Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The New Nationalism and the Old

With Britain voting to exit the European Union, Donald Trump claiming the Republican nomination for President, and Marine Le Pen currently leading the first round polls for the French presidential election, it is clear that nationalism is back. In all these instances, the candidates are generally designated "right-wing" or "far right". They emphasize parochial needs rather than universal values, and have been embraced by those who scoff at the progressive spirit.

And yet, despite the online spectacle of the Alt-Right and self-identified "neo-reactionaries", the leaders of populist electoral nationalism have largely ignored their values. Donald Trump has swatted aside conservative orthodoxy on planned parenthood and posed as the defender of America's gay community, while his daughter lauded him as a champion of "equal pay for equal work". Brexit advocates appealed to the principle of democracy and defense of the NHS more than stressing Britain's constitutional traditions, while Marine Le Pen has repudiated many of her father's free-market principles to champion feminism, intervention in the economy, and a generous welfare state. Twentieth century nationalism may have been a creature of the right, but the new nationalism is remarkably secular, democratic, and egalitarian.

In this, it resembles nationalism in its original incarnation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached the collective sovereignty of the people in assertion of their rights against their rulers. In contrast to the intellectuals who sought the favor of courts and princes across Europe, he argued: "Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour."

The french revolutionaries followed Rousseau's counsel to dethrone a King who had sought the assistance of his wife's Austrian royal family to wipe out the domestic constraints on his power. Nationalism was subsequently, and for most of the 19th century, a left-wing idea -- with national liberation movements rousing international enthusiasm, particularly in overthrowing multinational authorities such as the Habsburg Monarchy or Ottoman Empire.

The democratic revolutions and nationalist ideals that shook Europe in 1848 achieved their fruition through Woodrow Wilson's insistence on the principle of self-determination at Versailles in 1919.  As this left Austria-Hungary in ruin, a power vacuum around a still-united Germany resulted, with disastrous consequences. As the continent rebuilt in 1945, Germany was deliberately divided and shackled by the constraints of the European Union.

Seventy years later, the unaccountable multinational institutions of the EU are beginning to yield the same popular frustrations that those that struck Austria in 1848.  With cosmopolitan elites suspected of serving their own distinctive interests, nationalism is striking a populist cord.  As a result, it should be no surprise that political candidates seeking to exploit democratic and egalitarian sentiments end up promoting values closer to those of Mazzini than those of Metternich.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Trump, Conservatism, and the Supreme Court

Many reasonable conservatives will grant that Trump is not one of them.  They will grant that he has no interest in competitive markets, in restraining spending, in protecting the family, in leaving issues to the states, or defending religious liberty.  They may even admit that he is ill-informed, incompetent, and a serious threat to the system of alliances that has kept the western world at peace for the past 70 years.  And yet, they argue, the power of SCOTUS demands that they fall in line.

Anyone expecting Donald Trump to be the Republican President to achieve the overturn of Roe v Wade, after four of his predecessors (committed to the issue, where he is not) have tried and failed, must be counted as somewhat deluded.  As must any Republican who expects him to nominate Supreme Court justices who will institute tight limits on the power of the presidency and federal government.  Even if the Republican Party retains the Senate in November and he dutifully defers to Mitch McConnell's list of suggested nominees (don't laugh!), midterm elections will eventually give the Senate back to the Democrats.  If Trump doesn't cut a deal with Chuck Schumer to seat a pro-Planned Parenthood liberal before, he certainly will then.

And, if Trump is elected President, that means he will be the Republican nominee in 2020.  As a result, in the best case scenario it will be 2024 (if ever) before conservatives get a chance to put a solid choice of their own on the court.  A desperate haste to salvage a terrible deal this year will prevent conservatives from striking a good one from 2020.

With Hillary Clinton as President, the Democrats will very likely lose the majority of the Senate in 2018 if they win it back at all.  A Senate GOP dominated by conservatives, united in opposition to Hillary rather than subservient to Donald, is one that can be relied upon to take a firm stance on SCOTUS appointments (as it has done so this year).

Under divided government, Presidents hoping to change the composition of the Court must yield to the preferences of the Senate majority party if they wish a new justice to be seated.  This is how liberals achieved Souter, Stevens, and Kennedy -- nominally appointed by Republican presidents.  No additional justice need be appointed to the Supeme Court unless the majority of the Senate feels that the Court is improved as a result.  The Senate can hold firm to insist that a compromise pick be nominated.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The tragedy of Lord Acton

"If any work is ever really wasted in the world, it is that of the man who makes himself a sort of walking encyclopaedia, and then dies without having produced a single book. His knowledge perishes with him, and the facts which he has collected have to be reconquered by some successor, because he has never deigned to commit them to paper.

Every one of us has known such men—but perhaps I may be permitted to speak for a moment of the king of them all. I name him with infinite respect: he was in some ways a great man, and he might have been a great historian. He started to read history early, he was granted a long life, he had ample leisure, he was able to collect such a library of its kind as England had never before seen. And he died leaving as his life's achievement a lecture or two, and a number of reviews and short papers scattered about in the back numbers of more or less unobtainable periodicals, together with a scheme for a modern history which (though excellent in itself) has certainly not been carried out on the lines which he laid down.

This heart-breaking paucity of results from a man qualified to do great things seems to me to have proceeded mainly from the cardinal defect of the want of a definite clear-cut thesis. Lord Acton had a great book hovering before his mind: what it was I have never made out: his literary executor, Mr. John Morley, once told me that he fancied that its subject was the Growth of the Modern Idea of Liberty: but two or three alternative and equally vast titles have been suggested. Whatever it was, its compilation necessitated the accumulation of such a mass of detailed material that no single human brain could possibly deal with it. I went down into Shropshire to look at that famous library before it was removed to Cambridge: never was there such a pathetic sight of wasted labour.

The owner had read it all: there were shelves on shelves on every conceivable subject—Renaissance sorcery— the Fueros of Aragon—Scholastic Philosophy—the growth of the French Navy—American exploration— Church Councils—and many books were full of hundreds of cross-references in pencil, noting passages as bearing on some particular development or evolution in modern life or thought. There were pigeon-holed cabinets with literally thousands of compartments, into each of which were sorted scores of little white papers with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (as far as I could judge) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift of the section. Arranged in the middle of the long two-storied room was a sort of altar or column composed entirely of unopened parcels of new books from continental publishers. They were apparently coming in at the rate often or fifteen books a week, and the owner had evidently tried to keep pace with the accumulation—to digest and annotate them all, and work them into his vast thesis—whatever it was.

For years apparently he must have been engaged on this Sisyphean task. Over all these were brown holland sheets, a thick coating of dust, the motes dancing in the pale September sun, a faint aroma of mustiness proceeding from thousands of seventeenth and eighteenth century leather bindings in a room that had been locked up since its owner's death. I never saw any sight which so much impressed on me the vanity of human life. A quarter of the work that had been spent on making those annotations and filling those pigeon-holes would have produced twenty volumes of good history—perhaps an epoch-making book that might have lived for centuries. But all the labour had been wasted—save so far as the actual accumulation of the dead books was a permanent gain to Cambridge—because the accumulator had too vague and too broad an aim.

It is better to have produced one solid monograph on the minutest point— better to have edited a single pipe-roll or annotated a single short chronicle—than to have accumulated for forty years unwritten learning that goes down to the grave and is lost. And I said to myself—Learn to be definite at all costs; be limited, if it is necessary, stick to a single century if it must be so, or to a single reign, but write something—knowledge not committed to paper is knowledge lost."

- (Charles Oman, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History)