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Monday, February 17, 2020

Presidents' Day Questions for Ralph Hancock

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Ralph Hancock, a political theorist at Brigham Young University, is a fairly notorious figure in certain tiny Mormon slivers of the internet, which I happen to partake of regularly. I never took a class from him when I was a student at BYU, but I've interacted with him, in person and online, dozens of times over the decades; we're friendly, if not necessarily good friends. Recently, Hancock made waves with a piece he published in Utah's Deseret News (a Mormon Church-owned newspaper), arguing, in reference to the recent impeachment vote, that Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who voted, along with every other Republican save one, to find President Trump not guilty of the impeachment charges, had acted like a true statesman; Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to voted to convict Trump, had not. This is a position I disagree with, to no one's surprise. So this President's Day, I'd like to pose some questions for Ralph--not with any illusion that anyone's mind will be changed by voicing such questions, but because I honestly want to understand just what it is he's claiming about American statesmanship circa 2020, and why.

Ralph's short piece spends most of its length setting up a philosophical argument regarding the place and the nature of partisanship in our odd political moment, in which we (or, depending on what kind of right-wing or left-wing critique of American voting practices you prefer, "we" in scare quotes) govern ourselves through a pluralistic democratic arrangement wherein certain civic republican ideals and standards are nonetheless at least ritually given a place (the senators taking an oath to judge impartially, and not in accordance with political pressures, during an impeachment trial, for example). Ralph thinks Romney's speech explaining his impeachment vote demonstrates a poor understanding of the place of partisanship today, thus making his appeals to conscience and ethical and religious principles an annoying distraction. (He's made this argument similar to this about Romney before, charging him with failing to recognize that the "foundation" of civic virtues like "decency" and "civility"--which Romney condemned Trump for lacking, as he obviously does--are more "vulgar" virtues like "courage and loyalty," which Trump, in Ralph's view, has plenty of.) The key paragraph in this section, I think, is this one:

To take political responsibility is to reckon with the inevitable fact of partisanship. Anyone really interested in making a difference for the better for our country must recognize the need to have political friends and to beware of enemies. To recognize the reality of allies and adversaries is not to debase political action but simply to reckon with the actual partisan situation. The question is whether Sen. Romney has frivolously spent his political capital (in Utah, especially) or wisely traded it in order to make some powerful new friends in the national political arena....[I]t is hard not to question the otherworldly “profile in courage” of a political gesture that results in immediate celebrity among the great and powerful, if not among the more vulgar in Washington or in Utah.

I'd like to understand whether Ralph, who has insisted multiple times over the years that he is a strong advocate for "original constitutionalism," sees this as a necessary correction to Madison's (I agree flawed, but important and admirable all the same) claim that a properly constituted "extended republic" could effectively sideline the problem of parties (or "factions," as he put it), or whether he actually does hold with Madison, and instead simply believes that "reality of...the actual partisan situation" today requires fighting fire with fire. I'd love to learn it was the former, and thus be able to count Ralph, whatever our other political disagreements, as an advocate for pushing our system in a parliamentary direction wherein partisan divides are treated more honestly and responsibly. My suspicion, however, is that it's the latter, in which case the long theoretical case he makes in the first four paragraphs seems like so much throat-clearing.

Either way, the meat of condemnation of Romney's vote, and his praise of Lee's, comes immediately after this:

Senator Lee deftly framed his decision in the context of the larger partisan conflict over the design and purpose of our constitutional republic. For decades...progressives have worked to overcome the limitations of federalism and the separation of powers by transferring more and more power to unelected “experts” forming a virtual fourth branch of government, the bureaucracy. Trump’s alleged constitutional offense, from the standpoint of progressive or “living” constitutionalism, consists precisely in overriding the authority of expert bodies or the prevailing “inter-agency consensus.” Lee is a frank partisan of the original Constitution and a critique of its progressive reinterpretation. True solicitude for the constitution thus dictates, he concludes, not righteous indignation at the president’s use of executive power, but the defense of his Article II powers against the increasing arrogance of the fourth branch.

I would really like to understand better some of the assumptions Ralph is making here--assumptions which operate, I should note, without ever mentioning any details of the allegations about President Trump made in the articles of impeachment, thus obliging readers of Ralph's column to assume that the truth or falsehood of those allegations is irrelevant. Leaving entirely aside larger historical and theoretical debates over constitutional interpretation and the definition of "progressivism" being used here, the crucial leap I see here is the idea that the "experts" who expressed the "inter-agency consensus" against Trump's bribing or threatening or pushing of President Zelensky (presumably this is a reference to the testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vidman, and multiple others), actually constitute a unified body that seeks to operate as a "fourth branch of government," outside of the will of the executive or legislative branches That these individuals and others were actually operating within the reach of the executive branch--hence Trump's ability to fire them--complicates this assumption somewhat, especially in light of the centrality which Ralph grants to partisanship as a necessity of proper statesmanship.

While it is true that conservative stereotype of the progressive interpretation of the U.S. Constitution has involved the progressive empowerment of various agencies, boards, and other institutions within the executive branch, I have never heard it said that President Woodrow Wilson or other progressive bogeymen of the conservative imagination were empowering such agencies in order to limit presidential discretion by way of "expert consensus." On the contrary, the conservative knock against them has long been that these agencies and experts centralized power in the office of the presidency. So in what way, exactly, can executive appointees hypothetically undermining the actions of a president via expressing their critical judgment against him in impeachment testimony be understood as following through on a progressive agenda to centralize power?

I think I can imagine one way, but only one. If Ralph is a complete adherent to the theory of presidential power laid out by Attorney General William Barr, then presidential power must be understood as something that belongs not to the executive branch, but to a single person, wholly and entirely. The executive branch, under this (I think frankly ahistorical, and others agree) interpretation, then the people around the president must be understood as his partisan tools, nothing more or less. Thus, any Republican appointee of President Trump who dissents from or really is just in any way critical of Trump's actions has failed to follow their partisan role within the constitutional structure of the executive branch, and must be understood as acting independently, in alignment with those progressive forces, hiding behind their civil service protections, acting as an unelected, undemocratic force.

If this is correct, then Ralph is arguing--or at least as best as I can construct the argument--that if ours is to be a responsible constitutional democracy, it must firmly resist any kind of intra-party dissent within the executive branch, because absolute partisan unity is central to the executive (that is, the President of the United States) governing--including, I suppose, making phone calls--the way he or she chooses to, and giving the presidency wide freedom in what they choose to do holds off or at least hampers the development of an elite body of undemocratic, unelected others.  Hence, Lee is acting a statesman in voting in support of the president, and Romney, invoking an "impartial" ideal to justify his vote against the president which fails to reckon with the necessity of an executive being free from push-back from his own partisan tools, is not. Have I got this right, Ralph?

I think there are huge historical and theoretical problems with this, and I say that as someone who is entirely willing to dump on Madison, praise parliamentarianism, and join in rolling my eyes at obviously partisan individuals and organizations cloaking what they do in civic republican language. But that's not what Ralph has done here; I think he's made a different kind argument, one that I would really like to understand better, because not only does it not seem to fit the "original constitutionalism" Ralph has so long praised, but it doesn't even seem to entirely fit the conservative complaint against progressivism which so many adherents of "original constitutionalism" have long put forward. Yes, I know; Occam's Razor suggests that Ralph doesn't actually believe any of this; that's it's all motivated reasoning, same as my response, and that his column and my response here is all just so many pointless words tossed around. But noentheless I'd love to be humored, at least a little bit. Ideally I'd love to hear from Ralph himself, but if anyone would like to explain to me what I've misunderstood about his claims, I can't think of a better way to honor Presidents' Day than to argue about it all.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Religious Liberty and Joseph Smith in Park's Kingdom of Nauvoo

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Benjamin Park's Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier is going to be released in two weeks. You should buy it and read it. It's a first-rate work of Mormon history--the best book about this era I've read since Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling--and if it doesn't quite become the work of intellectual history that I think Park sensed writing the story of Joseph Smith and the Council of Fifty could become, it's not for lack of trying. Park takes up the many radical threads--political, economic, racial, and sexual--which were part of Smith's final, and greatest, effort to establish his vision of a distinct community, and weaves them together into a compelling, fascinating tale. And now that Park has provided an interpretation of Smith's kingdom-building which no previous historian was capable of--with the minutes of the secretive Council of Fifty only finally being made public in 2016--early Mormonism will likely soon find itself occupying a new and even more important conceptual place in the never-ending academic arguments about American democracy, religion, liberalism, and pluralism. Nerds like me who delight in such arguments will keep coming back to Park's work as a foundational treatment, and we'll be rewarded for doing so by Park's delightful read.

Those with more familiarity with the history of Mormon polygamy or economics might well have some bones to pick with Park's work. For myself, I just want to elucidate one particular thread. Central to Park's overall argument about Smith and the Council is what seems to me to be, in effect, a critique of Bushman. Bushman--who explicitly noted in his 2005 book that he's been denied access to the Council of Fifty minutes--developed an interpretation of the Nauvoo years of Smith's life as one of hurried, almost stereotypically American-style busyness. While Smith's concerns--building the temple, acting as a civic leader, receiving revelations, suing and being sued by his enemies, managing (and hiding) his polygamous marriages, plotting a run for President of the United States, etc.--were hardly those of a typical mid-19th-century American resident of the frontier, there was a similarity there all the same. Bushman's Smith, in the 1840s at least, no longer spoke of “an immediate end to the wicked world,” or of Zion as "refuge"; instead, more often than not he presented himself as a true "son of America," looking to build (or, if necessary, flee to) a power base from which his community, rather than enjoying a communal reprieve from the complications and inequalities of the world, could build something great (Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 415, 513). Bushman gave us, on my reading anyway, a Smith who had become, after Ohio and after Missouri, an American entrepreneur, engaged in political and economic and theological and sexual speculations until the very end.

Park does not dispute that the Smith of Nauvoo, IL, was looking to make something (and himself) great, not does he deny his speculative character. Park's access to the Council of Fifty minutes, however, allows him to bring in new details about the various political positions and arguments made by Smith and other Mormon insiders in the crucial year of 1844. Park presents a persuasive case that Smith's kingdom vision was, broadly speaking, far more illiberal and apocalyptic than Bushman's account implies. Not that Smith routinely trafficked in predictions about the end times, as so many other 19th-century frontier Christian leaders did; he was in fact quite notable in generally refusing to talk that way. But his conviction was that the existing American--and thus modern democratic--order was something that needed to be scrapped, and that the Mormon faithful needed to prepare themselves to step into the role of modeling for others--or even directly leading others into--what God next had in mind. As Park summarizes his argument in the book's prologue:

Mormons [in Nauvoo] rejected many laws that they saw as oppressive or unfair. Most fundamentally, they rejected the separation of church and state.....The beleaguered "saints," as they styled themselves, had concluded that democratic rule led to the oppression of marginalized people and voices....Rejecting democratic freedom, the Mormons felt the need to establish a new political order....Faced with the disarray brought by the voice of man, Mormons hearkened to the stability promised by the voice of God. This promised included priestly administration, coordinated voting, and patriarchy....They sought a Moses who could lead modern-day Israel out of its wilderness; the saints desired nothing less than to transform the world  (Kingdom of Nauvoo, pp.9-10).

The language there of "leading modern-day Israel" and "hearkening to the stability of the voice of God" could easily put you in mind--or, at least, it put me in mind--of Marvin S. Hill's 30-year-old treatise, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism. Though dated (and rather dry) in many ways, Hill's great theme--that Smith was an anti-pluralist almost from the beginning, dreaming of a "theocratic empire" as early as the 1830s, all as part of his longing to put an end to the squabbling voices and petty violence that constantly attended the early church--has resonance with Park's. Except, however, that Hill associated Smith's discontent with a "Calvinistic-like skepticism" of the ability of people to govern themselves; to Hill, Smith's treatment of dissenters, his presidential campaign, his endless (and almost always unwise) financial investments, could all be related to his desire to see power concentrated, opposition sidelined, and the threat of faction ended--to, in short, "dissolve all distinctions between sacred and secular and make them one" (Quest for Refuge, pp. xvi, 93, 97, 138, 148). For all the insight which Hill's research provided, I think Park's analysis provides a somewhat different and more intellectually rich take. Park's description of a key meeting of the Council of Fifty captures much of what is new and theoretically interesting here:

Though he was appointed "Prophet, Priest & King" at the morning meeting on April 11, that afternoon he delivered a discourse more traditionally republican in nature and centered on religious liberty. His new council would rule the world under the auspices of God's priesthood, but Smith insisted that they should always include non-Mormons within their ranks, as the Kingdom was separate from the church. Smith even initiated three non-Mormons into the council. He declared his intent to allow any citizen to think and worship as they please, as long as they worked within the boundaries of divine law. That citizenship in the kingdom required allegiance to Smith's prophethood did not seem to throw off that balance, at least in his view. To him, it was the only way to preserve order and reserve the religious liberties to the saints that he felt they had been deprived of. Smith became so animated during his discourse that he swung around a twenty-four inch ruler and broke it in two. In response, Brigham Young said, "as the rule was broken in the hands of our chairman so might every tyrannical government be broken before us." The world was theirs for the taking (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 204).

Park's description of this discourse, and of others subsequent to it, helps us see Smith's vision for the early Mormons as occupying a nuanced space between Hill and Bushman (though more cynically, one might say that a historical interpretation which places Smith in such a position is just an attempt to make consistent what were, on the basis of the evidence, arguably incoherent perspectives). Rather than Smith accepting the necessity of making himself into a player on the American scene, or Smith imperially insisting that all differences of opinion are threats to the truth, Park's Smith might be seen as suggesting a kind of rationalization of republican and religious principles. His rejection of liberalism and democracy in the Council of Fifty's records was not premised upon a denial of individual and collective rights and differences, but rather an attempt to discipline them to an overarching and divine necessity. Put another way, Smith could be seen here as proposing that people in their communities (their publics, in republican terminology) enjoy specifically situated freedoms under God's rule, but only insofar as such has been worked out within the particulars of His kingdom on earth--which meant, of course, by the mouth of Joseph Smith.

An interesting parallel might be the protected--though clearly distinct--dhimmi communities of Christians and Jews that existed under Islamic caliphate rule. Pluralism in belief, according to this way of reading Smith's formulation, would be both expected and tolerated, but also necessarily accepting that such diverse interests themselves would play no role in government whatsoever. Smith saw in such factionalism only the threat of popular majorities--and the travails the Mormons had faced in Missouri, including both violent mobs and what can only be called state terrorism, clearly taught them to fear that. Hence the need for an indisputable source of authority--what Smith called, referring to himself, the "proper source" (p. 206)--to put an end to divisions which, from Smith's point of view, simply gave license to those who use their local power to suppress others, either directly or through capturing weak law-making institutions. (It's notable that Smith proposed in his presidential platform that the size of Congress be reduced by half--p. 188.) But nonetheless, that indisputable authority would also be committed, as a matter of faith, to republican principles that respected the self-government of distinct (perhaps even, if Smith's late statements are to be taken as a guide to how his ideas were developing, sovereign--see p. 218) communities.

It's not hard to see this address and others pointing in the direction of William Richards later recommendations to the Council of Fifty after Smith's death. Since democracy, Richards argued, only works among groups of "men of congenial religions," it's right for the Mormons to separate themselves; to continue to tolerate the "promiscuous intermixture of heterogeneous bodies" is "distant both from pure religion and sound philosophy" (p. 250). Following these fragmentary thoughts to their conclusion, it is reasonable to read Smith's kingdom vision as one which asserted that to do otherwise than the above--that is, to centralize all communities together, or to allow for the violence of factional pluralism--would, either way, be tyranny.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as, at best, a clever bit of utopian rationalization. Still, genuine concerns held by the Mormon faithful--concerns about ineffective governments and hostile neighbors--lay behind these ideas, and unpacking their implications is worth doing. Interesting, both Park and Hill turn to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America as part of their unpacking. Specifically, both find Tocqueville's warning about the tyranny of the majority to have direct relevance to the story they tell; Hill quotes from that section of Tocqueville at the very end of his book (Quest for Refuge, p. 181), whereas Park sets it up at the very beginning (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 10). It's a connection worth making--certainly Smith's mature (however undeveloped) political thought absolutely deserves to be put into conversation with Tocqueville's canonical work on what it means to exercise power democratically in a diverse society. As a final point, though, it would be interesting to imagine Smith's response, in the midst of the heady imagining going on in the Council of Fifty, to the observation about intellectual uniformity which Tocqueville included as part of his warning. In this passage, speaking as an aristocratic foreigner taking in the very America which Smith and his followers struggled with and against, he strongly implied that the threat which he agreed factionalist majorities presented in American life was directly connected to the very American rationalist impatience with confusion, or really with anyone who disagrees with you--an impatience which Park's Smith shows on more than one occasion:

I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America. There is no religious and political theory that cannot be preached freely in the constitutional states of Europe and that does not penetrate the others; for there is no country in Europe so subject to one single authority that he who wants to speak the truth does not find support capable of assuring him against the consequences of his independence. If he has the misfortune to live under an absolute government, he often has the people for him; if he inhabits a free country, he can take shelter behind royal authority if need be. The aristocratic fraction of society sustains him in democratic regions, and the democratic fraction in others. But in the heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single elements of force and success, and nothing outside it (Democracy in America, vol. 1, part 2, chp. 7, p. 244).

In the end, Park's great work of history has given us the tools we need to start fitting Joseph Smith in with other American 19th-century radicals, and thus bring Mormon thought into dialogue with arguments over the history of, the limits of, and the importance of, liberal rights in a pluralist democracy, and whether or not a single divine law--even if "congenial" throughout a particular community!--can be part of the answer. Perhaps what I see in Park's interpretation as Smith's somewhat rationalized system of religious and communal political protections will be judged over time to be best forgotten (as, obviously, the church itself has; whatever lurking theocratic sensibilities exist in the church today likely owe far more historically to Smith's electoral machinations in Illinois--see pp. 154-160--than to his sermons before the Council of Fifty). But you can't forget something without knowing it in the first place. Park's book opens our eyes up to the goings-on in Nauvoo close to two centuries ago, for which we readers and Mormon history nerds owe him much thanks; what we do with it now is up to us.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Power, Friendship, and a Better Set of Democratic "Rules"

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

In the wake of the chaotic mess that was this year's Iowa caucuses, the politically inclined out there might not be in the mood for more fake news. Still, seeing clearly through the lies told about--and often, it seems, to ourselves--democratic politics can be a helpful thing. Hence my appreciation for Eitan Hersh's delightfully contrarian--and yet also genuinely encouraging--new book, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. Yes, I was turned off by that too-long subtitle too. I picked up and read a copy is because a former student of mine strongly urged me to, and I'm grateful for that too. What I thought would be another overly earnest political how-to book turned out to be packed with surprising, well-supported insights and recommendations, of the sort which anyone who believes in the value of defending one's values in America's broken-but-not-yet-abandoned democratic arena (and that should be all of us) ought to consider.

So what about that fake news? Well, first of all, studies show that lots of people lie about their political engagement: in one study, the number was as high as "50 percent of confirmed nonvoters say[ing on a survey] that they had voted in a recent election" (p. 46). A depressing fact, that. (Also worth noting is that controlled studies show the reverse isn't true: people who actually vote essentially never falsely claim to have not done so.) On the other hand, it seems that lots of people lie about their expressed political hatreds too, so that's a silver lining. While outrageous stories exist, the key point is exactly that word--such stories are magnified and echoed throughout the social media ecosystem for the purposes of performative outrage. According to Hersh's data, outside of a few rare actions and the subsequent overreactions to them by online audiences, the evidence for the high levels of contempt supposedly characterizing American politics is scant, about as deep as the "play hate" of sports fans, who will "report believing false claims" and "whin[ing] about their kids marrying [supporters of] their rivals" to about the same degree that committed Republican or Democratic activists report the same. In short, while some do experience "tension at family reunions," there is good reason to believe that, behind the surveys, most actually don't. In fact, it seems probable that the rancor presented as "poisoning" our political atmosphere actually just mostly consists millions of people who think its fun to "shout from the bleachers that the other side sucks" (pp. 33-34).

It is not a new criticism, of course, to point out that large numbers of Americans treat political debate as a sporting match, or better, as a hobby, with all the episodic intensity and general casualness that implies. The argument which Hersh develops in the book, however, takes the criticism of hobbyism in revealing and important directions. As he has laid out in a couple of recent essays in support of his book's thesis (backed up by a good deal of solid survey and social science research), the shouting-from-the-bleachers metaphor is not a general one. Rather, it mostly describes a population which is mostly more white, more college-educated, more male, more self-identifyingly "liberal," and more white-collar-employed than the American mean. Moreover, it describes actions that become more pronounced when a win is assumed, or when the candidate is personally exciting, or when the issue is "postmaterialist"--that is, more focused on narrow issues that lend themselves to moral identification, rather than broader socio-economic issues. Hence it is that we often--not always, but fairly often--see voter turn-out declining in tightly competitive races (p. 47), greater online enthusiasm for protecting dolphins and funding NPR than for anti-poverty programs (p. 62), more Democratic donors concentrating their money on high-profile fights than on nuts-and-bolts state-level legislative contests (p. 80), and protest actions that are more cathartic than strategic (p. 115).  In short, Hersh concludes (speaking very much to college-educated male white liberals with jobs in an idea industry--in his case, a tenured professorship at Tufts University--like himself):

So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it's alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It's boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side....When do we vote? When there's a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there's a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We're taking actions not to empower our political values, but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics (p. 82).

That paragraph might lead one to believe that Hersh's argument is very much in the localist and Luddite spirit of Neil Postman or Robert Putnam, two scholars who, in very different but related ways, made clear some of the corrupting effects which technology and professionalization have had on civic life. That belief wouldn't be wrong; there are plenty of arguments in this book--as well as plenty of sharp observations--which can be filed alongside every social critique of Facebook (p. 125) or of the enlightened "spiritual but not religious" posture (p. 102) you can imagine. But it wouldn't be entirely fair either. Hersh is no scold; he recognizes that our present-day information ecosystem makes possible a healthy engagement with ideas, and he's unwilling to dismiss the potential validity of "slacktivism" (the idea that social media-enabled token actions actually contribute to voter enthusiasm and civic participation--see pp. 137-141). The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the many persuasive claims Hersh makes are really best understood as a form of class critique. Let me unpack that interpretation.

I'm not saying that Hersh reduces all his data to a simple Marxist analytic; on the contrary, his book touches upon the historical developments (say, the rise of the primary system for choosing nominees--see pp. 49-50, 177-178), technological developments (the effect of instantaneous communication on making political connections--pp. 143-144), and structural developments (the changes in campaign finance and branding--pp. 131-132) which have contributed to the phenomenon he's describing. (If anything, especially when it comes to the way the primary process has been warped by campaign finance rules, he leaves the reader wanting more.)  But above these important variables there is, again and again, one truth that comes forward: those who are living more or less comfortable lives, lives that have, at least in their basic outlines, the support of America's majority establishment, tend to treat politics as a game--as entertainment. Which means they don't as much worry as much about actually canvassing neighborhoods or actually having conversations with those they disagree with; they're not as concerned about alienating potential voters or dividing their own potential movements--because they don't fundamentally need the power which democratic success can deliver, whereas others do. Just to highlight a few of Hersh's observations:

In gender studies of politics, the average man has been found to know more facts about politics than the average woman...[But in] actual political behaviors, as opposed to just survey responses gauging interest and knowledge, the gender gap often goes in the other direction. For a number of years now, women have been consistently more likely to vote than men. The progressive activist groups that have emerged since 2016 are overwhelmingly populated by and led by women (p. 97).

While non-white Americans, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, can engage in political hobbyism as much as anyone else, research on racial politics suggests some important differences....[W]hen I asked about how people use their time on politics, whites said they spend more time on politics than nonwhites, but that's only because they spend more time consuming news online. Blacks and Latinos dedicated a significantly larger portion of their political time to actual volunteerism than whites reported.... Among respondents who were not college educated...blacks and other minorities were three times more likely to engage in political volunteerism (pp. 185-186).

In communities with real needs, where stakes are high, where fears are palpable, politics and service are not different things....The meshing of politics and service happens in minority communities and immigrant communities...because group members feel mutual obligation to serve those needs. They feel a linked fate....[P]olitical mobilization happens not through the lethargic political parties, which generally no longer see their role as serving those in need, but in local community organizations, which help families facing legal issues, health issues, and work issues. These organizations know that part of the way they help is through political empowerment (p. 193). 

Fleshing out these observations are numerous hopeful and edifying stories that Hersh shares of people genuinely connecting with others, and building local democracy--and thus local power--through doing so. He tells his readers about 98-year-old Naakh Vysoky, who from his handicap-accessible apartment in Brighton, MA, has, over the decades, helped hundreds of Russian and Ukranian immigrants obtain citizenship, find apartments, secure jobs--and not coincidentally, got them to deliver their votes to elect a state representative who made sure the sidewalks from Naakh's apartment complex down to the subway line were shoveled every winter. He talks about Angela Aldous, a nurse, MS survivor, and veteran of the doomed Scott Walker recall effort in Wisconsin, who in her new home of Westmoreland county, PA, has built a service organization which provides transportation to doctors' appointments, finds housing for evictees--and not coincidentally, delivers votes that get congresspeople elected. Perhaps most importantly, he discusses Dave Fleischer, a pioneer of probably the only approach to political canvassing whose effectiveness has actually been subject to scientific tests, whose whole approach to civic engagement is premised on those classic neighborly virtues of  respect, reciprocation, and trust. It is built upon the idea of giving and receiving stories; it requires patience and understanding; it is socially awkward; and it requires, more than anything else, mixing ones political convictions with a sense of pluralism and humility. It's not a nationally scalable method by any means. But as a way of approaching the problem of political power locally? The evidence in support of it is not easily denied.

Early last year, I read a wonderful book by an old friend of mine, Michael Austin, in which he argued, on the level of history and psychology and philosophy, that there can be no future for America's democratic experiment without "civic friendship"; to reduce America's political debates to Alinsky-esque struggles over power is to deny the genuinely moral accomplishments which have attended 230 years of American self-government. As a call to a political ethos, I thought it was brilliant; as a diagnosis which unavoidably confronts ideological and structural realities in American today, though, I found it lacking. Hersh's Politics is for Power, with its detailed consideration of structural obstacles and ideological differences, is a marvelous complement to Austin's book. It tells us--or at least one set of us, a demographic set that really needs to hear it--that the civic work of actual face-to-face, small-scale engagement is the key to power, and friendship too.

With that mixture, one might imagine Hersh is setting out to reject Saul Alinsky and his famous argument for politically strategic confrontation in Rules for Radicals entirely. Instead, he never even mentions the man. Is that because he disagrees with Alinsky's ideas? I don't think so, at least not entirely (actually, I strongly suspect that Hersh would agree with Alinsky's condemnation of "consensus politics"--which he distinguished from the real work of compromise--as an ideal embraced solely by the comfortable or those who make a fetish of "reconciliation," usually both). Instead, I think it's simply because this is a different America, one transformed socially and technologically from that of Alinsky's a half-century ago. In a sense, our real elite "consensus" today is a lot of play argument, heaps of sound and fury which keep people comfortably separated in their pools of upper-middle-class online spite, while real harms are being perpetuated in the livelihoods of those--the poor, the refugees, the religious minorities, and more--who don't have the time or ability to endlessly respond to President Trump's ignorant provocations on Twitter. For those tired of the fake news and play hate, who are convinced by Austin and their own better natures that accomplishing something better is actually still possible within the American system, Hersh provides a new, detailed, 21st-century appropriate set of adaptable "rules" for us all, radicals or otherwise. (Peter Levine, a colleague of Hersh's and a scholar of civic life, gives a great example of locally adapting them here.) I'm grateful for these rules, and I think anyone who can pull themselves away from owning the libs on their phone long enough to read it will be too.