Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Week of Ideas and Anguish

Last Wednesday I flew to Washington D.C. for a busy APSA meeting--I presented a paper (one version of which you can find here), chaired the aforementioned discussion about conservatism with fellow bloggers Henry, Scott, and John (we hope to get their papers, plus our discussant's comments, up on Crooked Timber fairly soon), and served as a discussant myself on a panel on early 20th-century Chinese liberalism, which I probably sweated more about than any other event from the whole four days. (I don't think I've so much as thought about Sun Yat-sen, much less read anything about him, since I was getting my M.A., over a decade ago.) Plus interviews, plus meetings, etc. It was a very busy and engaging few days, as APSA always is for me. I know academics who get burned out on conferences, and perhaps someday I will as well, but so far I still crave them--they're where I get my batteries recharged, where I get jazzed on the latest argument or insight or publication. I'm lucky that I've been able to attend as often as I have.

Lucky--now there's an understatement. There I was, along with a few thousand of my professional peers, hanging around a couple of hotels in D.C., buying books, swapping stories, arguing over papers and drinks, going out to dinner. But not just that--because whenever there was a free moment, in the mornings or evenings or during the day, people were talking about Katrina and New Orleans, crowding around the TVs to watch the latest horrifying footage. Flooding, starvation, fires, chaos, violence, despair, disease, and massive, massive incompetence. It was the topic of almost every non-profession-related conversation I overheard or participated in; and in fact became the topic, either explicitly or implicitly, of more than a few of those discussions as well.

Two of such stand out. On Thursday I got together with Damon Linker, an old friend and our discussant for the conservatism panel on Friday. He told me about the David Brooks column from that morning, with its invocations of terrible, catastrophic floods from America's past (the Johnston, PA, flood in 1889; the hurricane which destroyed Galveston, TX, in 1900; and most importantly the awesome Mississippi flood of 1927), and the huge, and hugely unpredictable, consequences they have had on the socio-economic fabric--and the political leadership--of the country. He ended that column writing:

"[F]loods are also civic examinations. Amid all the stories that recur with every disaster--tales of sudden death and miraculous survival, the displacement and the disease--there is also the testing. Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come."

While talking about this over our snacks, watching CNN out of the corner of our eyes, my friend predicted the end of Bush. His approval ratings will be at 35% or lower within two weeks, and won't recover. The Democrats will be able to hang so much on him that it'll take a massive blunder on their part for Bush's record not to create a huge opening for them in 2008.

I was thinking about that discussion when, Saturday morning, I checked out a panel discussion on progressive politics in the U.S., with presentations by Rogers Smith and Bill Galston, and comments from Jeffrey Isaac. Each presented some fascinating information and controversial opinions; a great discussion overall. But what really stood out to me was Isaac's apparent lack of confidence in any of these devastating events to actually translate into reform or any kind of progressive political action at all. He said he certainly hoped heads would roll, that the voting public would respond productively to these terrible visuals of poverty, disarray, and finger-pointing . . . but he doubted it would happen. Instead he feared, he said, that the majority of American citizens have become so convinced of their isolation from, or so settled in their opinions about, public life that they simply couldn't be roused, much less led to demand accountability from, their (mostly Republican) leaders. President Bush will hug people and try to come up with money he's directed to be spent elsewhere, FEMA Director Michael Brown will talk about how hard he's trying, the libertarians will tell you that the government couldn't possibly have done any better anyway, and soon the masses will be led on to the next media event. (Katrina? That's old news. Yes, yes, all the refugees are starving in the Houston Astrodome, we know. But hey, Rehnquist died! Hit the Senate lights; it's confirmation time.)

I don't know which it'll be. Brooks's latest suggests that we are at the "bursting point," and that even Republicans are "mad as hell" at an administration which has systematically, if unintentionally, underfunded and misdirected the federal government's ability to fulfill its most basic responsibility: collectively providing security and aid at a time of crisis. Laura thinks that David is right: that no one "can seriously talk about small government now"; that "perhaps this will lead to more consciousness of the poor in their own backyard"; that seeing as how "one of the major accusations of the relief effort was that troops couldn't be sent in to Jefferson Parish, because they were in Falluja," we can be certain that popular support for the war in Iraq has probably ended overnight. I hope she's right. Certainly Brooks's columns are exactly the sort of thing which Timothy Burke ("I do honestly beg your pardon for saying so to those of you who are regular Republican voters, because I know you're not necessarily at all the same as the people who now represent your party on the national stage . . . [but if] you can't be bothered to draw the line between your decency and the screaming indecency of your leadership, then what's the point?") and Henry Farrell ("Bush and his friends and supporters tell us that they're conservatives. Conservatism, if it has any moral content at all, is supposed to be a political philosophy of values, of taking responsibility for one's actions and inactions. Not press conference spin, blame shifting and Potemkin relief efforts.") have been eloquently pleading for over the past few days. But does Bush read Brooks? More pertinently, do Republican voters? I think Damon was probably right at least insofar as that there's probably a couple of weeks worth of a window open, at most, for such anger to coalesce and have consequences. If his prediction isn't born out in that time, I fear Jeffrey's may be the more accurate one after all.


Anonymous said...

federal government's ability to fulfill it's most basic responsibility: collectively providing security and aid at a time of crisis. 

Russell, which provision of the US Constitution covers the federal government's most basic responsibility?  

Posted by Matt Evans

Anonymous said...

The statements in the Preamble to the Constitution, regarding domestic tranquility, the common defence, and the general welfare (the latter two of which are repeated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1), seem to establish the basic purposes of our government relatively clearly, at least to my mind, Matt. The "take care" clause in Article II, Section 3, may be relevant also insofar as determining the President's role in all this. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to agree with J.I. as well. I do think the worm will turn at some point, and the viability of modern Republicanism won't last, in large part because it's designed to fail and the long-term components of the political project are, to be kind, uneven. But I suspect we flatter ourselves when we think we see the event/political moment that will serve as the catalyst for the turn away from such matters and recognize as such in real time. 

Posted by djw

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I am kind of burned out on APSA-- there are other conferences I enjoy more... 

Posted by Scott Lemieux

Anonymous said...

I think there are a few issues Russell brings up that are important, but perhaps more complex than it first appears. First off, I think the Republican movement has long been at best uncomfortable with many Bush decisions. For instance they think he was right in Iraq, but horribly inept at not anticipating the insurgency, and for many for not doing better communicating especially to Europe in the run up to the war. (i.e. he was strategically inept and a grand political level) Likewise most conservatives balk at his massive spending. The more libertarian wing of the conservative movement also has strong issues with some of the so-called "compassionate conservativism." I could go on. The point is, and that progressives often miss, is that most conservatives are uncomfortable with Bush on many levels.

If Bush goes down (and I tend to agree he will, although three years is a long time in politics) it may energize the conservative movement. If only to repudiate what they see as Bush's many errors. (And FEMA is but one example)

At the same time, the progressive movement (hey, can't we just call them liberals?) has been massively incompetent at showing much leadership on most issues. They've been good at attacking, but not in showing alternatives. That was very true in the last election. Merely saying you're more competent isn't enough, even if it is true.

The other problem progressives may have is if someone like the Mississippi governor runs for office. It would basically neutralize them on the Katrina issue. And already many people are talking like that. (I like Condi, so I hope for some big successes in the mideast - both for the obvious reasons and because I think she's actually doing a pretty good job there, despite her limitations)

Bush's biggest problem is that he tends to go by his gut first impressions by people and doesn't hold people accountable. But that affects Bush and may possibly affect the midterms. But I'm not sure it'll affect the Presidential elections unless someone from Bush's cabinet runs (or in the off chance Cheyney does - but I don't think many seriously expect that). The problem in 2000 was that Democrats were dumb enough to nominate Gore with all the baggage he had from Clinton. I'm confident Republicans wouldn't do that. (Although as I said, I hold out some hope for Condi - but she has strengths others wouldn't.) 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that this whole thing will translate into a demand for more ambitious progressive (or as Brooks would prefer McCain-style "national greatness") politics. Couldn't the lesson as well be drawn that the government was trying to do too much , was spread too thin, and should focus on its core responsibilities? For instance, I could see the resurgence of a McGovern-style "come home America" movement (perhaps a fusion of left and right elements?) which makes solving our problems at home its focus (rather than spreading democracy and enlightenment abroad, putting an "end to evil", etc.). Of course, such a movement would also be anathema to mainstream liberals who are just as eager for U.S. to solve all the problems of the world as the neo-conservatives.

And, frankly, a fusion of Guliani-style law-and-order and McCain-style nationalism is not really appealing to me. (Teddy) Rooseveltian progressivism has its dark side. 

Posted by Lee

Anonymous said...

I would drop the "if unintentionally" between "systematically" and "underfunded," but otherwise I agree with Russell.

And it may be that Republican movement and conservative movement people are uncomfortable with Bush. But I'm with Matthew Yglesias here: Unless and until those people who are uncomfortable start voting that way, it won't matter a hill of beans how uncomfortable they get. United States Senators with an R after their name are in a position to do something with their discomfort. United States Representatives with an R after their name are in a position to do something with their discomfort.

They get to vote on Bush proposals all the time. And they have the power to craft a different agenda if they want one. Unless and until they do, their discomfort is worth about as much as used Kleenex. Watch how they vote, not what they say.

At present, 71 percent of regular Republican voters approve of the job Bush is doing with Katrina. Give Tim Burke more props; he's dead right to ask, "If [people who regularly vote Republican] can't be bothered to draw the line between [their] decency and the screaming indecency of [their] leadership, then what's the point?" 

Posted by Doug

Anonymous said...

As Russell said, the Bush administration faced a test of its basic functions, and it failed. Spending days last week waiting for something, anything to be done for victims of Katrina was an experience I won't soon forget. We've spent four years hearing about how Bush can keep us safe, and now we find out that all his top appointees at FEMA have are political flacks with no clue what to do in a real disaster. Are we supposed to believe that reaction to a major attack with no warning would have been any better? Ordering 1400 firemen from around the country to pass out FEMA fliers seems like a bad idea to me, but what possible justification is there for pressing 50 of them into service as backdrops for presidential photo ops ? From beginning to end, the performance of the Bush administration has been indefensible.

The real shocker was to see how many people are eager to defend the indefensible. I know, I shouldn't be surprised, but I haven't heard many conservative voices wavering far from the party line. I appreciate the few that have expressed some dismay, but it's dispiriting how few there are. If Katrina doesn't shake their faith in the Bush administration, nothing will.

Sure, the mayor and governor probably made some bad calls, but Bush is the one whose bureacracy and state apparatus wasn't just ravaged by a hurricane. It's been sickening to watch how far down the administration has been trying to push the blame. Memories of Abu Ghraib. Memories of the third presidential debate: "Can you think of any mistakes you've made in the last four years?" I see no evidence that Bush will ever change his answer. 

Posted by Jonathan Green

Anonymous said...

If there's some plan here that "real" conservatives, who despise Bush for excessive federal spending, are going to join with liberals who as of today despise him for not building bigger levees in Louisiana (on most days, liberals despise levees because they interrupt the "natural flow"), I can only say, that won't be a happy or productive coalition. 

Posted by y81

Anonymous said...

Buchanan is advocating the conservative shift:


Posted by ExtraMSG

Anonymous said...


The terms "general welfare" and "domestic tranquility" in I.8.i are a preamble to the section, and are defined in the subsequent clauses. The whole purpose of those subsequent clauses is to define the finite reach of Congress' reach. If "promote the general welfare" was a substantive provision, as you suggest, then the remaining clauses are unnecessary and superfluous. As you're trying to read it, Clause i authorizes Congress to do anything that promotes the general welfare or secures our domestic tranquility, then needlessly wastes ink in Clauses 2 through 18 authorizing Congress to regulate commerce, coin money, establish a postal system, raise armies, and do other activities that are clearly for the general welfare. Because the section includes a *finite* list of Powers that promote the general welfare, it is improper to read the section as granting Congress *all powers* that might promote the general welfare. Clause 18 makes clear that the list of powers is restrictive, authorizing Congress to make "all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers ." (Emphasis added.)

No matter how central you believe the responsibility to be, the Constitution's framers did not grant Congress the power to "collectively provid[e] security and aid at a time of crisis."  

Posted by Matt Evans

Anonymous said...

"Because the section includes a *finite* list of Powers that promote the general welfare, it is improper to read the section as granting Congress *all powers* that might promote the general welfare. Clause 18 makes clear that the list of powers is restrictive, authorizing Congress to make 'all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.'"

Well, this obviously takes us into an area that's been a can of worms ever since John Marshall decided his landmark cases. If the only action which Congress may take which is constitutionally "necessary and proper" is that which is laid out explicitly in Clauses 2 through 18, then Clause 18 itself also "wastes ink"--why specificy additional necessary and proper action for, say, coining money, when the foregoing already authorizes Congress to coin money? Marshall's conclusion, of course, was that there's a lot more going on in the Constitution than that. He assumed (I think rightly) that carrying out the foregoing matters of general welfare made both necessary and proper actions which are not, in fact, part of that finite listing of what presumably defines the general welfare. In other words, people form governments in order to promote the common good; if the conceived common good does not require action which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution, and if it is a common good which can be plausibly connected to those elements of the general welfare which the authors of the Constitution did  bother to explicitly list in Clauses 2 through 18, then it's all good. Which means, that if a reasonable determination can be reached that promoting the general welfare includes "collectively providing security and aid at a time of crisis" (and I can't imagine anyone except a very small minority of Americans share such a determination, since to think otherwise would mean that most of the Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, to say nothing of Homeland Security, are unconstitutional), then the federal government can and should step up to the plate. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

"The point is, and that progressives often miss, is that most conservatives are uncomfortable with Bush on many levels."

I've heard this for years now, but I no longer beleive it. 90% of Republican conservatives supported Bush last year (that's plenty more than Reagan ever had). Kerry killed Bush among moderates. One of my biggest irritations of the past 4 1/2 years is conservatives have been able to have a president who has been in so many ways disasterously right wing and yet keep all their ideals separate and intact. I've grown tired of arguing that Bush isn't a good conservative and decided that I don't know what the term means. Unless I want to insist on being a pedant I need to admit that 90% of conservative Republicans have it right about conservatism means and Bush is it. There are many types of right wing politics. Pushing a prescription drug benefit and filling the budget with pork doesn't mean you don't fall nicely into one of them.

That said, I agree that the political history of the last four years is quite good for most stripes of good old fashioned conservatism. The part of Bushism that really is neoconservative--the foreign policy--has gradually been discredited, while the tax base is smaller than it has been in living memory and conservative cultural positions have turned out to be electoral money in the bank.

Gore wasn't a stupid candidate (he ran a bad campaign and had Nader to deal with, but still won the popular vote), and the Republicans would have done the same thing if they were in that situation. You might say that they did in 1988. But the idea that they wouldn't do anything like that in 2008 isn't true either. The dream candidate of the GOP establishment right now is Jeb (who actually polls pretty well against Hillary). McCain and Guiliani don't inspire anyone in the Republican leadership with excitement. Forget about their ideologies (which make the likes of Tom DeLay shudder). Politically the GOP would be playing a completely different game come campaign time--rather than activiating a very culturally minded base in places like Ohio, Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana, they'd actually have to go after moderates. This is a game which they may end up not being very good at.  

Posted by Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

Your response is hardly universal, Russell Fox. When I see a natural disaster with inept responses at the local, state, and federal level (and, in surrounding states, competent responses), my first response isn't to think we need more federal spending and more federal programs. 

Posted by Adam Greenwood

Anonymous said...

I saw a comment of yours that mentioned Christopher Lasch over at crooked timber, which brought me here. I don't know how much you agree with the ideas of Lasch, but your approval of Laura's quote that "no one can seriously talk of small government now" caught my attention. I would think Lasch would have the opposite attitude toward that sentiment, at least at the federal level. 

Posted by cm

Anonymous said...

It wasn't a natural disaster, it was a man-made disaster contingent on a natural event that was going to happen eventually. Read Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disasters for a primer on how (in this case) a hundred years of bad decisions by people, in most cases fully knowing the consequences of their actions, leads to disaster that hurts a whole lot of people that don't get to make the decisions.

IF the Chinese have known since the Han Dynasty to "keep the river bed deep and the banks low,"; don't you think the feds know this too?  

Posted by Western Dave

Anonymous said...

I kind of sympathize with conservatives who support Bush no matter what. I spent 8 years disatisfied with Clinton's squandering of his considerable political gifts and damnit, in 2000 I had a chance to send a message to the Democrats by voting for Nader. Having seen the results of that choice by myself and others like me, I can't in good faith recommend that others do likewise.  

Posted by catfish