Category Archives: Social Policy

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Political Philosophy, Social Policy

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Political Philosophy, Social Policy

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.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Political Philosophy, Social Policy

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Leadership, Political Philosophy, Social Policy

Both Sides Now

Justice and order are not mutually exclusive. They’re mutually dependent


An Arab proverb sagely instructs that “in the presence of people grieving, don’t preach.” Alas, in this ill and inflamed country many can be found grieving, ranging from a black victim of callous police violence to a black victim of callous mob violence––and this is no time to fall silent. Their lives matter. It is a time to speak, and to listen. Among those who feel an acute sense of civic anguish in this moment, it is also a time to stir. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Quotidian Politics, Social Policy

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

Comments Off on One Man’s Self-Portrait

Filed under Political Philosophy, Social Policy

Of Statues and Leaders

Among the more depressing spectacles in the age of Trump has been the descent of the Democratic Party into the morass of identity politics. It has manifestly failed to take stock of the social and economic traumas that galvanized Trump’s rise, and appears to be imitating his ethno-populist playbook with constituencies beyond the white working class. As a result, American political life is now marked by the zero-sum logic of ethnic and class competition that leaves little ground for the ideals of national solidarity and cohesion. The ideal of a multiracial America is losing precious ground to multicultural America.

In this context one might think the Democrats’ best hope lies with those “blue leaders in red states” who reside at close quarters with the constituents that voted for Trump in 2016 and may do so again in 2020. No list of those potential leaders would be complete without the name of Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Quotidian Politics, Social Policy

Of Politics and Protest: King and Kaepernick

Let’s see if we can hold two opposing ideas in our minds at the same time on the matter of this NFL fracas: The president has eagerly cast a spotlight on the protest against police brutality and racial injustice in order to shore up his reputation with his core constituency. And the left has adopted a method of protest almost calculated to ensure the president’s demagogic effort succeeds. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Quotidian Politics, Social Policy

The Case for American Nationalism, Properly Defined

“Man isn’t at all one, after all – it takes so much of him to be American, to be French, etc.” – Henry James to William Dean Howells, May 17, 1890

A striking feature of the elite consensus in the United States today is how heavily skewed it is against the interests of the American nation-state. Stretching from Left to Right, the class that sits atop the commanding heights of American life is so consumed by its own interests and concerns that it is largely unencumbered by the mounting troubles taking place under its gaze. It has often been remarked how the power, wealth and prestige of this privileged class distort the operation of American democracy. What is less often remarked is the studied indifference of this clique to the fate of the nation, which have proved no hindrance to their righteousness. A plausible explanation for this lack of patriotic attachment is the diminished status among this coterie of the very concept of citizenship. The connection between the two has become unignorable. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Exchequer, Foreign Policy, Social Policy

Don’t Pass the Bill!

On the subject of immigration policy in America, one can no longer easily distinguish progressives from conservatives, Democrats from Republicans. This is not the doing of the left, which is largely united in the conviction that immigration, legal or illegal, skilled or unskilled, enriches our nation in ways large and small. It is, rather, a result of the right’s splintering on the issue. The conservative elite has not been shy about its support for amnesty for illegal aliens, while the conservative base remains adamantly opposed.

The silence of the conservative elite on the adverse impact of mass low-skilled immigration is easily explained: In principle, few find these effects – chiefly, widening class divides – all that bothersome. David Brooks is not one of them. Brooks prides himself on uniting two distinct, almost contradictory, political traditions: Burkean epistemological modesty, that is, the awareness of limits of what we mortals can know and engineer; and Hamiltonian activist government to encourage enterprise and nurture human capital. This potent blend – aimed at fortifying national power as well as a healthy social order that is the prerequisite for ordered liberty – is much too neglected on the right today.

When it comes to immigration, however, Brooks’ policy preferences comport perfectly with those in the party who have no patience for schemes to enhance social mobility and equality of opportunity. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Republican Reformism, Social Policy

A Better DREAM

The question of immigration reform has lost some of its salience of late, undoubtedly an upshot of America’s protracted economic distress. The credit crunch and tepid recovery has manifestly weakened the pull of the American immigration magnet, but not for long. It will come back, and when it does, the governing class would do well to depart from tradition and conduct a debate that Americans need and deserve.

It may be worth stating up front that an immigration reform bill is highly desirable, even quite necessary, to put right a system riddled with inefficiency, imprudence and unfairness. But that bill deserves to prevail only on the condition that it recognizes and reflects the complex balance of interests and principles that coincide on this delicate ground. The DREAM Act now before Congress, the latest stab at “comprehensive” immigration reform, is not such a bill. It deserves to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Continue reading

1 Comment

June 30, 2013 · 5:54 pm

Still Dreaming

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Those are the words of Abraham Lincoln, but they might just as well have come from Martin Luther King, Jr. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Political Philosophy, Social Policy

A Necessary Truce

Perusing Andrew Sullivan’s site today, I found myself in the strange – and unpleasant – position of agreeing with the Tory for Obama. After pointing to evidence that the rate of abortion is actually higher in countries where it is banned – and the procedures far more dangerous – Sullivan added a thoughtful comment. Citing his deep moral qualms with abortion on demand, he declared himself to be pro-life. This argument is routine. What came next is not: Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Social Policy

For Better Or Worse

It was a secret no longer well kept. President Obama, long officially opposed to marriage equality, has privately favored it for some time. He has now mercifully done the manly thing, announcing that his “evolution” on the matter has run its course. In itself, having a president explicitly endorsing marriage equality changes nothing. No law has been touched. But the bully pulpit works in mysterious ways Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Social Policy

The Rush of Dunces

The contraception lunacy, and Rush Limbaugh’s role in it, brings the conservative crisis into sharp relief. Those concerned with maintaining ideological “purity” on the right have few scruples about allies on this and other questions – “no enemies on the right,” as they say. What does not concern them is how well they are serving their cause. The only thing that matters is that Limbaugh, like Sarah Palin, has all the right enemies Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Republican Reformism, Social Policy