Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. Authoritarian Blindness
How soon we forget the big lessons of the Cold War.
There is a weirdly persistent tendency to think of dictatorships as strong, orderly, and effective, when all the evidence indicates that they are weak, chaotic, and hugely inefficient.
This is not just a lesson of the Cold War. I've recently been reading the memoirs of Albert Speer, and I have been continually astonished at his descriptions of the chaos, the blindness, the total lack of planning in the Hitler regime. Germany may have a reputation as a nation of engineers, but it was led by a failed artist who liked to sleep in late, make decisions with his gut, and have his subordinates tell him only what he wanted to hear.
The Soviet Union had the same tendency to be blind to what was going on within its own borders because the people were silenced by fear and all information was filtered through a corrupt bureaucracy.
Now the outbreak of the coronavirus is teaching us the same lesson. The government of China initially ignored the outbreak until it spread so far that they had to shut down vast regions of the country, which is having a big impact on its economy.
This has led to some speculation that the current crisis could take down the increasingly totalitarian regime of Xi Jinping by breaking the implicit "social contract" in which the Chinese people agree to trade away political freedom for prosperity. I'm not so sure, at least in the short term. For example, this crisis has already caused the showdown in Hong Kong to be put on hold. Moreover, I don't think any dictatorship has ever really suffered from having an excuse to put the country on lockdown, prevent its citizens from gathering in public, and detain anyone who seems suspicious—medically, or otherwise.
So it will take a while to figure out what the long-term effects of this particular event will be on Xi's grip on power. I'm more interested in what it reveals about the wider phenomenon of "authoritarian blindness"—the inability of dictatorial regimes to figure out what is happening in their own countries.
Zeynep Tufekci, a critic of authoritarian rule in her native Turkey, describes this phenomenon.
Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat "five meals a day." Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of "leftovers" down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.
Mao didn't know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.
For a few years, it appeared that China had found a way to be responsive to its citizens without giving them political power. Researchers have shown, for example, that posts on Weibo (China's Twitter) complaining about problems in governance or corruption weren't all censored. Many were allowed to stay up, allowing crucial information to trickle up to authorities. For example, viral posts about forced demolitions (a common occurrence in China) or medical mistreatment led to authorities sacking the officials involved, or to victim compensation that would otherwise not have occurred. A corrupt official was even removed from office after outraged netizens on social media pointed out the expensive watches he wore, which were impossible to buy on his government salary.
Such reforms, however, have a tendency to get out of hand. The beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, for example, was a policy of "openness" intended to deal with precisely this problem. But once "opened," the Soviet system couldn't be closed again. Xi Jinping decided not to take that chance, so he has reimposed a system of authoritarian blindness—and the coronavirus outbreak is a direct consequence.
In early December, a strange cluster of patients from a local seafood market, which also sold wildlife for consumption, started showing up in Wuhan hospitals. These initial patients developed a fever and pneumonia that did not seem to be caused by any known viruses. Given the SARS experience of 2003, local doctors were quickly alarmed....
On December 30, a group of doctors attempted to alert the public, saying that seven patients were in isolation due to a SARS-like disease. On the same day, an official document admitting both a link to the seafood market and a new disease was leaked online. On December 31, facing swirling rumors, the Wuhan government made its first official announcement, confirming 27 cases but, crucially, denying human-to-human transmission. Teams in hazmat suits were finally sent to close down the seafood market, though without explaining much to the befuddled, scared vendors. On January 1, police said they had punished eight medical workers for 'rumors,' including a doctor named Li Wenliang, who was among the initial group of whistleblowers....
Domestic social media has erupted in anger at both China's central leadership and local officials in Hubei province, where the disease began. There are calls for free speech, fury over the death of one of the early medical whistleblowers from the virus, and frustrations with the quarantine.
It's not clear why Xi let things spin so far out of control. It might be that he brushed aside concerns from his aides until it was too late, but a stronger possibility is that he did not know the crucial details. Hubei authorities may have lied, not just to the public but also upward—to the central government. Just as Mao didn't know about the massive crop failures, Xi may not have known that a novel coronavirus with sustained human-to-human transmission was brewing into a global pandemic until too late....
If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for "rumors" becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis.
Tufekci ends with one of the best analogies I have heard for this phenomenon.
An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one's body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it's too late.
This is what the free market has in common with free speech: both are systems for conveying information about what is happening in a society. Suppress either of them, and the result is a dangerous lack of sensation, followed by paralysis.
That's why free speech is being proposed as the solution, in a petition put together by Chinese scientists and intellectuals.
The petition, addressed to the National People's Congress, lists five demands for Beijing: to protect people's right to freedom of expression; to discuss the issue at NPC meetings; to make February 6, the day Li [Wenliang] died, a national day for free speech; to ensure no one is punished, threatened, interrogated, censored or locked up for their speech, civil assembly, letters or communication; and to give equitable treatment, such as medical care, to people from Wuhan and Hubei province. Many people from the outbreak epicenter have reported experiencing discrimination elsewhere in the country as the virus has spread.
The petition is gaining momentum online, but some of the signatories have already come under pressure. They include Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua and her colleague, law professor Xu Zhangrun, whose accounts on social media network WeChat have been blocked. Xu wrote a damning letter last week blaming Beijing's crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression for making it impossible to raise the alarm about the coronavirus outbreak.
An economic slowdown may chip away at the Chinese people's support for the regime, but it is this kind of substantive argument that could really move China in the right direction.
2. "Outer Borough Caesars"
America's political system is in far better shape than China's, of course—but we have our own problems with authoritarianism. Consider the presidential race, which may be narrowing down to a collection of politicians who have very expansive interpretations of executive power. Bernie Sanders is the latest to make a lot of promises about what he's going to do by executive order.
The best formulation I have found for this is a description of America as falling under the sway of "Outer Borough Caesars."
November will witness the fourth presidential election to be held under the latest incarnation of the American state. In my book The Next American Nation in 1995, I predicted that at some point early in the 21st century, the Third Republic of the United States—assembled during the New Deal and World War II and held together to some large extent by the real and imagined exigencies of the Cold War—would finally collapse and be replaced by a Fourth Republic of the United States, just as the Third Republic had replaced the Second Republic of Lincoln—which was built during and after the Civil War from the burning ruins of Washington's First Republic. Meanwhile, Americans would pretend we were still living under the Constitution of 1787 as amended, just as we had done after previous unofficial revolutions.
I was correct that a new American regime would arise following crises in the early 21st century, but I was mistaken to assume that it would be followed by another republic. The term Principate, used for the early era of the Caesars, when features of Roman republican government still limited the reach and ambition of wannabe dictators, seems apt. Welcome to the First Principate of the United States.
Barack Obama and Donald Trump represent different kinds of Caesarism, to be sure. The editors of the "Against Trump" issue of National Review wrote of Trump: "He and Bernie Sanders have shared more than funky outer-borough accents." Indeed. Trump is an Outer Borough Caesar, channeling resentment against the downtown banking and law establishments and other members of "the elite." So is Bernie Sanders, with his "funky" Brooklyn accent and his appeal to working-class voters of all races, in addition to the new college-educated base of the Democrats....
Obama was a Downtown Caesar; Buttigieg and Bloomberg may fit the role as well. Outer Borough Caesars channel mass anger against the establishment.
The irony is that the author of this article, Michael Lind, buys way too much into "deep state" conspiracy theories—in the old "military-industrial complex" variant—which are largely cover for outsiders candidates' failure to manage the bureaucracy. This gives him a certain sympathy toward the imperial presidency as a counterbalance to a supposed tyranny of the bureaucracy. So he comes to this not-so-very comforting conclusion.
The First American Principate is still in its infancy, and nobody can predict how it will evolve. It could last for decades, or for generations. But what seems clear right now is that the balance of power among the new plebiscitary presidency, Congress, the courts, and the national security establishment is unstable. The First Principate at some point will give way to something else. It may turn out we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—Diocletian.
This is exactly how the Roman republic ended up sliding into an imperial dictatorship—and it's how we will do it if we keep electing "Outer Borough Caesars."
The Democratic Party will probably decide its future direction in the next four days: today's South Carolina primary, followed by the Super Tuesday primaries in a collection of other states, mostly across the South. This is when we will see if there really is a silent majority or a conservative base of the Democratic Party. It's when we will see if there's a #NeverBernie movement that will block Senator Sanders after his early wins in the small-population states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
There is some hopeful news on that score. After seeming to crash in the polls, both nationally and in South Carolina, Joe Biden is bouncing back into what looks like a strong lead again. This is what Biden is counting on to change the media narrative leading into Super Tuesday and give him a chance of denying Sanders a plurality of delegates.
It looks like the Democratic Party establishment is also trying to rally against Sanders.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, hear constant warnings from allies about congressional losses in November if the party nominates Bernie Sanders for president. Democratic House members share their Sanders fears on text-messaging chains. Bill Clinton, in calls with old friends, vents about the party getting wiped out in the general election....
Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders's candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance....
From California to the Carolinas, and North Dakota to Ohio, the party leaders say they worry that Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist with passionate but limited support so far, will lose to President Trump, and drag down moderate House and Senate candidates in swing states with his left-wing agenda of 'Medicare for all' and free four-year public college.
Mr. Sanders and his advisers insist that the opposite is true—that his ideas will generate huge excitement among young and working-class voters, and lead to record turnout. Such hopes have yet to be borne out in nominating contests so far....
While there is no widespread public effort underway to undercut Mr. Sanders, arresting his rise has emerged as the dominant topic in many Democratic circles. Some are trying to act well before the convention: Since Mr. Sanders won Nevada's caucuses on Saturday, four donors have approached former Representative Steve Israel of New York to ask if he can suggest someone to run a super PAC aimed at blocking Mr. Sanders. He declined their offer.
"People are worried," said former Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who in October endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. "How you can spend four or five months hoping you don't have to put a bumper sticker from that guy on your car."
Others are urging former President Barack Obama to get involved to broker a truce—either among the four moderate candidates or between the Sanders and establishment wings, according to three people familiar with those conversations....
People close to Mr. Obama say he has no intention of getting involved in the primary contest, seeing his role as less of a kingmaker than as a unifying figure to help heal party divisions once Democrats settle on a nominee.
Ah, how familiar this all sounds, as if they're trying to cobble together a #NeverBernie movement. I hope it turns out better for Democrats than it did for Republicans.
By the way, people hoping for Barack Obama to weigh in on the side of his former vice-president are making a mistake. They're thinking of Obama as a "moderate" who would naturally be expected to support his fellow moderate. But people forget that Obama was raised a radical and kept company with radicals well into his 30s. So somewhere in the back of his mind, he has his mom and Saul Alinsky and Jeremiah Wright telling him that Bernie is the right guy.
The other part of Obama—the part people think of as "moderate"—is the cautious, calculating politician who just wants to do the safe thing and be liked. That's the part with the vague platitudes and measured, unscary demeanor that people interpret as "moderate." (In these respects—the radical associations and moderate demeanor—the candidate closest to him is Pete Buttigieg.) This is the part of Obama that picked Joe Biden as his vice-president, and precisely for that reason, he's not going to stick his neck out to help Joe at the risk of alienating the most passionate wing of the party.
It's also a reminder of why, despite being loved and fiercely defended (and just as fiercely hated by the opposition) while he was in office, Obama doesn't really look like all that consequential a president in hindsight. The only big accomplishment of his that you could name, Obamacare, is the system Democrats are now campaigning against.
This, I suppose, is a reminder that we don't have an imperial presidency quite yet and that the good a president can do, and the damage, are fortunately still limited.
4. Madrassas of Anti-Americanism
I've been running around with my hair on fire about the illiberal, "nationalist," and above all anti-individualist right that has been rising in influence during the Trump era. I linked recently to a piece by Park McDougald on the theocratic Catholic "integralists." He follows up with another piece on the hostility toward the free market among young conservatives who have come of age in the Trump era. The whole thing is pretty alarming reading. Here are just a few lowlights.
Both the president's supporters and his critics have interpreted his victory as a decisive rebuke of the GOP's Obama-era priorities; widespread opposition to Obamacare had not, it turned out, meant that voters were enthusiastic about limited government, privatizing Social Security, or fixing the debt. At the same time, it revealed the impotence of the conservative journalists, intellectuals, wonks, think tankers, foreign-policy experts, and consultants who turned up their noses at Trump's candidacy....
[W]hatever the practical shortcomings of his administration, Trump has undoubtedly opened up new political and intellectual space on the right. Ideas that would have been taboo only a few years ago are now in play, as different factions of the party compete to set the agenda for 2020 and beyond....
Among conservative millennial Catholics, for instance, the free-market Catholic fusionism associated with figures such as Richard John Neuhaus is now giving way to various strands of "post-liberal" Catholicism, including the religiously inflected populism of First Things under the editorship of R.R. Reno and a revived form of integralism that calls for the state to promote Catholic social teaching.
Less visible but perhaps more important is the shift among a set of younger conservatives—intellectuals, journalists, and Hill staffers—toward what is sometimes called the "new nationalism." What sets this younger cohort apart is a conviction that the future of the Republican Party lies with the working class and with what one of their champions, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, has referred to as the "great American middle." They want a more solidaristic conservatism that is less libertarian, both culturally and economically, and in some ways less liberal. Speaking of his students, Ian Marcus Corbin, a writer and academic at Boston College, told me, "I very rarely encounter the kind of bow-tied Hayekian conservative that was around when I was in college."...
The new millennial right is as much a sensibility as a coherent intellectual movement. Many call themselves "nationalists" and most use "libertarian" as a slur....
The rising influence of [Christopher] Lasch and other communitarians tracks with a broader shift away from the 'socially liberal, fiscally conservative' position popular with young right-wingers during the Obama years, and toward a newfound social conservatism tied to a form of class critique. Many of the people I spoke to said they had been libertarians in college—one called libertarianism 'a way of announcing that you're contrarian and a right-winger but that you're totally cool with the way that sex works in the American upper-middle class'—but have since moved right on social issues. Charles Fain Lehman, a 25-year-old writer and editor for the Washington Free Beacon, described a disillusionment with "freedom as quote-unquote self-actualization." There is, he said, a "strong realization" that "it actually makes people quite miserable."...
Both wings of the "new right" are heavily influenced by followers of the philosopher Leo Strauss: Krein is a former student of the East Coast Straussian Harvey Mansfield, while the Claremont intellectuals, including Anton, are almost all partisans of the West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa. Strauss criticized modern political philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes for abandoning the natural right tradition of classical philosophy and medieval religion. His "East Coast" students took this to imply that the United States, founded on Enlightenment philosophy, could be a good regime but never an ideal one. The "West Coast" Straussians, led by Jaffa, argued that the philosophy of the Founding Fathers (and of later American statesmen such as Lincoln) had in fact synthesized the classical and medieval concepts Strauss had sought to recover....
Claremont plans to open a "Center for the American Way of Life" in Washington this quarter, which plans "to talk frankly in a way that some of the legacy institutions seem reluctant to do about some of the domestic regime threats and what we think those are, such as identity politics and aggressive multiculturalist liberalism." He pointed me to an article by Arthur Milikh in the current issue of National Affairs calling for an aggressive federal crackdown on universities as an example of the kind of policy the new think tank would get behind, explaining that "higher education and ed schools really are madrassas of anti-Americanism."
"Madrassas of anti-Americanism"—a reference to fundamentalist Muslim religious schools—seems like quite an act of psychological projection. That's especially true given the kind of Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue they want to set up.
An "aggressive federal crackdown on universities" implies an attempt to impose direct federal control over the realm of ideas. I don't see what could possibly go wrong with that—or how this could possibly be turned back against conservatives.
The new nationalist right may not be as big as it seems. Matthew Continetti dismisses it as a few "young people...in their mid- or late-20s" whose "political memories begin with Trump." And I can't help noting that these guys who thump their chests about how they speak for ordinary folks of middle America are largely "intellectuals, journalists, and Hill staffers" concentrated at think tanks and in a few big cities.
But what makes me take them more seriously is the extent to which they are not a departure from traditional conservatism but a more consistent embodiment of it. The idea that the problem is "liberalism" and "autonomy" and "self-actualization" is not remotely new. They just take it more seriously, and without trying to fuse it with more rational and liberal ideas.
5. What If the World Isn't Ending?
There's a lot of bad news out there, both in politics and the culture. For example, I can't resist following up on my comments on didacticism in art and my and Sherri's comments on architecture by pointing to an amazing example of didacticism in architecture.
A red shipwreck crashes into this high-rise, which Black n' Arch and sculptor David Černý have designed for developer Trigema on the outskirts of Prague.
The shipwreck will envelop the 135-metre-high building, named Top Tower, which is expected to become the tallest building in Czech Republic and contain a mix of housing and office spaces.
Its striking form is designed by Black n' Arch and sculptor Černý to serve as a stark reminder of climate change—imagining a future where a shipwreck has collided with a building during an apocalypse caused by storms and rising sea levels.
But I've also been trying to highlight grounds for optimism. David French particularly drew my attention with one of his recent posts for The Dispatch (which I don't think is behind a paywall yet). I've noted before that religious conservatives (and the nationalists profiled above) are particularly committed to the idea that the culture is in collapse, when the evidence says otherwise. French notices the same pattern.
There are two kinds of pieces I write that tend to generate the most negative responses. The first is obvious: anything that's critical of Donald Trump. The second might surprise you. Anytime I argue that our culture isn't circling the drain and that some things are in fact getting better, I often encounter vicious blowback.
I think I know why. The second argument is connected to the first. Much of the case for Donald Trump—indeed, much of the case for the new, nationalist right (or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders and the democratic socialist left)—depends on the case that desperate times call for desperate measures. But if the times are not desperate, then the argument to 'burn it all down; or 'join the revolution' loses its resonance. ...
Few areas of our nation's culture generate a greater sense of despair than discussions of marriage and family. Ask a cultural conservative about the sexual revolution, and you're likely to hear a simple response. 'We lost.' Sexual revolutionaries have fractured the family, cultural revolutionaries have redefined marriage, feminists have dehumanized unborn children, and now the radical vanguard is even redefining gender itself. Conservatives didn't just lose in a rout—the rout continues.
But what if it's not true?
The law and culture have changed time and again to be more permissive, and for a time human behavior followed suit. Divorces soared as divorce laws loosened. Illegitimacy soared as illegitimacy lost its social stigma. In the eight years following [Roe v. Wade], the abortion rate skyrocketed.
But then, something happened. The law remained permissive, but behavior became more conservative.... For example, divorce rates are down.... The share of kids living in intact married families is up.... [T]he uptick has been driven in part by a meaningful increase in married parents of black children. The overall unmarried birth rate is down 23 percent from its peak in 2007 and 2008.... [T]he latest statistics show that the decline in abortion rates continued beyond 2014. It's now well below the abortion rate when Roe was decided.
Each of the ellipses there, by the way, represents a chart or graph inserted into French's article, and you know how much I like that. Too much commentary on the culture, in particular, is based on highly selective anecdotes rather than on data that measures the actual direction the culture is moving.
So if everything is not collapsing, why isn't it? Here is French's answer.
I can sum it up in one word—experience. Or, to put it another way, a generation of Americans tasted the fruits of libertinism and family instability and many of them recoiled. The human cost created a generational reaction.... Latchkey kids became helicopter parents. The children of divorce vowed to stay married. And as the economic and emotional fruits of intact families became so undeniably apparent (it's hard to believe that 30 years ago smart people actually disputed whether there were net negative effects of growing up without two parents), they transformed their marriages back from contracts into covenants.
I suspect he's wrong about that last part, the part about "covenants," and he's wrong in an interesting way. It's not that these cultural values are in repair because people have found religion, because the data on that is pretty clear. Religious belief is in decline. Yet the rampant subjectivism of the 1960s "counterculture" has receded, and even without religion, people are reverting to the norm of basic middle-class values. (As French points out, there is still a class gap. Middle-class values are intact for the middle class—but still lagging for the lower-middle class.)
This is really why the nationalists and the religious right are so freaked out right now. It's not about Trump or needing to justify their votes for Trump. It's about something much deeper. They're not afraid the world is collapsing, they're afraid it's not collapsing. They're afraid that the world can get along without God. In an era of declining religious belief, they have to assume that the world is in a downward spiral—because if it isn't, then traditional religious belief is not really necessary to human life.
I think that's a bit of good news that even French himself is not ready for, but he's honest enough to recognize the big picture: "whenever one hears tales of cultural disaster and woe, it's worth remembering that there's a big picture, and that big picture shows evidence that key parts of our social fabric are on the mend."
One of the projects I want to work on soon is simply to ask: What would our politics look like if we acted as if the world isn't ending? For starters, I can tell you that we wouldn't be remotely contemplating an electoral choice between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. That potential choice might seem like the end of the world, but if so, it's entirely a self-fulfilling prophecy created by our own hysterical pessimism.