All taxpayers, to avoid having their income squandered in D.C., should go above and beyond the call of duty to minimize the amount they send to the IRS.
Which is why today’s column is a bipartisan love fest for Donald Trump and Joe Biden – both of whom have been very aggressive in limiting their tax liabilities.
Here are some details from the report in the New York Times about Trump’s leaked tax returns.
Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made. …His reports to the I.R.S. portray a businessman who takes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year yet racks up chronic losses that he aggressively employs to avoid paying taxes. …They report that Mr. Trump owns hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable assets, but they do not reveal his true wealth. …Most of Mr. Trump’s core enterprises — from his constellation of golf courses to his conservative-magnet hotel in Washington — report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year. …Business losses can work like a tax-avoidance coupon: A dollar lost on one business reduces a dollar of taxable income from elsewhere. The types and amounts of income that can be used in a given year vary, depending on an owner’s tax status. But some losses can be saved for later use, or even used to request a refund on taxes paid in a prior year.
It’s worth noting that the leaked returns didn’t show any unknown business ties to Russia. Nor do they suggest any criminality.
Instead, Trump appears to have relied on using losses in some years to offset income in other years – a perfectly legitimate practice.
…consider borrowing a tax-planning tip from Joe Biden. The former vice president…reported about $10 million in income in 2017 from a pair of S-corporations… The two entities were paid for the couple’s book deals and speaking gigs. …both S-corps generated a lot of income, they paid out modest salaries in comparison. …In 2017, the two companies paid the couple a combined $245,833 in wages. …any amounts the Bidens received as a distribution wasn’t subject to the 15.3% combined Social Security and Medicare tax. …Tim Steffen, CPA and director of advanced planning at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee. “…if you don’t report that income to the business as wages, then that portion of the income avoids Social Security and Medicare taxes,” he said.So how much did this aggressive strategy save the family?
The article doesn’t do all the math, but it certainly seems like the Biden household avoided having to cough up any payroll taxes on more than $9.75 million.
There’s a “wage base cap” on Social Security taxes (thankfully), so it’s possible that their tax avoidance only saved them about $283,000 (what they would have paid in Medicare taxes – 2.9 percent rather than 15.3 percent).
But that’s still a nice chunk of change – about four times as much as the average household earned that year.
As far as I’m concerned, we should applaud both Trump and Biden. Tax avoidance is legal. Even more important, it’s the right thing to do.
Though my applause for Biden is somewhat muted because he said in 2008 that paying more tax is patriotic. So he’s guilty of tax hypocrisy, which seems to be a common vice for folks on the left (the Clintons, John Kerry, Obama’s first Treasury Secretary, Obama’s second Treasury Secretary, Governor Pritzker of Illinois, etc).
For all his flaws, at least Trump isn’t a hypocrite on this issue (though all his spending may pave the way for future tax increases).
Category: US politics
Already before the Nov. 3 election we are finding out the things that can go wrong with mail-in ballots.
First, American Military News:
The FBI and the Pennsylvania State Police, investigating reports of issues with mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections in Pennsylvania, have recovered a number of discarded military ballots.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced the findings of their ongoing inquiry. According to the DOJ, officials recovered nine military ballots so far, all of which were cast in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The DOJ states the investigation has been ongoing since Monday and Election officials in Luzerne County have been cooperative.
It is unclear from the DOJ statement why the ballots were discarded and where they were found. The DOJ said some of the discarded ballots could be attributed to specific voters and others could not.
“Our inquiry remains ongoing and we expect later today to share our up to date findings with officials in Luzerne County,” the DOJ statement reads. “It is the vital duty of government to ensure that every properly cast vote is counted.”
The news of the discarded ballots comes as Trump has raised concerns, on multiple occasions, about the potential for problems with widespread mail-in balloting.
Katie Pavlich adds:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has found a number of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania discarded in the trash. They were ballots cast for President Donald Trump.
The Office of Inspector General is conducting an investigation after a box of mail was found in a ditch in Outagamie County.
According to a social media post shared with WFRV Local 5, the box was found on Tuesday and turned over to the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Office.
WFRV Local 5 reached out to the U.S. Postal Service for comment. Officials provided us with this statement:
We are aware of some mail, including absentee ballots, recovered in Greenville, Outagamie County earlier this week. The United States Postal Inspection Service has asked the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to conduct an investigation regarding these issues. The Postal Service will respond to the OIG findings once the investigation is concluded. We have no further information to provide at this time.
There have been some concerns over mail-in ballots in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
A federal judge recently ruled that absentee ballots in Wisconsin can be counted up to six days after the Nov. 3 presidential election as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature appealed the ruling. …
In April, Wisconsin election officials announced they were working with the U.S. Postal Service to locate absentee ballots that never made it to voters in time, including three bins in the Oshkosh and Appleton area. Wolfe said because absentee ballots had to be postmarked by Tuesday, those voters who didn’t vote in person but not have any recourse.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, and the country — or at least its political class — is descending into what will no doubt be a multi-week screaming fit. In fact, the screaming has already begun.
But that fact tells us something about the state of our nation, and it’s not anything good. When your political system can be thrown into hysteria by something as predictable as the death of an octogenarian with advanced cancer, there’s something wrong with your political system. And when your judicial system can be redirected by such an event, there’s something wrong with your judicial system, too.
The mess of our political system
Our political system, of course, is a mess in general. Partly because of the influence of social media, as I argued in my book, The Social Media Upheaval, and partly because America has arguably the worst political class in its history, pretty much everything seems to send it into screeching hysteria. (I’m old enough to remember when “activists” threatened FCC Chair Ajit Pai and his family over Network Neutrality, something that was a source of screeching hysteria a few years ago but that now hardly anyone even remembers). I have some ideas on how to fix that, but those will have to wait for another column. Suffice it to say that if what we’re looking for is a long time horizon, self-discipline, and a willingness to forego immediate advantages for the long-term good of the nation, we’ve got the wrong political class.
So let’s look at the Supreme Court.
Why does Justice Ginsburg’s replacement matter so much that even “respectable” media figures are calling for violence in the streets if President Trump tries to replace her? Because the Supreme Court has been narrowly balanced for a while, with first Justice Anthony Kennedy, and later Chief Justice John Roberts serving as a swing vote. Ginsburg’s replacement by a conservative will finally produce a long-heralded shift of the Supreme Court to a genuine conservative majority.
That shift matters because, for longer than I have been alive, all sorts of very important societal issues, from desegregation to abortion to presidential elections and state legislative districting — have gone to the Supreme Court for decision. Supreme Court nominations and confirmations didn’t used to mean much — Louis Brandeis was the first nominee to actually appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee — because the Court, while important, wasn’t the be-all and end-all of so many deeply felt and highly divisive issues. Now it very much is.
The point isn’t whether the Court got the questions right. The point is that it decided these important issues and, having done so, took them off the table for democratic politics. When Congress decides an issue by passing a law, democratic politics can change that decision by electing a new Congress. When the Court decides an issue by making a constitutional ruling, there’s no real democratic remedy.
That makes the Supreme Court, a source of final and largely irrevocable authority that is immune to the ordinary winds of democratic change, an extremely important prize. And when extremely important prizes are at stake, people fight. And get hysterical.
Almost as bad, the Court is highly unrepresentative. That doesn’t matter when it’s deciding technical legal issues, but once it starts ruling on social issues of sweeping importance to all sorts of Americans, its lack of diversity becomes a problem. And not just the usual racial and gender diversity. Every current member of the Court is a graduate of Harvard or Yale Law Schools. (Justice Ginsburg offered a bit of diversity there, having spent her third year, and gotten her degree from, that scrappy Ivy League upstart, Columbia University. But she spent her first two years at Harvard). All of them were elite lawyers, academics, or appellate judges before arriving on the Court. They are all card-carrying credentialed members of America’s elite political class. Which, as I mentioned earlier, is in general pretty terrible.
Justices used to come from much more diverse backgrounds. Until well into the 20th Century, many Justices — Justice Robert Jackson was the last — didn’t have law degrees, having “read law” after the fashion of Abraham Lincoln, and for that matter pretty much every lawyer and judge until the 20th Century. Many had been farmers, military officers, small (and large) businessmen, even in one case an actuary. But now they are all, in Dahlia Lithwick’s words, “judicial thoroughbreds” with very similar backgrounds, backgrounds that make them very different from most Americans, or even from most lawyers.
Our politics is dominated by a court that decides political issues
So to break it down: All the hysteria about a Ginsburg replacement stems from the fact that our political system is dominated by an allegedly nonpolitical Court that actually decides many political issues. And that Court is small (enough so that a single retirement can throw things into disarray) and unrepresentative of America at large.
In an earlier article, responding to Democrats’ plans to “pack” the Court with several additional justices whenever they get control back, I suggested going a step further, and add fifty new justices, one each to be appointed by every state’s governor. My proposal wasn’t entirely serious, being meant to point up the consequences of opening the door on this topic. But on reflection, maybe it was a better idea than I realized.
Under my proposal, the death or retirement of a single justice wouldn’t be much more than a blip in the news, instead of something serious enough that there are people talking about violence in the streets. A Supreme Court composed of 59 justices wouldn’t have the mystique of the current Court — you might believe in 9 Platonic Guardians, but the notion of 59 such is absurd. And since governors would presumably select people from their own states, it would bring a substantial increase in diversity to the Court.
Would my approach have problems? Sure. But would it be likely to bring America to the brink of Civil War? No. Which is a pretty major advantage over our present situation. Keep that in mind as we navigate the coming storm.
WFLA-TV in Tampa passes on this news conference with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis:
Gun Free Zone on the bill DeSantis announced:
Violent assembly, 3rd degree felony. Blocking the road? Felony. Don’t touch monuments (no mention of penalty) Harassment of Citizens in public accommodations also penalized, My most thunderous applause was when he announced that R.I.C.O. will be applied to those organizing or funding riots. If you are arrested in a riot, not Portland’s Catch and Release: you are staying till you see a judge. Touch a cop? Six months mandatory minimum. And enhanced penalties for other crimes committed during the riots. (ouch).
To municipalities “If you defund the police, then the state is going to defund any grants or aids coming to you.”
If local government is grossly negligent about a riot and let the Pantifa boys cause damage to citizens and property, Sovereign Immunity will be suspended for that government and citizens can sue the bejesus out of them.
If you are convicted of participating in riots, you will no longer be able to get state benefits or employment. Work for a living you scum!
Sounds good to me.
If you’re a public-minded student or teacher committed to reducing the death toll from Covid-19, what is the morally correct way to behave?
According to the epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, you should do just about the opposite of what’s being preached by college presidents, teachers’ unions, political leaders, and the scientific and media establishment. Unless you’re elderly or particularly vulnerable, you shouldn’t be wearing a mask all day, or shaming others for going unmasked. You should be careful not to endanger the vulnerable, but otherwise you should be exposing yourself to the virus in order to promote herd immunity.
Gupta, 55, wants to teach her classes at Oxford in person, without a mask, and she is appalled at her colleagues’ reluctance to go back to the classroom.
“It’s such a disservice to this generation of students,” she says. “Teachers and students who are vulnerable should have the option to go online, but for the rest of us this virus is no bigger than other risks we take in daily life. It’s not rational, and certainly not communitarian, to avoid being infected with a pathogen that carries such a low risk to you when there’s a high benefit to the community by helping to create herd immunity.”
Gupta’s strategy is heresy to the public-health establishment, but it seems to be paying off in Sweden, and her research team at Oxford has a far better track record on Covid-19 than the scientists whose work inspired the widespread lockdowns and mask mandates in the first place. In March, when Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College London terrified politicians and the public with its projections of Covid deaths—more than 500,000 in Britain and 2 million in the United States—Gupta’s team warned that this scenario was based on dubious assumptions about the virus’s spread and lethality.
The Imperial computer model assumed that most of the population had not yet been exposed to an exceptionally lethal virus, so lockdowns were the only way to avoid mass casualties. Gupta’s model, by contrast, assumed that many people had already been exposed without suffering serious consequences. That meant that the virus wasn’t so lethal and that the United Kingdom and other places were already developing herd immunity, making lockdowns unnecessary. Gupta was dubbed “Professor Reopen”—as opposed to Imperial’s “Professor Lockdown”—and she was pilloried along with the few others who shared her views.
Officials at the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health condemned the strategy of relying on herd immunity. Anthony Fauci, the White House advisor, said that it would lead to a “completely unacceptable” number of deaths—perhaps more than 10 million Americans, by one calculation published by scientists in the New York Times. A group of Swedish doctors and scientists denounced their country for keeping day-care centers, primary schools, bars, restaurants, and stores open, declaring in late July that the policy was leading to needless “death, grief and suffering” because Sweden was “nowhere near herd immunity.”
In fact, though, this strategy now seems to have fostered herd immunity in Sweden and other places. The number of daily Covid deaths in Sweden, which peaked at 115 in April, has averaged just two since the beginning of August. Fewer than 6,000 Swedes have died, a far cry from the nearly 100,000 deaths projected by the Imperial model. Per capita, the United States and Britain have suffered more Covid deaths than Sweden, and the fatality rates in the states of New York and New Jersey are three times higher than Sweden’s.
It’s true, as lockdown proponents often point out, that the fatality rate is higher in Sweden than in neighboring Nordic countries. But most of that disparity, according to a recent analysis by George Mason University economist Daniel Klein and colleagues from Scandinavia, is due to factors unrelated to those neighbors’ lockdowns, which were actually quite light and short-lived compared with those in Britain and the northeastern United States. (In Norway and Finland, for instance, schools reopened in May, and bars and restaurants reopened in early June.) Even before any of the lockdowns, Sweden was harder hit than its neighbors, partly because it had relatively more immigrants and international travelers, but mainly because of its larger proportion of highly vulnerable old people, particularly in nursing homes.
During the summer, Sweden’s critics pointed to seroprevalence surveys showing that fewer than 20 percent of Swedes had developed antibodies to the virus, well below the level of 60 percent to 70 percent assumed to be the threshold for herd immunity. But that was likely another mistaken assumption, Gupta’s team and other researchers believe, because the antibody tests miss so many people who are effectively immune to the virus.
Some of these people are immune because they have antibodies not detected by the tests, and many others—perhaps 20 percent to 50 percent of the population—have developed resistance through previous exposure to other coronaviruses. Once these people are accounted for, herd immunity could be reached even if the antibody tests show a prevalence as low as 10 to 20 percent.
That means that many places besides Sweden could have reached or approached herd immunity. In New York City, nearly a quarter of the residents tested positive for antibodies in the state’s survey in April. The city’s graph of Covid deaths maps a curve much like the one recorded in Sweden without a lockdown: a peak in April, falling to a straight line barely above zero since July, despite the city’s gradual reopening of restaurants and businesses. After looking at the data, one team of researchers recently concluded that New York City has likely crossed the herd-immunity threshold, meaning that a lockdown would not be necessary to protect the city against a much-feared strong second wave.
Herd immunity cannot eliminate deaths; like ordinary flu viruses, Covid-19 will remain endemic even if a vaccine arrives. But herd immunity ends the epidemic by greatly slowing the spread. The elderly and other high-risk people still need to be careful—and Gupta favors continuing policies to shield them from the virus—but the best long-term strategy for protecting them is letting low-risk people build up herd immunity right now.
That means reopening schools and allowing young people to study and congregate without masks. Martin Kulldorff, a Harvard epidemiologist and one of Gupta’s few allies, noted that not a single child in Sweden has died from Covid, and that Swedish teachers did not suffer unusually high rates of infection, even though the country never closed schools for those under 16 and didn’t force students to wear masks.
For American children under 14, the risk of dying from Covid is lower than the risk of dying from the flu or pneumonia, according to the calculations of Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. For teenagers and young adults, it’s much lower than the risk of being murdered. For anyone under 55, it’s lower than the risk of dying from accidents, from cancer, or from heart disease. If college students are willing to get in a car, why should they be terrified of sitting in a lecture hall? And why should they be reviled—much less expelled—for fraternizing with other students and helping to build up herd immunity?
“The Covid isolation strategies are accompanied by a lot of virtue-signaling and self-righteousness,” Gupta says, “but the costs are very high on the poor around the world as well as the young. I find it intolerable for teachers to ask youth to give up this important phase of their development—and to slow the development of herd immunity. If we really care about the common good and protecting the vulnerable, the rest of us should be willing to take a very small personal risk.”
I gathered with the entire student body of Wyoming Catholic College on Sept. 17, 2019, for a mandatory celebration of Constitution Day. We began with the Pledge of Allegiance, witnessed a lively panel discussion between professors on the history and modern relevance of America’s founding principles, and concluded by singing patriotic songs.
If you are a student at a typical American university, that description probably sounds foreign to anything you have experienced. Anti-Americanism has spread across college campuses like a wildfire, igniting rage and resentment against anything perceived as oppressive — even the American flag. As a result, most universities would likely shy away from a celebration of our nation’s founding in favor of more “inclusive” events.
And that’s why university officials have been among the first to lash out at President Donald Trump’s still vague calls for “patriotic education” in our schools.
In a Gallup poll this June, only 63% of U.S. adults say they are either “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be American, the lowest level of patriotism ever recorded since Gallup first asked the question in 2001. Among members of my generation, the youngest surveyed, patriots are in the minority. Only 4 out of 10 respondents ages 18-34 claim to be extremely or very proud of being American.
Unfortunately, many people my age do not believe that America is worth loving. This position is certainly understandable. Recent riots, violence and corruption remind us that America is far from perfect. Patriotism, however, does not claim a country is without flaws. In fact, many people who identify as patriotic do not always feel proud of their government, their fellow citizens or even themselves.
As English author G.K. Chesterton explained, patriotism treats one’s country like a family member — you love it simply because it is yours, and that love motivates you to mend any imperfections. Today, that motivating force is rapidly receding.
Mark Twain defined patriotism as loving your country all the time and your government when it deserves it. Bill Clinton said you cannot love your country and hate your government. He was wrong.
But there’s nothing new here. The medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas once observed, “Love follows knowledge.” Love of country is no different; I believe our lack of patriotism stems from a lack of knowledge.
You would think knowledge isn’t in short supply, considering members of Generation Z have grown up with smartphones and, according to Pew Research Center data, are on track to be the most highly educated generation yet. Yet in a typical American university, a basic account of the nation’s history is hard to come by.
A 2016 report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that more than two-thirds of top U.S. colleges do not require history majors to take a single course on United States history. Instead, several colleges require history majors to “complete coursework on areas outside the United States.”
This trend is disturbing, to say the least. This standard for history education is a cafeteria-style menagerie of classes that emphasize a global timeline over the events that have shaped America. Without knowledge of our country’s particular history, we lose a sense of our shared identity and its characteristic values, including perseverance, integrity and freedom.
The problem extends well beyond a simple lack of information. A 2019 Title VI complaint filed against the UCLA alleges a professor cited “killing people, colonialism and white supremacy” as American values. On the contrary, they are stark departures from the goals of freedom and equality lauded in our founding documents.
The principles of the founding should be lauded as guiding stars amid the stormy sea of relativism, not extra weight to be thrown overboard.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some colleges — like mine — offer a holistic perspective of American history and honor our characteristic values. If you are a proud American, consider attending or supporting these colleges and aspire to continually fulfill the mission of our Constitution’s preamble: to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The stakes are higher than ever, and we hold the nation’s fate in our hands.
There was an enormous amount of video shot that night in Kenosha, mostly by citizens with iPhones. We have video of all three of the shootings Kyle Rittenhouse was involved in. Critically, we also have video of the moments that preceded those shootings, the context. We’ve already showed some of that video to you but tonight, we will show you more. New never before seen footage of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha. Now, what you’re about to see comes from the non-profit “Fight Back” that was formed by Rittenhouse’s defamation attorney, Lynn Wood. For the last month, there’s been an enormous amount of propaganda surrounding this case and virtually all of it has come from the left. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts for example, denounced Kyle Rittenhouse as ‘a white supremacist domestic terrorist.’
Now, there’s no evidence that is true. There never has been any evidence, it’s a lie so far as we know. So the questions is, what else are they lying about? Tonight we will show you context from that night and we’re going to let you decide what happened. Here to begin, is video of Kyle Rittenhouse hours before the shootings took place. Now again, what you are about to see comes from a group, a nonprofit, founded by Kyle Rittenhouse’s defamation attorney. Here it is.
NARRATOR: To prevent the total destruction of their community, good Samaritans united to guard local businesses. Among them was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse.
KYLE RITTENHOUSE: So people are getting injured. Our job is to protect this business and part of my job is also helping people. If there’s somebody hurt, I am running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle, because I need to protect myself obviously, but I also have my med kit.
NARRATOR: Earlier that day, Rittenhouse volunteered to remove graffiti from [a] high school in Kenosha.
CARLSON: That was the day and then night came. Kyle Rittenhouse found himself in downtown Kenosha in the middle of a riot. He wound up face-to-face with a convicted child molester called Joseph Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum was there protesting on behalf of BLM, apparently he was committing arson. What happened next between the two of them is graphic, but if you want to understand how Joseph Rosenbaum died that night, it’s important to see it. Here it is.
NARRATOR: Joseph Rosenbaum is seen starting more fires. Around that same time, Kyle Rittenhouse was spotted running with a fire extinguisher. With his face concealed, Rosenbaum emerges, chasing after Kyle Rittenhouse. A single gun shot is fired by a protester identified as Alexander Blain. From this angle, we see the muzzle flash of Blain’s handgun. Seconds later, Kyle Rittenhouse is pinned between parked cars. Directly in front of Rittenhouse, armed with bats and other weapons, a mob is forming a barricade. With no way out and no way to know who fired that shot, Kyle Rittenhouse turns to face Rosenbaum. Kyle Rittenhouse fired four shots. Seconds later, three additional shots are fired by an unknown shooter. One bullet grazed Joseph Rosenbaum’s head, another penetrated his right groin, his left thigh, and his back. With a total of eight shots fired, it remains unclear that all four of his wounds were caused by Rittenhouse.
CARLSON: So to restate what we know, Kyle Rittenhouse fired four shots initially that night. Another four were fired. We still don’t know who fired them all, no one else has been arrested or charged. At this point, the mob turns on Kyle Rittenhouse. They assault him, it’s clear they plan to kill him. Kyle Rittenhouse runs, they follow, Rittenhouse trips and falls, they attack him, he shoots. It’s all on video. Watch.
MALE #1, UNKNOWN: Hey, what are you doing? You shot somebody?
RITTENHOUSE: I’m going to get the police.
NARRATOR: An unidentified protester strikes Rittenhouse in the head, knocking his hat off. Rittenhouse trips and falls to the ground, another protester attempts to jump on Rittenhouse who then fires two shots into the air. With blunt force, another protester strikes Rittenhouse in the back of the head with a sharp edge of a skateboard, then reaches for the rifle. Rittenhouse fires a single shot striking the man in the chest. A third protester fakes as if he is surrendering, then suddenly has a handgun aimed at Rittenhouse. A single shot strikes the man’s right bicep. While visiting him in the hospital, a friend of [the man who was shot in the bicep] posted the following photo and statement on social media: “I just talked to Gaige Grosskreutz too. His only regret was not killing the kid and hesitating to pull the gun before emptying the entire mag into him.
CARLSON: So that’s what happened that night in Kenosha.
At some point — Jan. 20, 2025 at the latest — Donald Trump will no longer be president.
Some believe that Trump has fundamentally changed the Republican Party specifically and conservatism generally. Others don’t, believing that Trumpism isn’t really an ideology.
Whether you agree with the first or the second assertion, there is likely to be a GOP (of course, nothing lasts forever), and there will certainly be a conservative movement, after Trump. What we call conservatism today has existed for more than 200 years, and the GOP came into existence in 1854 in Ripon.
What that might look like is explored at length by Martin Skold and J. Furman Daniel:
Society is never static, and conservatives do not—or at least should not—want it to be. What conservatives should want is continuity: a sense that the society that they preserve, protect, and care for is the same one they looked after yesterday. Societies, like people, change—but they should not self-destruct.
In a previous Bulwark article, we asked what was left to conserve about the United States, and offered some thoughts on what could form the basis of conservatism in the present era. We pick up here with an opposite question: What must we conserve about conservatism, and what must change?
This is no mere academic exercise. Our cities are burning, our people are divided, our foreign policy is adrift, and our nation is literally sick.
Some of the blame for these problems belongs to the left, but by no means all of it. For a two-party system like ours to function properly it must have a viable and healthy conservative party. America needs a governing consensus, so that it can know what is too much and what is not enough, what is on the table and what is not—and that implies having both a liberal or progressive party and a conservative party, and between them some sort of consensus about the boundaries of the policy debate.
These failures of ideas and leadership were evident long before the 2016 election. While Donald Trump, as a candidate and as president, has been able to exploit the country’s polarization, it did not originate with him. Moreover, should he recede from the scene, it will be more, not less, necessary to attempt to make some sense of a chaotic Republican party. Doing so will require reassessing what about the old conservatism retains relevance and vitality.
This is particularly topical, given the GOP’s recent decision not to make any changes to its 2016 platform at the 2020 Republican National Convention. In doing so, the party has allowed to stand policies it has already (for better or worse) repudiated, such as support for regime change in North Korea, as well as others that the general public has repudiated, such as gay conversion therapy. By failing to examine its own policies, the GOP has, in effect, decided to “let go and let Trump.”
Note: The platform of every major party in my lifetime has been whatever its presidential nominee wants it to be, or at least has been whatever its presidential nominee would not reject.
The Republican party retains some intellectuals, but if it continues to substitute a personality cult for a real program of governance, it will have fully forsaken the appellation bestowed upon it by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1980—a “party of ideas”—and truly become what liberals think it is: the “stupid party.” At a time when the United States could especially use a real conservative party, this behavior is unconscionable.
To sort through the chaos, we offer here some thoughts on the future of American conservatism and the Republican party, broken into a series of questions that run through a range of options: What can’t we change? What shouldn’t we change? What could we change? What should we change? And finally: What must we change?
What Can’t We Change?
Let us begin (like good conservatives) by emphasizing continuity: articulating what must be conserved about conservatism. We are looking for its essence—its sine qua non; those principles without which American conservatism would cease to exist or become a monstrosity.
Fundamental to American conservatism is the fusion of the classical liberalism of America’s founding and the basic social intuitions of conservatism. Neither one can stand on its own: America is not America without the liberalism of the Founders, and classical liberalism on the American right is protected, rather than undermined, by very basic conservative principles and instincts—such is the nature of conserving a liberal republic. In the application of these broad intuitions much variance can occur. The list that follows is not exhaustive, but an exhaustive list would include all these items.
Individual rights, limited government, the Constitution, and classical republicanism.
As we noted in our previous Bulwark article, borrowing from George F. Will, the ideological core of American conservatism has always been a belief that the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and the sentiments that produced them, are fundamentally good. This is so for classically liberal reasons (they form a complete, internally consistent and comprehensive system of political values) as well as for conservative reasons (a community cannot throw out its founding documents without profoundly harming itself). This basic understanding of America’s foundation and founding principles cannot be abandoned.
The difference in values between conservatives and their opponents has in recent history been characterized by the question of state expediency and individual independence. The government, in conservatives’ general understanding, represents individual citizens in areas that must be held in common, such as defense, law enforcement, foreign policy, adjudication of civil disputes, and perhaps in a limited fashion provides insurance against economic and environmental force majeure. It must be responsive to citizens’ concerns and serve their interests according to a social contract; it must not be understood as a separate body that disciplines its citizens and holds authority over them apart from what they appropriately delegate to it.
American conservatives tend to understand government in Jeffersonian and Madisonian terms: It is there to guarantee individuals’ rights, including the fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights that ensure that the government will not become dangerous to its people. If respect for these rights means that some progressive goals are unattainable, then it is the goals, and not the rights, that must yield. This understanding of the social contract is too essential to conservatism for it ever to be given up. It is, in fact, too essential to America for it ever to be given up.
For this reason, we anticipate that any future conservative movement or party would remain fundamentally pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, since these positions on these longstanding controversial issues are rooted in the Bill of Rights, classical republicanism, and classical liberalism. Some disagreement around the edges of these positions is to be anticipated, and a reinvigorated conservative movement would likely accept a wider range of views on these matters, as it did in the past. In basic terms, however, opposition to the state-sanctioned killing of unborn children and support for the right of self-defense would remain part of the conservative sensibility.
Respect for religion and a commitment to religious freedom.
Speaking of respect for rights, conservative respect for traditional religion must be retained. Institutional religion helps to order society and provides meaning and purpose to human life. And respect for individual religious practice, as long as it does not infringe others’ fundamental rights, is not only deeply engrained in our national self-understanding—as religious freedom was one of the motivators of the settlement of some of the American colonies—but also recognized in the First Amendment. Defense of religious freedom will always be on the short list of conservative principles.
This idea draws almost entirely on the classical conservative tradition. Conservatives have long believed in the connection of individuals to community and of present community to the past and future. They have in particular prized the idea of stewardship—the understanding that however much or little one has acquired from one’s forebears, one has the obligation to preserve those good things one has inherited and pass them on to ones descendants in at least as good condition as one received them (and, if this is not possible, to conserve what one can). This applies to laws and institutions, to wealth and prosperity, to one’s own and one’s family’s good name, and even to smaller traditions that define a community—as simple as a favorite holiday recipe, a treasured heirloom, or a communal ritual. Such things may be trivial, and the conservative value of prudence must counterbalance unreasonable zeal in the preservation of those things whose time has come and gone—but conservatives are right to understand that communities are sustained by the things they share in common and across time. The intuition that one’s country is becoming unrecognizable, though in need of careful reflection and appropriate application, is a valid expression of conservatives’ core sensibilities.
An essential conservative value that must carry forward is prudence—the humble recognition that caution must be exercised in handling major decisions, and that the more important the matter at hand, the more care must be applied. This does not mean never making a major change and cannot mean never making a major decision, but it does entail a sensibility that the greater the anticipated effect of a decision, and the more passion has entered into debate, the more care one should take in thinking about one’s position. As Chesterton famously suggested, you ought not to destroy a fence before you have learned why someone bothered to put it up. It does not mean one should never make a change (destroy the fence), but it does mean one should not rush into a change without considering the context and social fabric into which that change is woven.
Under President Trump, conservatives have arguably become less prudent, following along with his disdain for institutions and abrupt and haphazard decision-making. Going forward, conservative prudence ought to be restored.
The pioneer spirit.
The story of American greatness includes settling a lawless frontier; braving hazards for a chance to believe and profess the dictates of conscience; crossing plains, mountains, and deserts in search of a new life; immigrating with few means to harsh cities in search of a mere chance at personal advancement; escaping slavery, fighting to end it, and then pushing for equality and advancement; starting businesses and inventing new technologies—and ultimately applying all of this to the defeat of great evils and the protection of the free world.
These particularly American myths, whatever their inaccuracies and imperfections, inform the conservative ethos of independence, problem-solving, and participation in a great story of perseverance against all odds.
Invoking these images is often unfashionable, but conservatives (who are supposed to look beyond fashion) have good reason to retain these myths and call upon their fellow citizens to exemplify them; they are the tropes of America’s national story, without which America cannot be conserved.
What Shouldn’t We Change?
This next category is less absolute—it refers to those conservative precepts that are not essential but are nevertheless important enough to be worth preserving.
Localism and federalism.
In principle, there is nothing in classical liberalism or conservatism that prescribes exactly how resource allocation and decision-making are to be handled by a republic, and although constitutional requirements must always be respected, the degree to which they are to be preserved and defended may vary. Nevertheless, the conservative movement will in the future likely continue to stick to its longstanding preference for respecting state and local authorities’ autonomy unless fundamental constitutional rights are being violated.
The reason for defending localism and distributed governance in an era in which local matters are widely brought to national attention is exactly that: Not only do the needs of citizens in different communities vary, but any solution to the mob culture that we currently have, and that conservatives should abhor, will require a recommitment to “small-r” republicanism at state and local levels.
In part, Americans retreated from republicanism as they accustomed themselves to passive acceptance of an order seemingly too big for them to manage, run by oligarchs of varying types. The recovery of American political sanity will require the recovery of a can-do mindset relative to governance, with citizens participating as voters and advocates rather than either passive subjects or irate protesters.
This is best achieved in environments where votes count. The U.S. Congress, by contrast, is situated at a sort of sweet spot for dysfunction: There are just enough members of Congress to pass blame among themselves but not enough for any individual member to be responsive to, and be held accountable by, constituents. Pragmatism alone, to say nothing of ideology, will dictate that localized governance remain a plank in the conservative platform.
Basic fiscal conservatism.
Conservatives long believed—and conservative elected officials at least paid lip service to the belief—that taxpayer money is a public trust, to be spent wisely and, where possible, sparingly. In recent years, the Republican party has all but discarded this concern. But as federal debt continues to skyrocket—it now stands at about $26 trillion, double what it was a decade ago—it makes sense to return to the ideal of fiscal independence for taxpayers and not to pursue policies that further entrench them as permanent wards of the state.
What Could We Change?
At this level, we are moving from rigid essentialism to (gasp) policymaking. There is plenty of room here for new thinking—rather than just rehashing old disputes.
Perhaps the biggest way in which conservatives could reconceptualize their movement is, to return to an older way of doing things: specifically, a bigger tent with more flexibility in exchange for greater buy-in.
The basic problem here is that the party of federalism is becoming overcentralized. The Republican party is, of course, a federation of state parties that are, in turn, built on local parties. The national party’s platform is treated as a joke in some circles; it sometimes seems that its chief function is to provide opposition research on the party’s weirdest members. Nevertheless, there is a strong informal orthodoxy in the Republican party that proposes one-size-fits-all policy solutions and punishes independent action, an informal orthodoxy that has only grown in the era of Trump. This is not only inconsistent with the principle of localism described above, but is unrealistic and unproductive.
The personality cult that surrounds Donald Trump is well known, and is what has allowed Trump to manipulate Republican lawmakers from Congress on down so effectively. But we would argue that Republican litmus testing and ideological puritanism is at once both older than Trump and also, comparatively speaking, quite recent.
Prior to 2008, the Republican party was a big tent on a range of issues. Not only did it make compromises on abortion (Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins) and gun control (Rudy Giuliani) to win elections, but this big-tent attitude extended to other matters as well. Regionalism was common, with lawmakers working across the aisle for their states and areas of the country, and backroom dealing over fiscal small change kept the peace. Although the 1990s are often regarded as the harbinger of gridlock to come, including two government shutdowns, they were also a time in which basic governance got done, including aspects of policy that the congressional Republicans favored, such as welfare reform, and necessary compromises, such as on defense spending and balancing the budget. This minimally effective governance largely continued into the Bush era as well.
This changed after the election of the Tea Party Congress in 2010, which effectively ended any sort of deal-making by ending earmarks, and whose operatives aggressively primaried moderate Republicans even when the winning Tea Party candidates were odds-on favorites to lose. In many cases, the products of this could only be described as weird (Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell), but even the relatively sane and normal senators and representatives were ideological purists, or were expected to toe policy lines given to them by purists.
The Tea Party’s extremism and antics are not the point—the inability of the Republican party to move beyond them is. From 2010 onward, the Republican party was a parliamentary party in the British sense—despite being nominally decentralized, it hewed tightly, nationwide, to orthodoxy set by a relative handful of people, as long as the people in question satisfied the Tea Party’s litmus testing.
During this time, the amount of legislation passed by Congress cratered, the percentage of times individual senators and representatives voted with their own party approached its theoretical limit, and the Republican party became famously obstructionist and uninterested in governance. It shut the government down and threatened to prevent the United States from servicing its debt. It is hard to doubt that this contributed, in a predictable vicious cycle, to the Republican siege mentality that ended in Trump’s nomination and election.
It did not have to be this way, and in fact there was at least one notable case that went in the opposite direction: The Republican Senate conference scored a rare pick-up in 2010 when Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts. Though buoyed by Tea Party enthusiasm, Brown was a moderate Republican of the New England model, with a moderately pro-choice abortion position and a relatively left-wing position on gun control. His election was a welcome development for opponents of the Obamacare legislation then before Congress, but more to the point, it moved the needle very slightly in the direction of a return to the older model of a regionally distributed party.
For ideological purists, Brown would have been no great success. But as a glass-half-full in a region from which the Republican party had been virtually extirpated, his election offered obvious benefits. This model can be copied—and in fact is being copied at present, with Republicans rallying around Susan Collins and her unapologetic willingness to put her state first. Such compromises to regional variation will have to continue if the Republican party is to rebuild from the siege mentality into which the Tea Party led it. After all, for conservatives the world is always going to hell in a handbasket—the question is simply how to salvage what one can.
A model that might make sense for the future of the Republican party is that of the Scottish Tories, who are formally linked to the U.K. Conservative Party but who, on the long fight over Brexit, took their direction from their regional party leader Ruth Davidson instead of from Theresa May and her advisers. This was not ideal from a party unity standpoint, but it was better for all concerned: Scottish voters got a center-right option, and the Conservative Party got more seats.
A Republican equivalent might involve an urban renaissance, with urban Republicans opposing Democrats while disavowing connections to Trumpism or to Republican national rhetoric that does not help them electorally. Alternatively, the divergence might be regional—something like this appears to be underway with centralized Republican support for Collins despite her heresies on issues such as abortion and her refusal to endorse Trump.
Making this work would require pragmatism—conservatives might profess strong allegiance to core principles while being willing to accept 80 percent or even 51 percent orthodoxy in order to build a coalition. But it might be better than nothing, and there are aspects of conservative performance in various regions and demographics that suggest rock bottom has been reached and improvement might be easier than it seems.
We bring up education an example of an issue to which conservatives have given too little detailed thought. It can stand in for a host of other issues on which conservatives have shown a similar lack of serious policy thinking, and have failed to meet voters where they are.
Whatever Republicans think about public education, and whatever policy proposals their think tanks generate for handling it, these obviously do not resonate enough with voters at the state and local levels to produce Republican policy successes. This no doubt contributes to the famous Republican inability to win elections in many urban areas. When it comes to education policy ideas that will attract voters, the suggestion box is mostly empty. It should not be.
Possibly the most notorious cautionary tale in this area again stems from the Tea Party era. Post-2010, amidst a state fiscal crisis, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker famously took on the state’s teachers’ unions over pension bargaining rights. The reforms saved some money—at great cost in general acrimony and hard feelings that ultimately led to an attempted recall election—but no alternative vision for the state’s education system was proposed. Nor were Wisconsin Republicans in any great hurry to do anything about schools at the local level. (In fairness, the debate generated a few new ideas, such as holding schools to account for not meeting standards and relaxing teacher licensing requirements. But this short list may illustrate how limited the discussion actually was.)
Maybe that’s because Act 10, which applied to all state and local government employees except police and not just school districts, was about reducing costs in the middle of a budget crisis.
Conservatives are justified in their concern for the excessive bargaining power of public-employee unions. But they miss an opportunity if they enter policy debates solely to oppose and berate, and the case of education reform is probably an area in which they have been notorious for this of late.
Something similar obtains at the national level in the slow-moving crisis of federal student loans. Famously understood as a financial protection racket that forces high school graduates to take out heavy debt to finance ever more expensive college education all so that they can compete with other students doing the same, the federal student loan program has saddled American students with an estimated $1.4 trillion in debt, more than doubling since 2008. The situation is untenable and calls for a long-term solution.
The most that Republicans have offered of late has been complaints that college students are wealthier than average (partly true) and that colleges and universities have become postmodernist temples with declining educational standards (arguably true, but beside the point).
Thus, all Republicans seem to offer is to complain about the problem. But talking points and policy are not the same things, and the basic problem—that attaining the American dream increasingly involves buying into a rigged game that wastes ungodly amounts of money and strangles opportunity—is thus left unsolved. More thinking is called for; it is not being done.
There are many reasons Republicans have trouble winning elections in cities and among young people. But the refusal to deal with what is in front of them, as opposed to complaining about it, is probably near the top, and education policy is a perfect example of how this happens.
What Should We Change?
This brings us to a stronger imperative: What is going badly? While the list could include a wide range of issues, such as climate change, homeland security, the war on drugs, and matters relating to the family, we want to highlight two issues in particular need of reevaluation.
In the short term it is appropriate to support necessary moves to keep violent protests from destroying property or escalating to shooting. But there remains the question of how to approach violent overreach by law enforcement. There is a crying need for conservatives to denounce and punish excessive force, not merely because of questions of racial justice, but because core constitutional freedoms and the fabric of our civil society depend on it. The perception that one’s neighbors approve of the state gunning down people in the street or selectively turning a blind eye to those who do is profoundly damaging to civic trust. Law and order and respecting rights ultimately cannot be extricated from each other.
For rethinking many of the issues related to foreign policy, the key is situational awareness. The unresponsiveness of the bipartisan foreign policy community (the dreaded “establishment” or “blob”) to voters’ needs and priorities, and the fecklessness of American military adventurism in the Middle East, fractured conservative unity and created an opening for Donald Trump.
Lack of purpose on foreign policy is particularly troubling given the rise of China and Russia as great power competitors and the increased scarcity caused by the pandemic and recession. We will likely find ourselves increasingly pressured to do more to counter these emerging threats while there is less of everything—including domestic unity, political will, and material resources. American policy can always have as its goal the maintenance of a world friendly to democracy—but it must do so successfully and at acceptable cost in a world of increasing scarcity. Far too little thought has gone into how to do this, because nobody wants to seriously question the costs and benefits of American global leadership. Nor do they want to admit that the competition will be more challenging and complex.
What Must We Change?
And last, we now turn to those aspects of present conservatism that cannot be allowed to linger. Just as some aspects of the conservative movement are essential, others should never have been allowed in. We recognize that there were complex reasons for how conservatism found itself in this situation, but there are problems that need solving.
In doing so, we are going to avoid any further mention of Donald Trump; it is more useful to point out what issues took a wrong turn rather than pin blame on a single individual. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, conservatives will have to rebuild their movement, and it is better to focus on what steps are necessary to take going forward than what has happened.
“It’s the economy stupid” redux.
We lead with this one in this section because it is so important. The country is in a truly dire situation. It must make painful choices about how to handle COVID-19 and how to manage the economic costs of doing so, and regardless, the level of economic hardship Americans are experiencing has few historical parallels apart from the Great Depression; relative to expectations, it is arguably worse. The country has over 10 percent unemployment and an economy that cratered at an annualized rate of 31 percent in the last quarter—in human terms, this has translated into families not paying rent for five months and in many cases going hungry. Many Americans are down to empty bank accounts, having gone into the crisis with barely a thousand dollars on average in savings. In the midst of all this, Congress went home rather than passing further unemployment benefits.
This is shocking and unacceptable on face, but more so in light of the conservative tendency to stand firm on fiscal issues. In a “normal” recession (which this one isn’t), conservatives would likely find themselves standing athwart the road to serfdom yelling Stop, and they would define the problem as avoiding falling into socialism due to short-term risk aversion. Selling free-market economics in a recession is always difficult, but this one simply demands a different ethos. If Republicans and conservatives cannot meet voters where they are—including finding the money necessary to prevent starvation and mass eviction, they do not deserve to be in power.
For the foreseeable future, moreover, conservatives are going to have to resist the economic purism that often informs their policy choices. Yes, in an ideal world tax and entitlement reform might lead to a better economy—but perfect has been the enemy of the good for some time with conservative fiscal policy, and right now it is the enemy of acceptability. (Conversely, if entitlement reform ever does end up on the agenda, it should be because some people need the money even more.) If tradeoffs between deficit spending and crisis management, and between long-term economic health and short-term disaster relief, are complex, this is a job for policy engineers.
The lack of ideas and the seeming hostility to those who generate them are the biggest stumbling blocks for the current Republican party. While the energy of the Tea Party movement and the support for populist candidates may have been sufficient to win elections in the short term, such surges quickly burn out when it becomes obvious that they have no plan or coherent organizing principles other than simply opposing what their members do not like. Rather than being simply a reactionary ad hoc movement organized to resist, prudent conservatives should think carefully about how actually to govern.
Republicans and conservatives are not wrong to note that credentialism and mindless adherence to experts is not only odd and cultish, but also breeds bad policy by essentially giving credentialed policy makers a free pass on the obligation to produce results that satisfy voters. Nor are they wrong to note that the policy establishment, both Democrat and Republican, has failed voters in myriad ways.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between criticizing rot within elite circles and rejecting the necessity of ideas altogether. As the Cold War historian Philip Zelikow wrote recently, there was a time when American ingenuity was not only an unironic trope, but extended to policy making. In recent times, policy failures—in conception, in enactment, and in execution—have become so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Those who cite the existence of conservative think tanks as proof that conservatives take policy seriously are missing much of the picture: The think tanks are rarely heeded; even when they are, their proposals rarely meet voters where they are. As noted above, serious thought must be given to dealing with the situation as it is, not as one might wish it to be.
Conservatives are going to have to rebuild their policy establishment, and do so around solutions that have a prayer of working out—both in the sense of being enacted and in the sense of doing something useful for a majority of average voters—in the current environment. Becoming an “idea party” again is a necessity for conservatives and Republicans if they hope to do more than survive.
Opposition for opposing’s sake.
Tribalism is the enemy of serious thought. We discussed the dangers of Manichean thinking in our previous Bulwark piece; it must go. The fact that public health and the Postal Service are being politicized is truly disturbing, as are the mindless conspiracy theories that fuel opposition to any good idea anywhere.
The fact that it is increasingly difficult to imagine bipartisan legislation coming out of Congress speaks to this. As a thought experiment, could the Nunn-Lugar Act, the bipartisan 1991 bill that set up a program to safeguard ex-Soviet nuclear weapons, pass Congress today? One suspects not. As Rand Paul revealed in an unusually candid statement about police reform, the instant the Democrats support something, Republicans must oppose it. It is worth noting that Senator Richard Lugar, the coauthor of the legislation just mentioned, lost his primary bid for reelection in 2012 in large part because his fellow Republicans saw him as moderate and willing to work across the aisle.
In this, conservatives of all factions, and the nation as a whole, are headed for a reckoning. Whatever policy one favors regarding COVID-19, it is indisputable that options for dealing with it were extremely limited by partisanship, which politicized every aspect of the response, from finger-pointing and Monday-morning quarterbacking over whether the pandemic could have been prevented, to arguments about tradeoffs between health and employment, to the trustworthiness or lack thereof of the public health community, to questions of what First Amendment protections were subject to restriction and which were sacrosanct, to questions about the effectiveness of masks. This made it nearly impossible to imagine compromise on more difficult issues such as a bridge-loan program to help businesses and extension of unemployment benefits. To be sure, many issues arising from this crisis involve painful tradeoffs and require sober discussion. It is tragic, however, that they had to become subjects of partisan signaling.
The politics of the pandemic suggest a thought experiment: If it were possible to save 30 million people’s jobs, with no meaningful downside, by simply waving a magic wand—but one needed the other side’s approval and a political truce to do it, what would we do? What should we do? Whatever one’s answer, the issue is very trenchant.
The pandemic and recession, not to mention the options they have created for great power adversaries working to crush the United States, militate against the kind of culture war in which Americans find themselves. What does that say about the state of things? What does it say about us? Whatever one’s answer, one has to look oneself in the mirror in the morning.
To that end, if at all possible, conservatives must seek to de-escalate the culture war. Yes, rioting cannot be tolerated, abortion will remain an issue of conscience, assaults on constitutional freedoms must be met with resistance, there will be legitimate differences of opinion about how to handle the pandemic. However, responsible statecraft, to which conservatives should aspire, involves ensuring that such disputes are prevented from dominating the agenda. In the fragile state we are in, this argues for playing defense, not offense, even at the cost of not having everything; it also argues for negotiation and compromise.
Which is difficult to do when the other side runs a victory lap and crows about how they beat the bad, bad Republicans. Compromise requires muzzles for Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer.
Exactly how to do this is a question we cannot answer. We are reasonably certain that at this point in the culture war, the issues are not really the issue. If it were simply a case of gun control and abortion driving animosity, congressional leaders could find a way to call a truce, perhaps allowing precedents to stand or making other, similar assurances.
All aspects of the current culture war suggest this is not the case. Joe Biden’s moderate political positions are irrelevant to the right’s perception of him as an agent of destructive anarchists. Denunciations of violence have not stopped it, and justifications for cultural antagonism have shifted.
What the culture war is about has shifted at an alarming pace. Early this year, COVID-19 denialism replaced climate change denialism as the focus of left-wing hostility; subsequently racism was declared more important than COVID-19; in the course of protests against it, goalposts were shifted and in some cases realigned, with dealing with police brutality giving way to calls for abolishing the police, then attacks on statues and historiography, then maximalist attacks on systemic racism and defenses of property violence. On the right, the discourse shifted in parallel from condemnation of cancel culture to condemnation of property destruction.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those who want to fight are finding excuses to do so, particularly amid a social environment filled with anger, anxiety, and boredom. Left-wing and right-wing extremists appear essentially leaderless. They can be buoyed by Trumpian demagoguery or sympathetic media, but this is not their sole driving force, and their stated motives and justifications shift.
Paradoxically, the fight is not as much about promoting a coherent ideology as it is about resisting the other side. This tribalism for tribalism’s sake exacerbates the potential for a downward spiral: Just as right-wing fears of left-wing extremism drove Trump’s rise, and just as opposition to Trump’s violent demagoguery drove the Never Trumpers to oppose him, so too it is possible that opposition to left-wing excesses will drive moderates and center-leftists into opposition—and perhaps into Trump’s arms.
It is up to conservatives as much as anyone to do their part to arrest this. And this will be more difficult because whereas policing conservatives’ own side in 2016 amounted to shifting leftward, Never Trump conservatives currently in coalition with those to the left of them will increasingly be policing the left, not the right (to which they are now opposed), even as pro-Trump conservatives show as little sign of wanting to rein in Trump now as in 2016. Perhaps all one can do is not contribute further to the mess.
There is no easy solution here, but conservatives, who value stability, ought to avoid destabilizing their own country where and how they can. If we can get to a point where some compromises are possible regarding the older cultural issues, we will know we have made progress in pushing back against the pernicious political tribalism. For now, though, every patriotic American citizen has a moral obligation to look for a way out.
Well … if you believe, for instance, that abortion is murder, then fewer abortions is not better than no abortions. The Second Amendment means what it says. So does the First Amendment.
Identity politics / white nationalism / Christian identitarianism.
To that end, we turn to the culture war’s battlefield du jour. Race is a toxic subject, yet it is something the Republican party and conservatism more broadly are going to have to grapple with. Conservatives can and should reject the racialization of discourse that “wokism” represents while simultaneously broadening their coalition beyond the current stereotype of mostly white, middle-aged homeowners. Rather than simply oppose the distasteful elements of wokism, conservatives would be better served by emphasizing that classical liberalism and the principle of equality before the law apply to all regardless of their background.
This should go without saying, but conservatives should reject extremist views on race and religion as a matter of first principle. Not only are white nationalism and Christian identitarianism abhorrent and un-American, but they also harm the best chance conservatism has of rebuilding itself. Uniting classical liberals will require a recommitment not only to unifying rhetoric, but for this nation to actually “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” The 2016 association of conservatism with the alt-right, and now the dead albatross of armed right-wing militant protesters showing up across the country, have continued to tarnish the conservative movement’s image. These were the kind of associations that conservatives historically shunned, and their ascendancy has been a severe blow to the conservative movement’s legitimacy.
The RNC’s foregrounding of Senator Tim Scott, not merely as an African-American senator but also as a (rare) example of someone who has gotten something useful done under the current administration, was a step in the right direction. So is rhetoric calling for disciplining errant police officers and thus reaffirming that constitutional rights do in fact belong to all citizens equally. More of this will be necessary, but this is the direction that must be taken.
The great choice for conservatives may well be between their core values and tribal allegiances, and questions of immigration raise precisely this point.
We are agnostic on what should be done on immigration issues, because they are neither simple nor even connected—concern over violations of immigration law, over the possibility of importing foreign conflicts and terrorism, and over competition for scarce jobs are all distinct and complex issues. What we do argue, however, is that anyone serious about conserving the United States as a classically liberal republic with some conservative cultural elements cannot afford to alienate whole demographics who represent, in many cases, the best of the virtues conservatives hold dear.
In simple terms, if one values America, one should not cold-shoulder or dehumanize people who have put much on the line to come to this country. If one values the Constitution and its freedoms, treating those who hope to enjoy them with suspicion and harassment does no one any good. If one values entrepreneurship, one should praise immigrants, who probably represent it more than most. If one values traditional religion, alienating communities who tend to take their religion seriously is, to misquote a famous Frenchman, “worse than a crime; it is a mistake.”
Debates around immigration tend to arise at times when there is a lot of it and when the frictions it generates are more acutely felt—i.e., in times of economic stagnation. The current rancor surrounding immigration mirrors that seen at the turn of the twentieth century. Then as now, the foreign-born fraction of the U.S. population was historically high; then as now, the U.S. economy was stagnant and crisis-prone. In such an environment, not only is there more than the usual amount of ethnic tension, but the policy fixes that might ameliorate it are less available than usual because of economic stagnation, and the competition it generates is more keenly felt. People are, quite simply, less likely to shrug off wage competition with people who are not like them when there is less of everything to go around.
All this we accept, and this has to be confronted. As noted, a key component of any movement or party right now should be getting the economy moving again, and it is a proper job for policy intellectuals to consider how that might be done. But conservatives would do better to placate their nativist wing by offering them solutions to their problems rather than by hostility to immigrants who not infrequently share the same values conservatives ultimately want to promote.
Putting It Together
We can leave off, then, on that note. The problems of conservatism are not its fundamental ideas, but inflexibility in their application, lack of realism, and a catastrophic failure of coalition-building even when ideology offers a playbook for doing so.
What must we keep? Our values. What must we change? Our hypocrisy and fecklessness in living out those values. What is arguable? Everything in between—in particular, how to generate the ideas that will actually deliver something to the voters that will make it all worthwhile.
As we never tire of saying, if liberals didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any standards at all. And the best exhibit of this right now is that if Biden and the Democrats sweep the election, one of the first things they will do is . . . deliver a big tax cut to the rich.
Don’t believe me? Then perhaps you’ll believe the . . . (checks notes) . . . New York Times:
Why are party leaders fighting to get rid of one surprisingly progressive element of the 2017 tax bill?
Democrats fighting — and fighting hard — for a $137 billion tax cut for the richest Americans? Mr. Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer don’t agree on everything, but on this specific issue they speak with one voice: the $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local tax (better known as the SALT deduction) must go.
The House of Representatives has already passed legislation removing the cap, allowing the amount of the deduction to rise. If the Senate turns blue in November, Democrats have promised to return to the issue. “I want to tell you this,” Senator Schumer said in July, “If I become majority leader, one of the first things I will do is we will eliminate” the SALT cap “forever.” It “will be dead, gone and buried.” . . .
By pushing for repeal of the cap, Democrats are leaving themselves wide open to criticisms of hypocrisy and opportunism. As Senator Michael Bennet, one of the few Democrats opposed to removing the SALT cap, pointed out to his Senate colleagues in October 2019: “We can say we are for a progressive tax code and for fighting inequality, or we can support the SALT deduction. But it is really hard to do both.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also voted against repeal.
Here is the Brookings Institution’s calculation of the distributional effects of restoring the SALT deduction, which is a subsidy for liberal high tax blue states:
Because the U.S. hasn’t had enough chaos so far in 2020, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday.
That set off a wave of ignorance about the Supreme Court and its nominating process specifically and about how the federal government works generally.
Ilya Shapiro starts with some history:
The big question looming over Mitch McConnell’s promise to hold a vote on Donald Trump’s nominee to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is whether the Democrats, should they win both the White House and Senate, will then add (and fill) more seats to the Supreme Court.
Although Joe Biden declined to join most of his fellow candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in endorsing court-packing, the political pressure to do so may be too much to resist come January.
“I think the Kavanaugh nomination has put a fire under progressives,” said Caroline Fredrickson, then-president of the American Constitution Society (lefty counterpart to the Federalist Society) at the beginning of the primaries, noting that it’s “not written in stone that the court has nine seats.”
Indeed, the Constitution doesn’t specify the number of justices, but each expansion was historically accompanied by political mischief.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 set out six, but then the 1801 Midnight Judges Act would’ve reduced the Court to five at its next vacancy, to thwart the incoming president, Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, Congress restored the Court to six, a move Justice Samuel Chase opposed, which led to his impeachment (but not removal).
As the country grew, Congress created new circuits, with new justices appointed to each one. That all seems innocuous, but there were also political reasons for adding them, ones that didn’t always inure to the nation’s benefit.
A seventh seat was added in 1807, in part because Jefferson wanted to temper Chief Justice John Marshall’s Federalist proclivities, an unsuccessful maneuver given Marshall’s skill at swaying new colleagues. The eighth and ninth seats added in 1837 allowed a Jacksonian reshaping with the new justices supporting Chief Justice Roger Taney’s authorship of Dred Scott. Then a 10th seat was added in 1863, in part to allow Abraham Lincoln more leeway.
That tenth seat was never filled and, to prevent Andrew Johnson from naming anyone — and at the request of Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who presided over Johnson’s impeachment trial — Congress in 1866 cut the Court to seven, such that the next three departing justices wouldn’t be replaced.
In 1869, however, after two seats had been lost to that attrition, the Circuit Judges Act fixed the bench at nine, a number that has survived 150 years, allowing the Court to get the stability and prestige it never had previously.
The most famous example of attempted court-packing is, of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. The president was fresh off a massive reelection—he won 523-8 in the Electoral College—and unhappy about a series of rulings against his New Deal programs. He proposed adding a new justice for every sitting justice older than 70½, up to a maximum bench of 15.
The plan met bipartisan resistance in Congress and faced public opposition by the justices — including progressive icon Louis Brandeis — and FDR’s own vice president. It led to huge Democratic losses in the 1938 election, with Republicans gaining 81 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.
Still, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said over the weekend that “nothing is off the table” if Republicans fill the Supreme Court vacancy before Inauguration Day. But if Democrats think they’d be reuniting the country by compensating for Republican-appointed justices they consider to be illegitimate, then they deserve the political losses that such ends-justify-the-means radicalism has historically caused.
And if they think that packing the Court would restore “norms,” then they really don’t understand the nature of governance. Just as two wrongs don’t make a right, you don’t restore norms by transforming institutions, particularly when doing so would mean eliminating the legislative filibuster, which would open an even bigger can of worms.
Maybe some deal could be worked out whereby, if the nominee isn’t confirmed before the election and Democrats win big, Republicans would promise not to confirm if Democrats promised not to add justices. Otherwise, to quote Bernie Sanders of all people, “My worry is that the next time the Republicans are in power they will do the same thing.”
In the end, the Democrats ought to draw a different lesson from FDR. By mid-1941, just four years after court-packing failed, only two justices remained whom Roosevelt hadn’t appointed—and one of those, Harlan Stone, he had elevated to chief justice.
In a very real sense, then, FDR packed the Court the old-fashioned way, by maintaining control of the White House and Senate and waiting for natural attrition. Joe Biden, take note.
In 2016, during the Merrick Garland fight, Joe Biden said, “I would go forward with the confirmation process. Even a few months before a presidential election… just as the Constitution requires.”
Joe Biden in 2020 rejects Joe Biden from 2016.
The Democrats reject their 2016 positions.
You Democrats may not like it, but McConnell in 2016 was very consistent that a party controlling the Senate different from the President has no reason to consider a pick. In fact, contrary to the bellyaching of the media and Democrats, the Senate is never under any obligation to act on a presidential nomination. It is a separate branch of government.
But that did not stop Democrats, including Joe Biden and Barack Obama, from insisting as much in 2016.
Maybe if the Democrats didn’t want Donald Trump to advance a nominee, they should not have tried to do so after Antonin Scalia’s death. President Trump now is just following Barack Obama’s precedent.
Likewise, Democrat threats to pack the Supreme Court and end the filibuster if someone is confirmed to replace Ginsburg ring hollow. They were already threatening both before a vacancy opened. It’s like Colin Kaepernick redefining why he took a knee. At first, it was in protest against the country. Only after outrage did it become about police brutality. The media helpfully ignored the original excuse-making just as the media is doing now with the Democrats.
Nonetheless, the GOP might as well advance a nomination and vote on it.
No honest person can deny if the Democrats controlled the Senate and White House that they’d decline. In fact, they absolutely would try to fill the seat and there is no reason for the GOP to abstain.
One can credibly make the argument that if the GOP does do it that it will escalate tensions in the United States and lead to more violence. I actually believe that is true. But I also believe to sit it out because of that is to give a win to terrorists.
Ronald Reagan said we should never negotiate with terrorists. We should not sit by for fear of the left burning down the country. They already are. The behavior needs to be repudiated.
I would recommend the President find a Hispanic nominee so the country can see the Democrats racistly savage and assassinate the character of a someone of Hispanic ethnicity. They won’t be able to help themselves and Hispanic voters can see why they might want to vote for Donald Trump.
The GOP holds the White House and the Senate. If they are not going to act, their base is going to wonder what the point is. They really have no choice and Democrat insistence on a nominations process in 2016 gives them wiggle room.
Use the Obama precedent and proceed. The media is never going to treat the matter fairly so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. All the threats by Democrats are threats they were making while Ginsburg was still alive. There’s no reason for restraint when the Democrats were already calling for unrestraint in their own governance.
Submit a nominee and confirm that person. If the Democrats pack the Court, add more seats with a Republican majority. If they scrap the filibuster, the GOP will have no reason to be restrained in scuttling Democrat pet projects in the future. The repeal of Lilly Ledbetter, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc. becomes more likely in the next decade and that’s not a bad thing.
It’s a little amazing how few conservatives have pointed out the obvious about Garland — he was a horrible choice.
I myself would like to see U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane Sykes, if for no other reason (other than that she is eminently qualified) than the identity of her ex-husband — Charlie Sykes, vehement critic of the president who would appoint her.