Publick Occurrences 2.0

October 24, 2012

The “Wisdom” of the Founders

It’s October of a presidential election year, which means the political pundit class is alive with speculation of the likelihood of different results in the popular vote and the Electoral College or – and this one has really gotten people going, thanks to some speculation and number crunching by Five Thirty Eight blogger Nate Silver – if the Electoral College comes out in a 269-269 tie. (Two side points: first, take a look at the first scenario he games out; the scary part is it has the air of plausibility, that is, the electoral map theoretically could happen, even if the odds are extremely low. Second, as others have pointed out, you should know you’re being trolled when you read a sentence that states that the “probability [of a tie] has roughly doubled from a few weeks ago, when the chances had been hovering at about 0.3 percent instead.”)

The op-eds, editorials, blog posts, and tweets that game out these scenarios all operate under the premise that such an outcome would be a “constitutional crisis.” And that’s true to a point, but what I have not seen any discussion of in the mainstream media to this point is that such an Electoral College occurrence, however fluky it might be, would represent a failure not so much of the Constitution as of the political system built up around it. Such an election, in fact, does exactly what the Constitution of 1787 (as modified by the Twelfth Amendment) requires. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate with the most electoral votes; Art. II, § 1 is agnostic on the method by which each state determines its electors, and a popular majority was in no one’s imagination in 1787.

Why don’t commentators or politicians discuss the problem of an Electoral College tie (or a “split decision”) as a Constitutional matter rather than a political one? One answer comes from Sanford Levinson, whom I heard speak for the first time this week when he visited my campus. Levinson, who teaches at Harvard Law School and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, argued simply that no one is willing to have the conversation. The discussion about the Constitution, he suggested, goes only so far for the two candidates as to express their devotion to the document of the Founders. (At this point Levinson expressed nostalgic longing for the campaign of 1912, which featured constitutional reformers Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as well as the future Chief Justice William Howard Taft.)

Levinson is most famous in Constitutional studies circles for his advocacy of a new constitutional convention to remedy the problems he sees in the current document—and the greatest failure of 1787, he suggests, is the empty vessel of Article V, which provides for the Constitution’s amendment with absolutely no guidance as to how it might happen. He argued in his talk on Monday that the Constitution would “render the election (nearly) irrelevant,” a provocative claim that little would occur in the sphere of domestic policy no matter which candidate wins because of the likely split in Congress. In foreign affairs, he argued, the difference matters, but in that case he critiques Presidents (dating back to Truman) for ignoring Congress in matters of war, peace, and national security.

The discussion was intriguing, and I’m glad that a number of students got to see history in action, as Levinson touched on a number of areas that we had covered in the U.S. survey within the past week, not least the vagueness of Article II’s grant of executive power. Within the context of the talk, I asked Levinson how he proposed to get a constitutional convention enacted, given that it required the assistance of the very political structures that fail in other regards now and that the very vagueness that he critiqued was a feature of the Constitution that worked well for either party at various times. His answer was not particularly satisfying – either we have to go over the cliff and have a true crisis moment (which is hopefully unlikely) or people must decide they’re just fed up. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Levinson, though I do think the conversation would be helpful, and that historians can and should take part in it to explain the processes by which the Constitution came about in 1787 and those that have shaped the document since.

What I did not get to ask about, and which may take a few more blog posts to fully flesh out, is the importance of what Levinson alluded to at the beginning of his talk: reverence for the Constitution. Setting aside how to fix any problems with the Constitution, any conversation along those lines must start from the premise that the Constitution is changeable, and I’m not sure that’s an easy starting point for many people given the enduring popularity of originalism and “Founders’ Chic.” It’s difficult, in other words, to have a true conversation about the Electoral College that elides the fact that a 269-269 tie leading to the House electing Mitt Romney as President and the Senate re-electing Joe Biden as Vice President is precisely the system the Founders bestowed on the nation.


June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


June 1, 2012

Droppin’ Hamiltons like Aaron Burr

Before I say anything, I want to make sure I’m not stepping on Jeff’s post about university presses and state and local history. I hesitate to even click “post” before everyone in this profession reads what he has to say.

And following that, I should say hello again. I haven’t posted since 2010, about a week after my wife and I learned we were expecting a child. What followed was a rush to “finish” a manuscript, a bathroom renovation, a semester of teaching, and a bunch of the usual things. Blogging fell by the wayside in this fanatical effort to manage time and maximize productivity before the bambino arrived, and the last 10 months have been an exercise in seeing what I still care about now that I feel like an adult. Suddenly, the ‘blog it’ bar got harder to clear, and the ‘do I have time to read this?’ question became far more urgent.

But here I am, thanks to David Brooks.

I know it’s a bit of a parlor game to bash Brooks, the New York Times in-house conservative columnist. In general, Brooks strikes me as a guy trying to do a good job in a tough situation: the cheese slid off the cracker in the conservative movement, to the point where we’ve got a birther-curious GOP nominee who will say anything and a House Republican caucus that looks like a circus (did you ever watch special orders speeches at night on CSPAN? Oh my.) The kinds of Republicans Brooks really wants to respect are dead, retired, or Democrats. And yet he has this grating habit of embracing false equivalency, following in the vapid tradition of David Broder of proposing superior ‘centrist’ policies that equate and dismiss the ideological commitments and organized constituencies of both major political parties.

If you read his May 28 column, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” you know exactly what I mean.

But what interested – and irked – me was that the centrism Brooks proposes for the country he’s rebranded as “Hamiltonian.” As in Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the bank guy.

Brooks thinks the U.S. government has gotten way too big. He doesn’t specify what that means exactly, but his opening line is that “Government promoted industrial development in the 18th century, transportation in the 19th, communications in the 20th and biotechnology today.” Within that frame, “the federal role has historically been sharply limited” and our guy Hamilton was “the man who initiated that role” He was “a nationalist” whose  “primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.”

You should read the column yourself and not take my word for it, but in short, Brooks posits that:

  • *The Hamiltonian tradition has been followed by “Whigs, early Republicans, and early progressives”
  • *People in the Hamiltonian tradition “reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots”
  • *“generations of leaders [in this tradtion] assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor”
  • *Everything was going great until progressives, the New Deal, and LBJ came along
  • *The so-called Tea Party was a culminating outcome of a decades-long festering revulsion among conservatives who were becoming anti-government

And finally Brooks’ conclusion asks:

 Does government encourage long-term innovation or leave behind long-term debt for short-term expenditure? Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?

Never mind the shoddy history of political parties in the 20th century, or the false choices and false equivalencies posed in those last two sentences.

(By the way, can someone explain why secure people aren’t enterprising? Would we all be more productive if we were being chased by lions or sleep better if we took the batteries out of smoke detectors?)

I’ve been reading Hamilton in a serious this-is-my-career way for the last 10 years, and what’s striking about the Brooksian verision of the “Hamiltonian tradition” is how utterly ahistorical these claims are. That’s not surprising from a pundit, but David Brooks is no ordinary pundit. He’s a Very Serious Person – a public intellectual. Yet he seems to be profoundly unfamiliar with the contours of Hamilton’s career in government and politics – one that was, need I remind you, very short and very learnable.

Look, I’m intrigued by Hamilton. I hope to make a career and sell literally dozens of books by writing about Hamilton and some of the institutions he guided. But once you know anything about Hamilton’s politics, you know that’s why he should not be looked to as a guide to anything you want to describe as centrist or moderating. Hamilton was not representative of majority opinions at the Convention in 1787, and by the time he was through Washington and Adams, he was – with complete sincerity – regarded as a monarchist by many of the Republicans of 1800.

I could spend 2000 words rebutting David Brooks’ claims one-by-one, but I find it utterly perplexing that in an age when you can find many of Hamilton’s papers on Google Books for free, that you would say that Hamilton’s goal wasn’t to make people “rich or equal, that he rejected a politics of “haves” vs. “have-nots,” and that Hamiltonians think of capital and labor as equally-weighted forces in political life.

Let’s be clear.

Banking politics was contentious precisely because it was about winners and losers, the exclusivity of membership in networks of credit, and the privileging of capital over labor. The aggregation of political power within banks was what Hamilton’s opponents understood to be their most powerful argument against the multiplication of banks in general and the existence of the Bank of the United States in particular.

Yes, “nationalists” cared about roads, bridges, and schools. But so did Hamilton’s opponents, who we also have to call “nationalists,” too. And contrary to Brooks’ claim, Hamilton and his successors cared a great deal about jobs, employment, and security – it was why the U.S. had a tariff. In fact, the early American tariff is often cited in modern macroeconomic textbooks as a case where a tariff is justified – you’re protecting infant industries in your domestic economy that would wither under the pressure of competitive disadvantages if left unprotected.

And those long-term infrastructure projects that the “Hamiltonians” loved? At some point, they had to have been the near-term projects that Brooks detests. Glaciers and laser cannons didn’t carve out the Erie Canal – it was a debt-financed state project that paid workers for their hard labor over many years. Wizards didn’t lay train tracks or build bridges and maintain roads. You only get to do long-term projects by engaging in near-term planning, execution, and financing. At some point, the question is called, votes are cast, and the nasty business of politicking begins to become public policy.

I guess what’s surprising about Brooks’ columns – this one and others preceding it – is that the man seems so insistent on dismissing 21st century liberalism as little more than a basket of blind demands for spending and regulation that he has to carve out this absurd definition of Hamilton’s politics. It’s why he can write a column about Hamilton without mentioning the word “bank” (yes, really).

I’m not sure how useful Hamilton is to 21st century political thought. He was only in power for 12 years (unofficially) and killed in 1804. He never saw the Erie Canal. Never saw the steamboat Clermont, or the telegraph, or the steam locomotive, or had time to contemplate the effects of the cotton gin, or Louisiana land, California gold, and the industrial revolution. He never even got to savor Aaron Burr’s downfall, let alone think about the needs of modern powers.

My guess, though, is that Brooks might not be so keen on Hamilton if he knew that he hated speculators, was in favor of highly-regulated banks, state-supported industry, a tariff, and a sweeping definition of the Commerce Clause. The real Hamilton would have laughed someone out of the room who claimed a corporation was entitled to free speech rights as a “person.”

And the real Hamilton, I suspect, would find David Brooks’ “Hamiltonian” politics utterly unrecognizable.


February 17, 2012

Honoring Philip Lampi and A New Nation Votes


Yesterday afternoon, NEH Chairman James Leach came to Worcester for a special ceremony to honor the work of Philip Lampi, a longtime staff member at the American Antiquarian Society and the compiler of the data in the A New Nation Votes database.

Lampi has spent the last forty years, as he described at the ceremony, collecting election results for every election held in the United States between 1787 and 1825, from presidential elections to state and local contests in the twenty-four states in the Union during that period. Lampi collected the data by hand, mostly on visits to hundreds of archives around the eastern United States, combing through newspapers and official state records (in the days before much of this material was digitized). The material, Lampi said, was a “gold mine” that no one had ever examined closely. The event honored Lampi’s tenacity in collecting the data—speaker and sometime collaborator Andrew Robertson described him as a “hero of history” and Leach said he was an “alchemist” for what he made from the “gold” that he found. (For more info on the ceremony, see this profile in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.)

In the last eight years, AAS has received several grants from NEH to digitize the records in coordination with Tufts, making that data publicly available for historians to use. I have a hunch that Jeff will have more to say about using the database for research purposes, but I will just say for now that it’s an amazing resource and opens a range of previously unanswerable research questions. You could see, for example, county-level results for the hotly contested 1799 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election. Or, as project coordinator Erik Beck noted, you can gather additional information about characters we already know something about. He highlighted Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy, in which Wilentz briefly profiles Edmund Ruffin, who, as a 67-year-old private in the Palmetto Guards, was given the honor of firing the first shot on Fort Sumter. Check the database, and there he is as a young man winning a seat in the Virginia state senate. I’m sure a number of readers have used the database and worked with Phil—please feel free to share your stories in the comments section.

Data is currently available for a number of states, and being rapidly updated for others. No word on when the project will be completely finished; everyone seems to have learned that lesson.

Lampi is the first recipient of the Chairman’s Commendation, which is more than appropriate. From all of us here at Publick Occurrences, congratulations Phil, and thank you.


UPDATE: For more on the impact of Lampi’s work, see “Myths of the Lost Atlantis,” a series run in this space in 2008.

Photo credit: Abigail Hutchinson, AAS


December 14, 2010

Americans: Labeling Since the 1780s

In New York City yesterday, there was a meeting for a newish political group calling itself No Labels. Headed up by center-right Democrats and center-right Republicans and self-proclaimed independents, their stated goal is to find common ground on issues they see consumed by hyper-partisanship. They want things to happpen! Now!

We’ve heard this before. And I fear that – even in my own work – it’s possible that historians of our era stress the top-down hand-wringing about partisanship at the expense of a bottom-up explanation for their utility.

Of course political parties are controversial development in the early republic. They’re apparently controversial today. But it’s apparent in the 1780s that state legislatures, as institutions, found it difficult to function without organized coalitions, as did Congress in the 1790s. A key difference between Britain and the U.S. was that in the latter, out-of-doors partisan organizing followed from wider (white male) voter eligibility rules. Politics could become more democratic since partisans could recruit and support lesser-known candidates to stand for elections, letting representation drift away from the established brand names of a handful of prominent families. That’s why we see startlingly high turnover in the House of Representatives and stunning vulgarity among the rough yeomanry who populate legislative chambers.

Because many historians, I suspect, value their political independence and would rather focus on specific policy issues relating to preservation or education or civil rights, partisan commitments don’t necessarily come naturally. And they defy deep context – using a shorthand to link a constellation of issues and views to one party’s label. Sometimes these can be just wrong; other times, the distinctions among parties can’t be exaggerated.

I think this a moment when historians should speak up to defend partisanship. It’s tempting to listen to established politicians (and people who can’t win a primary) rail against the nastiness of political campaigns, but I confess I don’t understand the recent vitriol directed at people who passionately care about certain issues or who are committed to advancing them through party discipline. I, for one, care a lot more about particular issues than I do the fate of a party. That’s why I’m a professor and not party official.

But if I was a candidate, I’d want very much to be able to rely on a network of voters who shared my priorities, who knew something about organizing and electioneering and fundraising, and could make it easier for me to run for office without having to first be rich or famous. And I wish – very much – that there was a price to be paid by people like newly-elected West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s decided that his legislative mission is to protect “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” even though he can’t quite explain why he supports it, and doesn’t seem to even understand the issue itself.

The ‘No Labels’ campaign seems misguided and ahistorical to me. One of their stated goals is to “establish a Political Action Committee that can operate in the 2012 primary races of members who get challenged by the ideological extremes of either party.” In this case, partisanship itself is something they want to see eliminated. No wonder Manchin, along with Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, were headliners at yesterday’s event.

What is their alternative? A pluralism that isn’t too pluralistic? A set of leaders who think they’re above building broad governing coalitions? Or that understanding and coherently explaining their contrarian positions would be beneath them?


What we are told, in the most condescending terms, is that people unwilling to compromise longstanding political commitments aren’t welcome at the table. Or their issues aren’t welcome. So we can’t talk about repealing DADT because it’s too controversial.

It reminds me of the Gag Rule. Which worked oh so well. Because if we can’t agree about it, it must not be worth discussing.

And it’s a reminder that legislators who call themselves “independent” don’t just mean that they’re independent of party leaders – they want to be independent from voters too.

Think about it this way: Joe Lieberman, darling of the ‘No Labels’ crowd, was the Democratic nominee for vice-president ten years ago. Then he endorsed the policies of a Republican winner* and consequently lost his party’s primary. Lieberman then worked against Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and was even dressed down on the Senate floor by Obama himself after Lieberman – repeatedly – left Jewish audiences with the impression that Obama was a Muslim.

Yet for all this, Lieberman continues to enjoy privileges of committee leadership that are denied to more loyal – and reliable – members of the Senate’s majority party. And today, a thousand people got an earful of Joe Lieberman (CT-Lieberman) recalling his narrative of victimhood and the nastiness of partisanship.

It seems to me that this is a moment when the grassroots of a political organization clearly have reprimanded a member of their team for bad behavior – by booting him from the team. If they had continued to support him, what would that eventually mean for a legislative caucus? Think of how disruptive it would be to have freelancers peacocking around the floor of the Senate, with no shorthand to figure out who might be more likely to support things like a national bank, the American System, or a bill to aid 9/11 first responders?

It makes me wish Gordon Wood had been invited to talk to them about the differences between the U.S. Senate and the House of Lords.

P.S. Also funny: apparently the group’s logo – a zoological abomination – was ripped off from a lesser-known graphic artist. Probably because intellectual property is the exclusive purview of extremists.


November 19, 2010

Bridge to the 19th Century

Filed under: Business History,Early Republic,Economy,Government,Political Parties — Morning Chronicler @ 6:30 am

On the way to the SHEAR conference in Rochester this summer (if you missed it, they apparently have local ordinances prohibiting hotels from having lobbies!), I had the chance to see the Erie Canal up close. I’d seen it from a plane before, but at ground level you really appreciate the magnitude of the project.

But even more impressive than the physical structure, I think, is the fact that it was built at all. I can’t imagine that happening today. Building new bridges and public transportation systems seems like a thing of the past, made impossible by legions of nitpickers, privatization evangelists, politicians afraid of being blamed for added expenses, and people who have somehow decided that our governments are supposed to function like our households.

The project cost the state of New York $7 million in 1817, which was about 1% of the nation’s GNP at the time. In a smaller and agricultural economy, this figure looms even larger. Plus, the 363-mile-long route crosses an upstate New York region that was – and still is – fairly empty, to reach Lake Erie and a thinly settled territory toward the west.

Just think about the scope! The percentage of the federal budget that today goes toward transportation and infrastructure projects is 3% – a fraction many in Congress want to cut. Yet even that federal figure is smaller than the relative expense of the state-funded canal. If we invested 1% of our GNP in a single project today, that would be a $140 billion piece of work.

That’s just less than the inflation-adjusted cost of the entire Apollo moon program.

No wonder they named so many things after DeWitt Clinton! But he of course didn’t act alone – the sums speak volumes about the under-appreciated state legislatures of the early republic, where we find frequent bi- and multi-partisan consensus in favor of infrastructure projects, and a high tolerance for debt-financed economic development.

Compare that with the country’s current inability – and unwillingness – to address $2 trillion in infrastructure needs that result in the occasional bridge collapse, blackout, and routine, epic traffic jams.

This legacy casts an even more unflattering light on politicians like N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, who recently killed a Hudson River rail tunnel that would have been the first built in the New York City area in more than a century. The N.Y.-N.J. Port Authority and the federal government each were kicking in $3 billion for the $8.7 billion project, and N.J. was responsible for the remaining $2.7 billion. Basing his decision in estimates of potential – yet not probable – cost overruns, Christie trashed the project’s sponsors and the unions who were already at work on the site, and announced his intention to keep the federal money. Instead, he has to give it back, with interest, and may have put his state on the hook for $600 million already spent the groundbreaking.

What’s baffling about these decisions is that the country’s population isn’t getting smaller. At peak hours, the existing Hudson River tunnel has a train passing through every few seconds. It is already at capacity. Expanded rail access would not only serve the region’s growing population by reducing commuting times and expanding transit access; it would also raise property values – one study pegged the boost at an average of $19,000 per home for a total of more than $18 billion. If you captured that gain in real estate taxes, it would pay for the debt service on the tunnel’s bonds. This project would pay for itself in one of the densest populated corridors in the developed world, and the money could be borrowed during a period of record-low interest rates and paid back over 35 years.

When New Yorkers planned the Erie Canal, they hoped for federal support. When they didn’t receive any, they built it anyway, borrowing the funds at 6% per year. They didn’t spend their time searching for reasons to abandon the project, and unlike Christie and his ilk, they didn’t see a popular project as some kind of albatross.

We have an unemployment rate of almost 10% and more than $2 trillion in needed projects. We have students who have invested heavily in their own educations entering the weakest labor market since the Great Depression. And we have international competitors boldly investing in their futures – drawing provocative comparisons to the 19th century U.S.

What a contrast to 2010, when 75% of our national budget is promised to the military and retirees, and when we see firsthand how financial downturns can turn politically regressive. There was a time, until fairly recently, when politicians competed to outdo each other in support of public infrastructure projects. Most of the Interstate Highway Act, believe it or not, passed the Congress on a voice vote.

Compare that to the buzzworthy announcement that the northeastern United States will have high-speed rail by…. (wait for it) 2040.


February 16, 2010

Tea Party on the Move

There has been a crush of interesting recent articles on the contemporary tea party movement, which I thought I’d highlight.

Today’s New York Times has a very long feature that tries to tie together the tangled strands of the movement.

These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What’s more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party.

But most are not. They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).

The Tea Party movement defies easy definition, largely because there is no single Tea Party.

Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, are an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers” who doubt President Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.

Other articles of interest:

In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky observed the protests of September 12, 2009.

Earlier this month, Ben McGrath took stock of the tea party movement in a nice piece for the New Yorker.

On the Washington Post website, David Waters was skeptical that the Christian Right would join forces with the tea party movement (H/T John Fea).

In HNN, Jim Sleeper offers a cursory comparison of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and today’s tea party movement, and (rather too optimistically) tries to link today’s tea party movement to anti-corporate sentiment.  While there were anti-corporate elements in the original Boston Tea Party, as  Thom Hartmann points out here, I think Sleeper goes too far in hoping that Sarah Palin’s Nashville audience will take up Hartmann’s cry.

Finally, at Jeff Pasley’s request, I’m linking to the videos of two lunchtime talks I gave at the Old South Meeting House in December 2009.  John Fea kindly mentioned the videos on his own blog (which all of you should be following), but in any case here is the first talk and here is the second.  The talks are called “Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773,” in part because that’s what I thought the title of my upcoming book would be.  The title has now changed, but I am happy to say that the manuscript is currently off to the press and due out in fall 2010.


February 23, 2009

It Aint No Sin to be Glad You Rolled Five

No Oscar commentary from me, but all this talk of Hollywood did bring me back to a quote from a couple of weeks ago.

Like hungry jackals at a carcass, factions have already begun fighting over how best to spend the $800 billion stimulus.  One of the tastier goodies will be an allotment for high-speed rail connections in various parts of the country.  Republican Senator Jim DeMint seemed particularly upset at the prospect of a Los Angeles to Las Vegas connection:

The President has a point that taxpayer money should not be used to pay for Wall Street fat cats to fly to Las Vegas but why is it okay for taxpayer money to be used to help pay for Hollywood elites to get there on a fancy gambling train? And why are we subsidizing leisure in a stimulus bill rather than encouraging work and greater productivity?

A few points here.  Does anyone really think a genuine Hollywood elite would take the train?  Also, can’t we imagine that down-home productive plebeians would find plenty of uses for a rail connection between two major population centers?  (As a side note, does anyone even pretend that “Hollywood elites” isn’t dog-whistle for “Jews”?)

Finally, why is it that politicians believe they can get so much mileage out of demonizing certain parts of the country?  The examples in recent (or semi-recent) politics are numerous:

  • The 2004 ad that stated,  “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading . . .” says the husband. His apple-cheeked wife interrupts to say, “. . . body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, Left-wing freak show back to Vermont [Dr Dean's home state] where it belongs.”
  • The 1988 attempts to saddle Michael Dukakis with the label of “Taxachusetts” based on the policies of his home state.
  • More recent efforts to lambaste Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for her “San Francisco values.”  (No mystery about the dog-whistle target there.)

In any case, Matthew Yglesias asks a similar question:

For whatever reason, conservatives are constantly allowed to get away with this business of summarily dismissing vast regions of the country as unworthy and never get called on it. But this sort of thing is leading the movement on a direct (albeit, non-rail) route to a Dixie-only ghetto.

This idea put reader BPM in the mind of the Federalist Party in the 1810s, which was more or less a New England-only ghetto.  Historians have argued endlessly about the degree to which nineteenth-century political parties were regionally based.  And it remains to be seen whether the Republican party will wind up being confined to the South and the Plains/Mountain West.  Regardless, this sort of rhetoric does appear to be self-defeating.  Shouldn’t each party claim to be the better representative of all America?  Why single out some locations as more American than others?  (I mean, I think I know why, but it’s worth asking the rhetorical question.)


February 13, 2009

Further Stimulation

Filed under: GOP,Obama Administration,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:34 am

Following up my last, I think Michael A. Cohen at TPM Café has put the outcome of the recent Struggle for Stimulation in its proper perspective:

Listening to the heated arguments from both ends of the political spectrum one might be forgiven for believing that President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package is a giant lemon.

The left claims that Obama’s bipartisanship has failed. They argue his “centrist” compromises, as well as the failure to offer a bigger initial package, will fatally weaken the stimulus effort. Republicans see “glimmers of rebirth” through their opposition to the Democrats’ plans. But both groups are missing the larger context.

Progressives are in the process of winning a transformative political victory that may be the harbinger of a new era of activist government. For conservatives, their unity might be cause for celebration; but from a policy standpoint they have suffered a decisive defeat.

Cohen has more details. While I remain unconvinced that there is any coherent movement out there that merits the noun “Progressives,” Cohen is right that what we have here is a huge, virtually overnight shift in the nature of our government’s economic policies, and there was precious little that the GOP’s united rump could do about it.

And, to slightly undermine my last post, there was a comment from historian Lewis L . Gould on the H-POL email list that made it clear that at least some bipartisan cooperation was offered by the opposition party in that other economic crisis 76 years ago:

The total of thirty-five Republicans and one independent in the Senate from 1933 to 1935 does not tell the story of the party’s response to the New Deal. Four Republican senators, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., Hiram Johnson of California, Bronson Cutting of New Mexico, and George W. Norris of Nebraska, had endorsed Roosevelt for election in 1932. Four other Republicans had stayed neutral as between Roosevelt and Hoover. In addition, the Republican leader in the Senate, Charles McNary of Oregon, himself a moderate Republican, thought it was unwise to obstruct FDR at the start of the New Deal. “To oppose the President now in a purely partisan spirit would be rocking the boat at a particularly unfortunate time,” he said in August 1933. At the outset of 1934, he added “The majority of the Republican members of the Congress will continue warmly to support those measures fashioned materially to improve the economic conditions of the country.” That left room for GOP opposition to specific legislation but meant the party lacked the discipline and cohesion of the present time. Moreover, McNary was sick during the spring of 1934 and the Republicans were thus leaderless.  Finally, in those days a filibuster meant that the senators had to get up on their feet and talk in the Senate as Huey Long did for nineteen hours in June 1935. There was little stomach for a futile filibuster effort against the New Deal during the first two years of FDR’s presidency.


February 11, 2009

Post-Partisan Stress Disorders

Filed under: Congress,Democrats,GOP,Obama Administration,Political culture,Political Parties — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:08 pm

Ben sent me the link to an The American Prospect piece, “The Myth of Bipartisanship,” in which Ezra Klein becomes only the latest writer to declare Obama’s experiment with post-partisan politics dead. Klein even gives one of the more rational accounts I have seen of why it really made no sense for the Republicans to support the stimulus package (a term I do wish that someone in the No-Drama Zone had thought to replace — it sounds like hospital equipment). It’s the role of the opposition party to oppose what a congressional majority and administration of the other party want, and it is a role the GOP is better able to play than ever because of the way everything but their hard southern and western core (the Bryan coalition) has been shorn away in the last two elections.

It was certainly sobering to have the House minority give the historic new president zero votes in his first bid to save the country, but it should not have been surprising, and not just in view of the modern GOP’s total irresponsibility regarding outmoded stuff like the national interest, the common good, and basic factuality. Ideologically the stimulus bill, the very idea of a stimulus bill on this scale, flies in the face of everything that the GOP thinks it has stood for for the last 30 years. I do not credit them for standing against government spending or deficits, since they love both of those as long as they are directed toward the military budget or tax cuts for the wealthy. However, the party of Reagan has pretty consistently set itself against the idea of government spending directed toward some common social purpose and, more fundamentally, against the idea that government can ever effect positive changes besides blowing stuff up in other countries. So the stakes are really quite high for the Republicans, and they are almost certainly going to lose this battle. The final bill may still contain too many tax cuts and not enough spending, but all the GOP has been able to do is fly their Hoover flag high in a time when that is not the public mood, to say the least.

I am a big believer in democratic party systems, and in my own work could probably be fairly accused of celebrating partisanship and partisan politicians. Yet, supporter and understander of partisanship though I may be, and glad as I am to see Obama leaving a bit of his post-partisan stance behind, his experiment did have a larger purpose and a wider audience than most of his left-blogosphere critics seem to understand. Large chunks of the electorate really do believe that partisanship is a problem. They want to see a president more oriented toward bringing people together to solve problems than scoring victories or, more to the point for left-blogosphere critics, engineering massive ideological shifts in American governance.

The thing is, even though the U.S. to some extent invented the modern political party, the institution of the political party has never been fully accepted on a cultural level, especially in the normative culture of middle-class American families. (See the writings of Ronald Forimisano, Mark Voss-Hubbard, and other contrarian political historians for chapter and verse on this.) Think about it: virtually every local club and organization in the country replicates the national political model on its own level, but only in part. Usually there is a constitution and almost always there are popularly elected officials, but how often do you see your local PTA or Elks Club further organized by parties? Almost never on an official level, even in cases (like many school boards) where party ideologies are in fact at work.  Frustrating as it is for many of us political intellectuals (if I may), Americans are comfortable with voting in popularity contests, but not with party organization and party ideology and the rest, even in their most high-minded forms. Call it false consciousness, call it self-defeating, but I think that’s where most Americans are at in terms of their ideas of appropriate political behavior.

It is to this broader political culture that Barack Obama has constantly addressed himself, and generally with much more success than practitioners of the neo-partisan approach popular in the blogosphere. Long story short: Obama played in Iowa, but Howard Dean really didn’t, in ways that predicted bigger things to come. There is a place for both approaches, but we need to respect the fact that Obama’s now has some empirical evidence to back it up (i.e., he’s president despite the Republican Noise Machine’s worst efforts). In the case of the stimulus, the president seems to have gotten in the end more or less what he wanted in the first place at the cost of letting the Republicans bloviate on cable for a few days and panicking a few of the liberal bloggers and columnists. In return, he retains the moral high ground and standing with the public at large that he will doubtless badly need for other crises yet to come, including the next stages of this one.

SIDENOTE: The point of Klein’s piece was to call for an end to the filibuster, a rant that I too have inflicted on friends and relatives several times in recent days.  While I still think that Harry Reid and his predecessors have made a mistake allowing the filibuster to become more or less automatic, it turns out that the filibuster is not the only constraint empowering those annoying Senate centrists. Read “Why will the stimulus require 60 votes to pass?” It turns out you can learn from the Internets after all. The deeper problem, of course, is equal state representation in the Senate.

Next Page »

Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved
Powered by WordPress