege

The Distortion and Profusion of Human Rights

Margaret Thatcher explained the stark difference between American and European political traditions with elegant economy. The Iron Lady said that European nations were made by history but the United States was made by philosophy.

Last month, the State Department issued a thoughtful and carefully reasoned report on that quintessentially American philosophy, and the unique nation that came into existence to conserve and champion it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tasked a commission with exploring the role of “unalienable rights” in U.S. foreign policy. To do so entailed an ideological assault against not only the foreign despotisms that willfully deprive their subjects of those rights. The doctrine of natural rights also agitates against the growing inclination of the political left to make all of politics a matter of rights. Continue reading

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American Maladies in a Time of Plague

If you didn’t already think government matters, the pandemic response should change your mind

A few years back, there was a highfalutin’ political debate at a Washington think-tank about whether the American project could be properly construed as libertarian ab initio. Although the libertarian side of the house was loath to admit it, they found very little historical evidence to support this dubious proposition. Continue reading

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The Beleaguered Speakers’ Corner

Liberal values are under assault in their cathedrals

In London’s Hyde Park, the famous Speakers’ Corner stands as a tribute to the victory of John Stuart Mill, the most prominent thinker in the liberal tradition. In the occasionally stultifying intellectual climate of Victorian England, Mill led a successful campaign for the right to protest in London’s public parks. His main concern was not government censorship but the chilling effect of social conformity. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill advocated for a culture that offered a rich diversity of viewpoints that would enable the pursuit of truth. Continue reading

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1619 or 1776?

History is an argument. The Times’s 1619 Project loses it.

Senator Cotton’s recent initiative to strip schools of federal funding if they stoop to teaching the re-interpretation of American history expressed by the 1619 Project is proof of the ferocious nature of the debate it continues to inspire, even a year after it appeared in the pages of the New York Times Magazine.

It is a truism that democracy presupposes that it is better to count heads than to break them. But it has well been said that the success of democracy depends on what is in the heads of its citizens. If the 1619 Project, which tells the founding narrative of America through the lens of white supremacy and slavery, is any indication of a prevailing cast of mind, American democracy is in grave trouble.

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The Ungrateful Republic

Statues are not erected to honor private virtue, but public service. 

In 1872, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, took up his pen in defense of America’s beleaguered chief executive. At the time, President Grant was weighed down with allegations of running an executive branch laced with corruption. Despite Grant’s impeccable personal integrity, it was widely intimated that his staunch loyalty kept him from keeping a close watch over unscrupulous staffers and political cronies who sullied his administration.

Nast, who had long banged the drum for Republican principles, portrayed Grant as a great man greatly misunderstood. Any leader would have struggled to administer a clean government at the onset of the Gilded Age, given the ripe environment for scams and swindles supplied by breakneck industrial expansion, the protracted rule of the Republican party, and the hasty settlement of the West. Patronage and deal making was nothing new in the federal Leviathan (which had swelled enormously during the war), and so Republican partisans plausibly felt that the old general in chief was being traduced and abused on account of his unflagging efforts to protect black suffrage and enforce black rights.

Standing with the figure Liberty, Grant is pictured by Nast as an honorable leader braving slings and arrows out of fealty to republican virtue. The caption blared: “The Republic is not Ungrateful.” Continue reading

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The GOP After Trump

Few people today remember the story behind the sobriquet “Grand Old Party”—the handy “GOP” nickname for the Republican party, which at first blush seems miscast for a political faction that is considerably younger than its rival in a two-party system. The title was adopted after the Civil War on the heels of a speech delivered in 1875 by John “Jack Black” Logan, who had served in the Army as one of Grant’s favorite generals and was then a U.S. senator from Illinois.

Speaking in the dark days of political radicalism and civil strife that followed the Union victory, Logan inveighed against the restoration of white supremacy in the former Confederacy that was reducing the Republican party to a rump. (The Republicans had flared into existence in the middle of the 19th century pledged to fight “the twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.) He opened by citing a report from Louisiana of thirty-five hundred people killed in the state since the end of the war for attempting to exercise their political rights. These victims, most of whom were black, were also Republicans. “Is it true that this gallant old party, that this gallant old ship that has sailed through troubled seas before, is going to be stranded now . . . ?” Logan’s phrase was soon revised from “gallant old party” to “grand old party”—perhaps in homage to the Grand Army of the Republic in which so many Republican hearts of the age were touched with fire. And the name stuck.

This largely forgotten story is told in Trumpocalypse, David Frum’s new book that predicts the imminent (though belated) end of the Trump era and sketches the contours of a decent Republican future on the ruins of the indecent present. Continue reading

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The Ignoble Presidency

The danger of an imperial presidency has usually been exaggerated; the peril lies not in its power but in the character of its person

In the modern era, the specter of the imperial presidency has stirred the most excitable—what Hamilton called, in Federalist No. 1, “over-scrupulous”—anxiety at various points along the political spectrum. Beginning with the Vietnam war and gathering special force in the post-9/11 era, the public has been encouraged by the national elite to fear nearly every exercise of executive power taken in defense of the nation’s interests or against the enemies of civilization. Continue reading

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Impeachment is Partisan—and Justified

The partisan nature of impeachment is a scandal (for Republicans)

The impeachment trial of the president will soon be over, almost certainly with the Senate acquitting Mr. Trump on charges that he abused the powers of his office. But the effects of this doomed impeachment will linger long after the votes have been tallied in the world’s most deliberative body—a distinction, it must be said, to which the degenerate Senate has not remotely lived up. It is already apparent that this scandal, and the unprecedented arguments employed to inure the country to the president’s squalid misconduct, will disfigure America’s constitutional order, and the cause of republican government, for years to come.

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To the Best of His Ability?

The presidency is occupied by an unprincipled rogue who defiles the office and diminishes its authority 

Historians will marvel at the wreckage to the conservative cause piled up high in our time by an administration claiming, without serious challenge, the banner of the Republican party. What most catches the eye is not ostensible conservatives’ abandonment of free trade principle or their newfound contempt for international alliances, lamentable as these tergiversations have been. The truest betrayal on the right in this time has rather been at once more grave and more elemental: the jettisoning of the understanding of—or at any rate the concern for—the role of character in a republic.

It wasn’t so long ago that a typical Republican might have been expected to snort with derision at any suggestion that character does not matter in high public office. This profoundly republican position now sits awkwardly in a party that struggles to say a disobliging word about Donald Trump. Continue reading

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A Constitutional Betrayal

Today, Donald Trump is expected to join a small, ignominious fraternity, becoming the third U.S. president to be impeached. This historic rebuke is richly deserved. It may also prove deeply imprudent. Continue reading

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Republicans’ Breach of Trust

The hysterical argument against impeachment reveals a poor understanding of, or brazen contempt for, constitutional principle

During the last fortnight’s impeachment hearings in Washington D.C., Republicans loyal to Trump asserted that the opposition party was embarked on nothing less than a political coup against a duly elected president. This, needless to say, was a large—and, if true, damning—claim against the national Democratic party. According to the president’s defenders, the impeachment proceedings arose from quotidian policy differences rather than grave presidential misconduct.

In reality, this entire line of argument was deranged. Continue reading

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Whither the Impartial Arbiters?

Impeachment may be imprudent. But this lamentable fact does not acquit Republicans who, in l’affaire Ukraine, have made it so.
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One Man’s Self-Portrait

A new memoir about race violates shibboleths on the left and right, and drives a stake through the heart of identity politics.

There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Nihil humanum a me alienum puto. “I am human and I consider nothing human alien to me.” I confess this swaggering pronouncement (by the Roman poet Terence) has always left me feeling a touch ambivalent. For starters, there is a great deal about the human condition that, upon reflection, is quite alienating. Ignorance, solipsism, envy, cruelty, capriciousness, bigotry, vulgarity, idiocy, superstition, provincialism, cowardice, to name a few. Not a very agreeable list, but then, as the scribbler put it, man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.

Nonetheless, there is surely something to credit in the idea of the unity of human experience, and in the solidarity of human belonging. For better or worse, the concept of human nature is not infinitely plastic, and to a remarkable degree members of our species are the same everywhere. This insight is powerful ballast against the eternal promptings of race and tribe. As Thomas Chatterton Williams points out in his learned and candid memoir about race Self-Portrait in Black and White, Terence did not proclaim, as he might have, “I am Roman, therefore nothing Roman is alien to me.” Continue reading

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Saluting The Honored Dead

A new book celebrates The Old Guard at Arlington

In April, Israel brought home the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel, a soldier who perished in Lebanon in 1982. After 37 years tracking Baumel’s remains to Syria and negotiating their recovery through Russia, the Israeli government laid him to rest at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

For Senator Tom Cotton, the extraordinary measures taken on behalf of soldiers who rallied to the flag and did not return from the breach is not simply a de rigueur tradition. In Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, the junior senator from Arkansas has written an encomium to the martial virtues as embodied by his his former unit, the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—The Old Guard. In the process, Cotton echoes Plato’s view that the ancient ritual of honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice has as much to do with advising the living as it does with praising the dead. Continue reading

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Disgrace in Charlottesville

The facts from Charlottesville are plain in their ugliness. White nationalists from around the country descended on the campus of the University of Virginia ostensibly to protest its plan to remove a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee. But even before the spectacle of a torchlight demonstration featuring a toxic blend of Confederate nostaliga and Nazi propaganda, it was clear that its true purpose was a rendezvous for the nation’s leading bigots and anti-social hooligans to make their presence known in the social sphere.

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