There have simply been too many good pieces published lately to keep up with. Here are some that I think are worth reading, with some select quotes and commentary.
First is David Frum’s worrying cover story in the Atlantic, ‘How to Build an Autocracy’, written even before the events of the past weekend. This is essential reading. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase ‘axis of evil’, is certainly no left wing shill, and people of all political persuasions should take him quite seriously. A short excerpt:
Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?
Over the past generation, we have seen ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system: the willingness of congressional Republicans to push the United States to the brink of a default on its national obligations in 2013 in order to score a point in budget negotiations; Barack Obama’s assertion of a unilateral executive power to confer legal status upon millions of people illegally present in the United States—despite his own prior acknowledgment that no such power existed.
Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled.
Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
Next is an excellent piece by Benjamin Wittes from the Lawfare blog, a site that is a well regarded resource on national security law, examining in detail this past weekend’s executive order. (For my own quick take, see here). Spoiler: it doesn’t come out looking good.
The malevolence of President Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees is mitigated chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.
I don’t use the word “malevolence” here lightly. As readers of my work know, I believe in strong counterterrorism powers. I defend non-criminal detention. I’ve got no problem with drone strikes. I’m positively enthusiastic about American surveillance policies. I was much less offended than others were by the CIA’s interrogations in the years after September 11. I have defended military commissions.
Some of these policies were effective; some were not. Some worked out better than others. And I don’t mean to relitigate any of those questions here. My sole point is that all of these policies were conceptualized and designed and implemented by people who were earnestly trying to protect the country from very real threats. And the policies were, to a one, proximately related to important goals in the effort. While some of these policies proved tragically misguided and caused great harm to innocent people, none of them was designed or intended to be cruel to vulnerable, concededly innocent people. Even the CIA’s interrogation program, after all, was deployed against people the agency believed (mostly correctly) to be senior terrorists of the most dangerous sort and to garner information from them that would prevent attacks.
I actually cannot say that about Trump’s new executive order—and neither can anyone else.
Now something shorter from Tyler Cowen at Bloomberg View on bursting the filter bubble. In these times, not only does it seem increasingly difficult but also even more essential, to understand the views of those we disagree with. When many voices in media simply cater to their viewership and have no interest in actually informing the public or engaging in a productive dialogue, how can we burst the filter bubble? Cowen recommends engaging in a version of the Ideological Turing Test. The original Turing Test is a benchmark for artificial intelligence: if an AI can, through conversation, fool a human into thinking that the AI itself is human, then it has passed the Turing Test. Similarly, the Ideological Turing Test asks us to be able to explain an opposing view in such terms that we could fool others into thinking we held that view. It’s sound advice, and I anticipate using this space in the future to experiment with such pieces.
Finally, the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, has been publishing a fantastic series of pieces on liberalism. Jacob T. Levy, whose work I wrote about earlier, in particular has been very good. While nearly everything so far is worth reading, these pieces in particular are essential:
The Future of Liberalism and the Politicization of Everything: A good primer on liberalism.
A Tale of Two Moralities, Part One: Regional Inequality and Moral Polarization: Expands on many of the issues of inequality and sorting I discussed in Our Kids Are Coming Apart.
The Party Declines: A defense of party politics. Novice political observers tend to be very cynical about political parties, and imagine that a universe without party politics would be a better one. Levy mounts a convincing case for strengthening America’s political parties, which are actually very weak, and this weakness is one source of our current political dysfunction.
The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics: In the wake the 2016 election, many voices called for the left to abandon the identity politics they felt had come to dominate Clinton’s campaign and subsequently lead to her defeat. Levy assures us that identity politics are instead essential to a functioning democracy. This Vox piece is a useful companion.
The Free Society is an Open Society: In which Levy argues that a war against immigration is at its roots a war against a free society.
That’s all for now!