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Washington’s real birthday was just last Friday, and perhaps in preparation for it, on Wednesday the anti-tax, anti-government-debt activist Grover Norquist posted this: “Today, in 1792, George Washington signed the law creating the US Postal Service. Oh, well. No one is perfect.”

The purport of Norquist’s tweet — even great Washington nodded — is actually kind of funny. Yet it relies, not surprisingly, on a false presumption: that the first president’s other efforts and decisions were dedicated to bringing about the kind of American government that Norquist and fellow anti-tax, anti-debt types do want: little-to-zero debt and very low taxes, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.

In fact the Norquist crowd would get little support from the real George Washington. The first president did not, putting it mildly, hope to diminish the size and scope of central government. He loved federal taxes. And he was a big fan of national debt. (more…)

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gone, gone with the wind?

Further strangeness in William F. Buckley’s career and its fabled connection to the right wing’s ascendency in the 1960′s: Buckley vs. Wallace.

What’s really impressive to me about Buckley is that he held his own, as a larger-than-life public elitist, within the right-wing insurgency that took over the Republican Party; indeed he helped lead it. That insurgency famously gained most of its ground by evincing not old-school country-estate elitism but extreme populism. The right began attacking Democratic Party inheritors of the New Deal, not wrongly, as privileged and patronizing; even more significantly, and at least as accurately, it ganged liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller in with them. Yet Buckley, a self-created cartoon of privilege and condescension, and in his early adulthood a questing romantic for elite glories, managed to help lead the new-right populist charge.

“Liberal Republicans”: Many younger people today may presume these were oddball edge cases. That misperception shows the overwhelming success of the right-wing effort that began during the period we’re talking about. Both parties then had strong liberal-establishment elements, today often called “moderate” on the Republican side, as the right wing (then led by Robert Taft) was always so immoderate that the Republican Thomas Dewey warned against letting the right take over the party: if it ever did, he predicted, Republicans would lose every future election.

Dewey was wrong, of course, and Kevin Phillips, who got it right — he was an author of the populist “new conservative” strategy of the era — scorned William F. Buckley, calling him “Squire Willie.” It makes sense. What place could a newly populist right have for a Yale man whose hot-potato accent rivaled FDR’s and Rocky’s (Buckley’s was evidently put on), who made a career reveling in Bach, using big words, writing books about private sailing trips, and suggesting that uneducated people shouldn’t vote?

One of the more interesting moments in this conflict within the insurgent right came when Buckley interviewed George Wallace on Buckley’s TV interview show “Firing Line.” Although Buckley did the questioning, the program was marketed as a debate, moderated, supposedly, by one C. Dickerman Williams. (A story for another time, and maybe the only Gore Vidalish moment I’ll ever get: I expose the UES/Litchfield County line of my heritage by noting that this C.D. Williams moved in circles in which my maternal grandparents also moved — mainly liberal-establishment Republican ones! — when I was kid. I remember him well and was amused to discover him on “Firing Line” actively not moderating the Buckley-Wallace “debate.”) Despite the presence of a fake moderator, Buckley’s interview of Wallace is really an O’Reilly-like “this is my show” attack.

Since Wallace was poster-boy for racial segregation in the South, Buckley’s attack on him provides Buckley admirers with yet another basis for claiming that Buckley repudiated racism on behalf of conservatism. But again the realpolitik of the moment suggests more interesting readings to me. (more…)

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political operative as romantic egoist

In a Boston Review essay, I had occasion to explore the early writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., on racial segregation. I argued then that Buckley’s famous 2004 apology for having once held racially regressive positions — an apology cited by his fans both conservative and liberal, part and parcel of a contention that, despite a perhaps unfortunate history together, racism and American conservatism aren’t ineluctably connected — was no apology at all. The aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he’d actually advanced in the 1950′s.

Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”

In 2004, asked whether he’d ever taken a position he now regretted, he said “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Neatly done. Where in ’57 he’d asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in ’04 Buckley expressed regret for having supposedly believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention. Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today both with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, “evolved up.” Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement’s origins.

The persistence of the most virulent kind of racism and white supremacism in some National Review writers, leading to their recent firing, doesn’t mean to me that all of American conservatism is racist. But I think the firings, and ensuing discussion of them by, for two, Joan Walsh and Alex Pareene at Salon, support a suggestion I made in that essay regarding the nature of Buckley’s evolution away from his 1957 position. Buckley did evolve — but not in the way his fans like to imagine: (more…)

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I haven’t been blogging, because I’m buried in finishing a book on founding-era taxes, public debt, tea parties, occupations, and other economic and financial struggles of that period, but an article entitled Betrayal of the Founders (sent to me this morning by Jerry Fresia because, I suspect, he knows what I’m going to say about it!) is so germane to the problems in founding history I’m exploring that I want to make hasty comment. The piece is on the “Counterpunch” site, the free online component to the dissenting political newsletter of the same name edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and it’s by Ray McGovern, formerly a U.S. Army officer and CIA analyst, now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

McGovern criticizes President Obama’s signing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which he describes, I think rightly, as

affirming that the president has the authority to use to detain any person “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Under the law, the president also may lock up anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its coalition allies “without trial, until the end of the hostilities.” The law embraces the notion that the U.S. military can be used even domestically to arrest an American citizen or anyone else who falls under such suspicion — and it is “suspicion” because a trial can be avoided indefinitely.

McGovern also trenchantly criticizes Obama’s reassuring us that we can take the act as more or less okay because Obama is committed to never using it to do anything wrong. The absurdity of that claim is so manifest, at least to me, and I think so damaging to the whole idea of the rule of law, that with McGovern, I wonder why there hasn’t been more coverage criticizing it. The Constitution isn’t clear on everything (originalists to the contrary), but it’s clear as a bell on habeas corpus. Liberals who excoriated Bush’s use of torture, detentions, signing statements, etc., have been strangely silent on Obama’s behavior here.

But McGovern fatally contradicts his own realism about Obama’s policies in this area with a completely unrealistic paean to none other than George Washington, presented by McGovern in typically glowing terms as our great and nearly godlike fighter for the individual liberties set out in the Bill of Rights.

I bring this up because this is what we always do: reach for “the founders”  to support an objection to current policies. And because in the case of Washington, that reach is a grope, at best, in the dark, and because McGovern uses his invocation of Washington as a call to what sounds like revolutionary action against Obama, I think it’s worth remembering Washington’s impatience with dissent and scorn for the civil rights of citizens he branded, without due process, enemies.

If we’re going to have a revolution on these issues — and I’m pretty sure we’re not! — we won’t find any real inspiration for it in our founding president. He would have cracked our heads. And if we’re not going to have a revolution, but hope instead to take effective action against executive overreaching, we’d do better to stop living in fuzzy dream about the past.

Here’s some of McGovern on Washington:
(more…)

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Why Is This Man Laughing?

I did half an hour yesterday with Boston College Radio on my various topics. Scroll to Saturday, November 26, 11:00 AM  “Sounds of Dissent.” The whole show’s interesting; I think I start about halfway through.  [UPDATE: Reader John TK says at about the 36-minute mark.]  The interview.

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Another round at “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, where Tea Party leader Michael Patrtick Leahy and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims.

Circling now around the Constitution.  In the earlier round, Leahy called it a secular covenant; he also called its adoption and ratification “authentically democratic.” So I say:

I suspect there’s something about your use of “covenant” that needs to be unpacked. Is “covenant” a reference to the incontrovertible fact that the document was written via delegation and ratified via representation?

Nobody can disagree that the Constitution was “formed in an intense, elaborate national discussion that took place over four long years from 1787 to 1791.” But I do infer that we have a clear and stark disagreement over the role of democracy in both the convention and ratification, and in this regard I have a disagreement with many liberal historians too. I think the convention’s purpose, as Randolph announced in calling the meeting to order, was to redress what he called “insufficient checks” against what he was not alone in calling “the democracy.”. . .

Leahy:

I use the term “secular covenant” to describe  the binding nature of the Constitution. It represents an agreement between the citizens, the state governments, and the federal government as to how we consent to be governed.  The terms of this secular covenant are contained in the words of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, and their meaning is the plain meaning of those words. The method of changing the terms of the secular covenant is found in the amendment process of the document itself. No other means of changing the terms–either expansive judicial interpretrations or executive usurpations–are authentic. . . .

Me:

(Stay tuned again . . . )

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At “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, the HarperCollins line of conservative titles edited by Adam Bellow, Michael Patrtick Leahy (editor of the “Voices of the Tea Party” series, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition) and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims. Below are some samples.

Me (first posted in my “Founding Finance” series at New Deal 2.0):

The Tea Party movement, for example, has laid its claim on the founding period, and to a great extent that claim is indeed an economic and financial one. Casting the modern welfare state as a form of tyranny, in large part because of what they see as its excessive taxation, Tea Partiers invoke the famous American resistance to Parliament’s efforts to raise a revenue in the colonies without the consent traditionally given by representation. . . . The Tea Party thus edits out an alternative view of government that prevailed among the ordinary 18th-century Americans who were all-important to achieving independence. . . . The internal struggle for American equality was as important to the founding as the high-Whig resistance to England, but the Tea Party can’t deal with the populist leaders and militia rank-and-file who wrote the socially radical 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, or the Shaysites of Massachusetts who marched on the state armory, or the so-called whiskey rebels who inspired federal occupation of western Pennsylvania.

Leahy:

Mr. Hogeland condescendingly assumes that tea party activists are unfamiliar with these three historical incidents. To the contrary, we are more familiar with their relevance to our modern circumstances than is Mr. Hogeland himself.

As an historian, Mr. Hogeland should familiarize himself with the three core values of the Tea Party movement, which we’ve loudly proclaimed in every venue possible for the past two years: (1) Constitutionally limited government (2) Free markets and (3) Fiscal Responsibility.

As he well knows, both the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Shays Rebellion of Massachusetts took place before the ratification of the Constitution. As for the “Whiskey Rebels” of western Pennsylvania, their complaint against the early Federal government was that it passed a law that unfairly taxed small whiskey producers at much higher rates than large whiskey producers in urban areas. It was a violation of their individual liberties and the principles of free markets for the government to pick the “winners” (large urban manufacturers) and “losers” (small rural manufacturers).

Me:

The Tea Party’s core values, as you lay them out, are overwhelmingly familiar, not only to me but at this point probably to almost everybody else, and as they stand, they’re banal and tendentious, meant to imply that anyone opposing or opposed by the Tea Party must, by definition, favor 1) unconstitutionally unlimited government, 2) strangled markets, and 3) fiscal irresponsibility. Since nobody would openly espouse such a position, it’s useless to argue about it. Any real argument would have to be about what those deliberately unarguable phrases might mean, what they include and exclude, how they should or should not be applied, etc. . . .

Leahy:

To the contrary, our claim that the Constitution, as ratified and amended, is a secular covenant by which we are all bound is the strongest, most democratically rooted claim on history that emerges from the American founding period. . . . Mr. Hogeland appears to regard the Constitution as something other than a binding secular covenant, and in this I would submit he makes an error of historic misinterpretation. . . . Mr. Hogeland seems to be implying that the process by which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified somehow excluded the ordinary citizens who participated in these events. To the contrary, they were heavily involved. Indeed, many of the authors of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution participated as elected delegates to the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution by a 2 to 1 margin in 1789. Influenced by this debate, no doubt, the state of Pennsylvania threw out the 1776 version of its constitution the very next year, so unsuccessful in actual operation had been this document upon which Mr. Hogeland relies for one-third of his argument. Similarly, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion of western Massachusetts voted for delegates to that state’s 1788 ratification convention as well as members of the Massachusetts State Legislature who later deliberated the merits of the Bill of Rights.

Me:
(Stay tuned . . . ) [UPDATE: I've written a (long) response, which should start getting rolled out, with Leahy's responses, at "Line of Fire" next week.]

So we’re actually having a debate. No good can come of this!

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