It’s been awhile since I’ve written, and it feels timely to share what I’m reading, intend to read, and things I think Americans would benefit from reading.
Most of the following will focus on the social issues of the day, largely because this consumes what I think about, but also because it’s consuming what most of us are thinking about.
So, let’s get started.
More American civics
Since we’re all engulfed in the adrenaline of the looming election — one accompanied with a Supreme Court nomination — I think it’s best Americans start going back to the basics.
What was the point of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights anyway? Why did the Constitution begin to be ratified in 1787, and why were the Articles of Confederation insufficient? Why did the framers choose our system of government and what did they think about democracy? These are all questions we should ask and refresh ourselves on, because Supreme Court nominations and our conversations around who is fit to judge hinge on interpretations of the Constitution and American governance.
I’d be the first to admit I didn’t pay enough attention in my high school government classes, but scrolling on the internet it seems like the majority of people didn’t either.
One constant we hear is a reference to the United States and its ‘democracy.’ It seems that Americans use this shorthand in speech because it’s easiest to explain our governing system as such. It could even be similar to how we say ‘Americans’ instead of ‘United States citizens’ when we refer to ourselves.
Whatever the reason, the United States is not a democracy (not a direct direct democracy at least). We’re probably best defined as a “constitutional federal republic.” Since the term ‘democracy’ in regard to the United States system lacks much context, I think it’s best we start to reacquaint ourselves. (We can also use a reacquaintance with classical liberalism.)
The framers weren’t actually very fond of democracy. They were concerned with majority rule (it wasn’t even until the early 1900s that senators were elected by the people rather than state legislatures). Here are two articles that are helpful in reference to how the founders viewed democracy.
- America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare | The Atlantic
- Why The Founding Fathers Despised Democracy | Townhall
Then, once you get into the weeds about the debates that shaped our American system and the Constitution’s ratification, you realize the depth of the conversations the framers were having. I’ve been reading Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution and The Federalist: The Essential Essays to try and understand more and give myself much needed additional context.
I know we’ve probably all heard about The Federalist Papers — or seen Hamilton — but for reference, these arguments by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton were meant to argue for the ratification of the Constitution that we now have. I think these early debates about how much power the national government should have, and how much power the states should have, are still resonating today. We see it in everything from coronavirus response policies to arguments about abortion.
Getting more rooted and versed in these foundational constitutional arguments will shed light on our current arguments. As a vast oversimplification, I think these sorts of debates are often still present through the lens of those who want a small federal government, and those who believe the federal government should have a more involved role in policy making. (The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country is an easy and accessible read on some of our enduring American debates.)
Race, class, and society
The conversation that has really taken hold of the American mind as of late is about race. I won’t go too deeply here, but I think our simplified emphasis on race denies some of the reasons for Trump’s presidency and why his style of populism is so well-received. Conservatives and liberals can agree that he’s had some off-color remarks, but I reject the idea that his political focus is on race. I reject this for reasons that would require other blog posts to write, but today I’d like to acknowledge that one of the reasons I reject the idea is because I think Trump is a president more focused on class differences.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric — which is actually similar to Bernie’s in some sense — has to do with the “elites,” the “establishment,” and his “draining of the swamp.” It’s no secret that one of Trump’s voting blocks was the working class union type that in years past we’d have thought of as blue-dog democrats.
It’s important to remember that what’s been lost in the conversation of ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’ is that large portions of this country that are white are by no means privileged. If you’re familiar with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, then you know his book is about this exact struggle for lower-income whites who have been greatly affected by broken families, drug issues, and unemployment or underemployment. (I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy, but I do recommend this interview with Peter Robinson at the Hoover Institution and J.D. Vance.)
Separate to the conversation of lower income whites, but still related to class in America, I’d like to share two articles that may hopefully shed more light. They highlight some of the disconnect between the upper and lower classes in America.
- Why young Asians are now woke | UnHerd
- Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class — A Status Update | Quillette
In summary, zeroing in on Trump as a ‘racist’ president plays well politically and it gets headlines, but it vastly misses the mark of what’s made him so popular and why our country is so divided. Our racial divide — though I’d argue it has been ashamedly exaggerated for political expediency and has many unacknowledged culprits on the left-side of the aisle — is a problem, but our class divide could be a larger one. It’s no coincidence that two of the most popular candidates in the last decade are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. (One just happens to be a left-leaning populist, and the other is a right-leaning populist).
If the conversation on Trump showcases anything, it’s that we’ve lost sight of objective analysis. Call his coronavirus response inadequate, call his tweets uncouth, say that he’s off-color or a provocateur, but please refuse the incorrect, irresponsible, and absurd labels that Trump is ‘fascist’ or ‘white supremacist’.’ This article “‘Weimar America’? The Trump Show Is No Cabaret | Bloomberg” by Niall Ferguson will elaborate on why that idea is very wrong from a historical perspective.
These paragraphs likely swung wide the door for conversation on topics that I may need to elaborate on or clarify further. Hopefully I get back in the swing of blogging and sharing content online to do just that, but for now, I’d encourage all of us in our reading and dialogue to realize that there is so much context that’s often lacking in political armchair observations or partisan hot takes.
We’d all be well served to work toward being the informed, judicious, dispassionate, and virtuous electorate that an experiment like ours in America asks of its citizens. We’d especially be well-served to hold off on the partisan contributions if we haven’t done our best to gather more perspective and context.