Remembering what voting felt like

(Reflections on election day, cross-posted on Facebook)

I voted this morning. As I waited online, I had a fleeting feeling, an emotion, I almost didn’t recognize at first. It took me a moment to realize what it was: the feeling of participating in a sacred, profoundly important ritual. For me, voting was always the moment when we all came together to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

Even when my candidates lost — and believe me, they often have — it mattered to participate in that ritual. As the old saying goes (and it’s 100% true): people died to give me that right. But they also died to give me the responsibility to use my vote as thoughtfully and as well as I could. Not to vote out of anger, or fear, or pure self-interest, but to vote to build something better. To build on what our ancestors gave us, and leave our children — everyone’s — something a little better than we found it.

Today, people say voting doesn’t matter. They don’t care, won’t bother. We’re being taught to hate and fear each other. We are deeply cynical, increasingly isolated from each other. We’re looking for ways to detest rather than understand each other. Even when we’re among those who share our values, we jump to interpret any disagreement or failure as betrayal. We expect perfection of others and very little of ourselves. We see the deep flaws in our history either as something to be ignored, or as proof we can never improve.

But even when you find the individual candidates unimpressive, your vote matters. One will win, another will lose, and the winner will do very different things than the loser would have. Those differences will affect your life, your future, your family, other families. You just have to look at Washington, DC to see that. It’s just a fact.

People say: my vote doesn’t matter because the whole system is rigged around big money.

True, it is. What are you doing about it? The same was true in the late 19th century, and Americans did something about it. They voted for politicians who reformed the system to give ordinary people a fair shot again.

Do you believe Americans in 1900 or 1910 or 1920 were better than we are? Perhaps they were, but if so, the problem isn’t the politicians: it’s us. We can vote for people who promise to take the money out of politics, and then hold them accountable for doing so. We can demand to know who’s paying for the slanderous ads we see on Facebook or cable news.

Citizenship is about voting, but it’s about much more. It’s about really understanding the issues, and trying to figure out the best way forward. It’s about working together in good faith with our fellow citizens. It’s about realizing things aren’t always as simple as people on TV or the Internet say they are. It’s about checking whether the people you believe are telling you the truth, or just what you want to hear.

It’s about carefully watching your politicians between elections and ads, and rewarding those who enter the system and actually behave well. There are some. (If you don’t think so, run for office yourself.)

As soon as you say “they’re all alike” you abandon your responsibility as a citizen. It’s just plain lazy. It also eliminates any incentive for any politician to behave well. Why would they? Someone else will reward them for corruption and demagoguery, and you won’t reward them for the hard work of actually trying to govern well. What do you expect to happen?

No society has ever thrived with the level of cynicism and isolation we’re creating. And very few individuals have ever been happy and fulfilled when they’re told not to trust anyone, and the only value is “looking out for #1.”

This is the world we’re choosing to build. It’s as if we don’t care about our kids, or anyone else’s.

That can’t be true, can it?

So, vote. But whoever you vote for — school board candidate, town council, state legislator, governor, someday president — make that just the beginning of a renewal of citizenship.

“Citizenship.” Sounds old-fashioned. It is: the word goes back to ancient Rome. But it’s the glue that holds countries and societies together, keeps them from collapsing in fear and violence.

Societies don’t hold together by themselves: that only happens if we each pull our weight. So: Do we care enough? Do I? Do you?


One thing some Trump voters know (that is actually true)

I’ve spent the last several months arguing that people need to be morally accountable for the way they act as citizens. If they vote for someone as fundamentally evil as Donald Trump (a word I try not to use carelessly) then they share direct personal responsibility for what he does.

(And if I vote for Barack Obama and someone tells me he’s been indiscriminately sending drones to attack civilians in Pakistan, I’m responsible for taking that claim seriously. I need to determine if it’s true, assess the choices he had — including the choice of not doing anything at all — and if I conclude he behaved immorally, I’m responsible for speaking out.)

So heaven knows there’s plenty about Trump voters that I simply can’t abide. But this post is different.

It’s about something I think some Trump voters understood that I did not understand. Something, for once, that’s actually true.

In my “paying work,” I spent yesterday writing about the emergence of the Chinese renminbi as an international currency for transacting business and for foreign exchange trading. Among other things, China is establishing global financial infrastructure that makes it easier for people to do business in renminbi instead of dollars if they wish. Just last month they authorized the first bank inside the US to help businesses do that.

So, in my research, I came across this organization called “The Working Group on U.S. RMB Trading and Clearing.” In your dreams you couldn’t think up an organization more obscure than that, right? Gotta be run by some bank types you never heard of, right?

So I go to their website and who are the co-chairs? Michael Bloomberg. And Mary Schapiro, who ran the SEC for Barack Obama and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for Bill Clinton. That’s who. They are, of course, thrilled by the renminbi’s progress.

Now you know damn few Trump voters have heard of the “The Working Group on U.S. RMB Trading and Clearing.” (I can think of one: Peter Navarro, the one U.S. economist engaged in a torrid mutual love affair with Donald Trump. When I heard Trump chose him as his economic advisor, I wasn’t a bit surprised: Navarro wrote this.)

But Trump stands up and says, quote: “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

And he shows pictures of Jewish financiers… and me and the Anti-Defamation League and a whole lot of other people who know some 20th century history think to ourselves: That sounds just like what Hitler and Goebbels used to say. Donald Trump must’ve been surfing the Internet at 3 a.m. and came across the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ur-text of modern anti-Semitism.

And every neo-Nazi in America says to himself, he gets it! Finally an American politician understands! It’s the Jews!

(And of course it isn’t the Jews. Co-chair Timothy Geithner (of course!)… his mother came over on the Mayflower.  Co-chair Henry Paulson (yeah, him too) was raised as a Christian Scientist. Co-chair Thomas Donohue, the guy that turned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce into one of the most powerful forces for right-wing politics in America, is as Irish as they come. I shouldn’t have to even tell you this — but, in America 2016, I do.)

I’m not even saying there shouldn’t be more renminbi trading. But when insanely busy people like Bloomberg and Schapiro prioritize this, it’s hard to believe they’re thinking much about American workers.

For the past 30 years there has been a global consensus in favor of open markets and free trade, and both parties have shared it. Republicans, because it raised profits and lowered worker incomes. “New” Democrats, exemplified by Bill Clinton, because they wanted to take America into the future. They were open to the world. They imagined they could spread liberal values: we’d build peaceful, market-oriented democracies that don’t fight each other.

Above all, they were confident that Americans were up to the challenge. Everyone would thrive.

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” Remember?

But it turned out we weren’t up to the challenge. The world is changing far faster and in more difficult ways that most Americans — probably most humans — can handle.

Fact is: the globalized, technology-driven free market no longer thinks many Americans are worth a living wage. It just doesn’t think they deserve enough money to raise their families.

Now, I actually believed (and to some extent still believe) the conventional economic notion that, overall, trade increases wealth. Globally, liberalization of markets has raised literally billions of people out of poverty. Capitalism has done for them what nothing else ever could. That’s a fact. (A new protectionism will hurt them badly. It’ll hurt a lot of people here, too, who now depend on exports. And at some point, it’ll probably hurt me: many of my clients are now global.)

But in America, globalization disadvantages millions of people in ways they just can’t overcome. It destroys — correction: has destroyed — their lives and communities. That’s a fact, too. Those wonderful little education and retraining programs Democrats squeezed through Congress were utterly helpless against the tsunami that was unleashed on those people.

About the only people who opposed it were the fading labor movement… and assorted cranks (Ross Perot) and America First paleo-bigots (Pat Buchanan). But, with the benefit of hindsight, once massive government-enforced downward redistribution of wealth was ruled out, what happened seems almost inevitable.

Today, globalization is pretty much done wreaking its havoc. The barn door has been open for decades. Forget even finding the horses.

But technology is just getting started. The number one job in probably half of America’s states is driving. Trucks. Cabs. Whatever. Four million Americans are paid to drive. Driving long-haul trucks is one of the best jobs still available for people without a four-year college education.

And the Obama administration spent the whole last year greasing the wheels for self-driving cars. For crying out loud, David Plouffe went to work for Uber, which is running self-driving cars all over Pittsburgh right now. How much you wanna bet Barack Obama will spend a whole lot of time in Silicon Valley after he leaves office?

Probably the best thing Trump could do to preserve American jobs would be to ban self-driving cars. But of course neither party would ever do that.

(In the technology community, an awful lot of the most interesting problems — the ones that attract the most venture capital and the smartest engineers — seem to coincide with putting lots of people out of work. Hardly anybody finds “helping the displaced” to be an especially interesting problem. Funny that.)

And there’s the point. Whether it’s globalization or technology, whether their intentions were noble or not, it’s pretty hard to tell someone in Allentown, Pennsylvania that America’s leaders and so-called meritocratic elites “have your good in mind.”

When I see Michael Bloomberg, I see a pretty benign guy who wants gun control and taxes on sugary soda, and put those cool red tables into Times Square, and likes bike lanes. I doubt that’s what a lot of Trump voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin see. Should they?

You wonder why some of them voted as they did? Maybe they’re thinking: I’ve done everything else I can think of, and nothing worked. (Maybe some of them would tell you: I even voted for a weird black guy named Hussein from Harvard and Kenya.)

For them, Trump is what Bill Clinton once was: he seems to authentically feel their pain.

Telling someone in that position that “Trump is a con man”… well, I know how I felt when Sarah Palin stood up and said, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya’?”

They’re not hearing “Trump University,” and they’re certainly not hearing “Nazi.” They’re hearing “he gets my life.” That’s a powerful thing.

We all know Trump can’t bring giant steel mills back from China any more than Pacific Islanders could coax American pilots to return by building fake “cargo cult” landing strips after World War II. But I think, deep down, a lot of Trump’s voters know that, too. We all know that Trump is crazy or damn close (put politely: “he lacks the temperament to be President.”). Deep down, some of Trump’s voters know that too. They’re that desperate.

People are complicated. I know perfectly well there’s plenty of racial (and cultural and religious) resentment mixed in with all of this. It’s wicked hard, probably impossible, to tease out the proportions. Especially as Trump’s alt-right minions poison the Internet and relentlessly harass Jewish journalists who dare to criticize Der Amerikaführer. With sociopathic amorality, Trump has unleashed an epidemic of bigotry that is terrifying: “deplorable” doesn’t begin to describe it.

But if it was only that, Hillary Clinton would be drafting her inaugural address.

The question is: What are we going to do about it?






“No. I won.”

Cross-posted from Facebook. Here, I usually speak with you directly, so let me say: I admire what you’ve learned about right and wrong, and the ethics with which you choose to live your life. 


Asked by The Wall Street Journal if he had gone too far during the heated 2016 cycle, Trump offered a blunt response.

‘No. I won,’ he said.

Remember all Trump said during this campaign.

Remember how he claimed black people were cheering on cop killers — with absolutely no evidence.

Remember how he said a judge couldn’t judge fairly because his parents came from Mexico.

Remember how he told his supporters he’d pay their legal expenses if they beat up protesters.

Remember it all.

If you are honest with yourself, if you hold him to the same standards you would hold anyone else in your life, you know exactly what he is saying: “There is no morality except what helps me win.”

My son will soon turn 23. I have probably taught him most of what I’ll ever be able to teach him about right and wrong. But if I were still raising a young child, or guiding a grandchild, or if I were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout leader, or a teacher or principal, or the leader of a religious congregation, my blood would run cold.

This is no longer about Hillary Clinton. Even though she won hundreds of thousands more votes than Trump, she respected the rules of the game, offered a dignified concession speech, and is leaving the stage. (Can you imagine Trump having done the same?)

No, it’s not about her anymore. From now on it’s about the rest of us. Me and you and everyone else.

If you’re out there cheering on Trump because of the tax cut you’re going to get, or the Mexicans he’s going to deport, or the job he’ll allegedly bring back from China, or whatever else, it’s as if you are sitting next to Trump in that interview.

It’s as if they asked you: Do you regret any of what Trump has said or done in your name, and you said: “No. We won.”

Imagine President Trump


What comes after Trump? Don’t count your chickens. Trump could very well win.

Yes, if Clinton survives this election, we desperately need to talk about where we all go next: how to repair all he has damaged, find shared purpose again, and build a country that works for all of us, including those who support him.

But that must wait. Right now the best contribution I can make is to contemplate what America will look like if Mr. Trump becomes President.

I write this to people who want a fairer, more humane country, one where we look for and encourage the best in each other. I write to people who want to lay the groundwork for long-term positive change… especially people who don’t like Hillary Clinton. 

I believe Trump will make it virtually impossible to achieve our shared goals for a long time. Maybe forever, because democracies don’t last forever, and societies can collapse.

Trump has often obscured what he might actually do. He reverses himself constantly. He specializes in telling people just what they want to hear. And he possesses demonic gifts for getting people to imagine that he’ll give him exactly whatever it is they they want.

It’s just the way his Trump University manual taught salespeople what to say to bamboozle their victims: “We will show you how to thrive in real estate and control your own financial destiny, and the best part is: when you double your income from real estate part time, you can quit your job, work twenty five hours a week, and create more wealth than you have ever dreamed of.” Trump has always known how to zero in on people’s hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities, to set up a zero-sum game where he wins at everyone else’s expense.

But we’ve all been watching him closely for 18 months now. (What choice have we had?) So we finally know enough to intelligently assess how he will govern, with — as would be virtually certain — two houses of a Republican Congress supporting him and prodding him forward.

It won’t be pretty.

Everyone knows Trump will quickly make America an even angrier and crazier place. He has spent his entire public life promoting hatred, lies, and unfounded conspiracy theories. He told the lunatic Alex Jones — the guy who claimed the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were never murdered“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”

We already know Trump has no problem smearing entire races or ethnic groups at will: Muslim Gold Star parents, courageous judges whose parents happened to be born in Mexico. We’ve seen the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on our streets and in our schools.

Imagine four more years of that.

Imagine waking up every morning and wondering: What has President Donald Trump done today to divide us, frighten us, and convince us to hate each other?

It hardly needs to be said, but I will: Hillary Clinton has never done anything like any of this. And it matters. A lot.

But, even beyond the hatred he unleashes, Trump will also rapidly make America a far more unequal place than it already is.

His April tax plan redistributed $3.2 trillion upwards to millionaires and billionaires. His revised tax plans look even more like those of Paul Ryan and the House Tea Party republicans. Billionaires will get what they want most: no more estate tax: up to $4 billion more for Trump’s own family, $4 billion less for education, health, and other federal programs.

Read Trump’s plans. Then imagine a Republican Congress happily passing them pretty much verbatim. Why wouldn’t they? It’s their plan. Why wouldn’t he sign it? It’s his plan.

If you were ever even slightly sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, you need to help prevent this, and you have only one chance: this election.

If Trump wins, Obamacare will of course disappear… replaced with… what? Nothing. Because the Republican Congress will get what it wants. People will die, just as conservative economist Tyler Cowen said they should:

We need to accept the principle that sometimes poor people will die just because they are poor. Some of you don’t like the sound of that, but we already let the wealthy enjoy all sorts of other goods — most importantly status — which lengthen their lives and which the poor enjoy to a much lesser degree. We shouldn’t screw up our health care institutions by being determined to fight inegalitarian principles for one very select set of factors which determine health care outcomes.

Trump may not use Cowen’s words. They are far too literate and well-crafted for him, if no less vicious. But that is precisely what Trump and Ryan together will do, and again, we only have one chance to stop them: this election.

After Reagan’s and Bush’s massive tax cuts for the rich went into effect, deficits (predictably) soared. What happened next? The political dynamic shifted to make it even harder to fund even middle-class social programs, much less help the poor.

It’s obvious now that Republicans never really gave a damn about the deficit: Reagan didn’t, Cheney even said he didn’t. But they were thrilled to convince people — through their own financial irresponsibility — that we can’t afford to educate and care for each other. So forget Bernie’s free college if Trump gets elected; forget even Hillary’s partial plan; forget any of that. 

Do you worry about global warming? Do you believe action is urgent? Trump called it a Chinese hoax. He promises to immediately walk away from our international agreements, halt all US contributions to international global warming programs, and quickly reverse Obama executive orders on everything from car emissions to coal to wind power. Remember when people said Keystone XL was “game over” for climate change? Obama finally killed it. Trump, who has personally invested in it, wants to revive and approve it.

Trump will appoint judges who will eagerly permit states and localities to restrict voting by minorities. Black lives are even less likely to matter in a society that has once again disenfranchised them.

Prodded by Republicans to do what he already believes and has done in his own companies, Trump will overturn worker protections and union rights of every kind. With fewer progressive voters and fewer progressive resources, it will become even harder than it already is for progressives to organize and win. 

Don’t think Republicans aren’t thinking strategically about this. Don’t think they aren’t salivating at the thought that some of us might vote for Jill Stein.

Of course, most of the judges on Trump’s list share the same hard-core opposition to gay and transgender rights as Mike Pence. You know: the Vice Presidential candidate Trump hand-selected because when it’s really important to getting him elected, or when it’s about issues he really doesn’t care about, Trump’s instincts are to give the far right exactly what it wants.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of marching backwards into the worst of the past, what exactly do you think he means when he says Clinton doesn’t have a “Presidential look”? The guys buying all that “Trump that b*tch” merch at his rallies know precisely what he means. The question isn’t whether you would choose Hillary Clinton is your imaginary favorite first woman President: it’s whether, in 2017, this man should succeed Barack and Michelle Obama in symbolizing gender relationships in America.

In a world that’s likely to become increasingly unstable no matter who is elected, Trump will promote unpredictability and chaos — all of which risks large-scale war even more than Clinton’s conventional hawkishness will.

As unpleasant as it is to hear graduates of the Bush national security apparatus endorsing Clinton, it’s even more unpleasant to see who’s advising and endorsing Trump. For instance, just today: Lieutenant General Thomas McInerey, who sued to challenge Obama’s citizenship and right to serve as commander-in-chief; and William G. Boykin, who described the war on terror as a battle between a “Christian nation” and the false “idol” of Islam.

I don’t love Clinton’s foreign policy. But the alternative is a candidate who wants to ban all Muslims, torture the innocent families of anyone he suspects of terrorism, and keeps asking why we can’t use our nuclear weapons. Expecting a more peaceful foreign policy from Trump is magical thinking.

For all of Clinton’s flaws, she at least understands that these are hard choices. We are still digging ourselves out from the last incurious President who thought everything was simple. God help us if we get another one.

Even where ideology isn’t at stake, Trump will make decisions based on his gut instincts and “very good brain,” rather than on anything normal people would recognize as “evidence.” Trump’s campaign team even admits they need to make sure he’s never left alone, because they can’t predict what he’ll tweet, insult, or do.

One thing I can’t imagine anyone denying: with Trump in office, the next four years will be about Trump, Trump, and Trump alone. But when politics is only about personality — even personalities that aren’t as narcissistic and sociopathic as Trump’s — progressive, inclusive social change rarely happens. Politics becomes about letting il Duce or der Führer handle it, just like he promised he would.

Last but not least, in the far-from-unlikely event of another economic crisis, Trump and his Republican partners in governance are likely to make the worst possible choices: decisions that could lead to a deep and lengthy depression.

In such an environment — with Trump’s alt-right hatred already mainstreamed and little chance of “lift-all-boats” growth — it’s far easier to imagine true fascism than progressive social change.

We now have 200 years of experience with the notion that “if times get worse, we can heighten the contradictions, and people will move left.” They don’t! “Heightening the contradictions” has repeatedly led to catastrophe — from the anarchist assassination of reformist Czar Alexander II (leading ultimately to Stalin) to the far left’s undermining of the German Weimar Republic and the (leading quickly to Hitler).

Which reminds me of one last thing. Why do you think Trump admires Putin’s leadership so much? Because Putin sees himself unconstrained by all constitutional limits. Putin has, through sheer force of will, essentially destroyed the forces in his society that disagree with him. Here in America, that includes you.

I’m no particular fan of Jeff Bezos, but when Bezos’s Washington Post criticizes Trump, Trump threatens to sic the Justice Department on him. In this post-Snowden era, all that was once arguably theoretical about the domestic abuse of government power will be right on the table if Mr. Trump owns the NSA and CIA. Nixon’s “Enemies List” will look unimaginably quaint. And do you see anything about either the Republican or Democratic Party that tells you they will stand up to him if he has an electoral mandate and the power of the Presidency behind him?

Anyone who thinks my rhetoric is overheated: Why? If you don’t think Trump’s election could well generate outcomes like these, why don’t you think so? Really: please walk me through your reasoning that it “won’t be so bad.” Be specific: give me details. 

I truly believe: if you want progressive social change, please don’t vote for Stein, or Johnson, or stay home. Please vote for Clinton, no matter how you feel about her. Then take whatever progress she is willing to give you. Build coalitions with her when she wants to do the right thing and needs public support. Pressure her where she isn’t already on your side. And build a long-term movement so you’ll have better choices next time. “Our Revolution,” Green, whatever you choose, after the election, but first things first.

Consider that most progressive social change in this country has occurred when a “compromised” progressive (such as FDR, JFK, LBJ, or Obama) has been in office. They were all subject to great criticism in their time for falling short, being insufficiently transformative, too corrupted by economic elites. Their social programs were far from perfect, but they created the basis for greater progress.

Then consider how little progress occurred in the teeth of a Nixon, Reagan, or George W. Bush. Forgive my personal recollection: it was simply exhausting. Whether as activists, citizens, or voters, we used up all our energy every day just struggling to protect the gains of those who’d come before, if we could even accomplish that.

Trump will be far worse.

That’s my message in a nutshell: With Clinton in office, progress will at least be possible on many of the issues we’ve passionately fought for over the past several years. With Trump, we’ll be fighting alone every day to stay afloat against disaster. Après Trump le déluge.

What Comes After Trump?

I posted this on Reasonable Creature, but I wanted to share it with you as well.

Now that we’re about nine weeks away from the general election, it’s time to start considering what comes next. More likely than not, Hillary Clinton will be elected president, along with many Democrats. The election will likely confirm the status quo, with little immediate shift in power between both parties. But I wonder how the media and the rest of us pivot post-Trump. I fear we’ve become too used to politics as a kind of grotesque theater of perpetual outrage, and not as an important outlet for debating and solving problems. Every Trump tweet or dumb comment takes attention away from serious issues. Clinton may have detailed policy plans, but if her opponent has no interest in debating her on the merits – only calling for her arrest and promoting conspiracy theories – then how can average Americans make informed choices based on anything other than disgust? She may be elected by 10 points and will still be viewed as illegitimate by tens of millions of people. Once elected, Clinton will struggle to address real issues, like poverty and wage stagnation, because whether her policy ideas are good or bad, the anger-industrial complex is too deeply invested in their failure.

Similarly, I’m worried we’ll be dealing with the consequences of reduced civility and sensitivity for a long time, particularly as it relates to women, people of color, people with disabilities, and toward middle and lower class whites that liberals scoff at and who Trump resonated with. He’s made liberals more likely to write off all Trump supporters as bigots, when as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s incredible story shows, their narrative of unfairness must be reckoned with. Further, Trump has empowered people who view all Muslims as terrorists, Mexicans as rapists, blacks as criminals, who despise women, especially the successful ones. A nation where former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, feels comfortable running for senate again is a weaker, more dangerous one. While not in every instance but always for Trump and his ilk, condemning political correctness has been about preserving their power to dehumanize people who aren’t them. I envision a country that gradually removes the structural barriers for disadvantaged groups to participate economically and politically, only for them to be discouraged by barrages of personal attacks.

Beyond that, I worry that we will start to think and act in groups at a dangerous level. Trump has encouraged whites to view only themselves as “real Americans” and view prosperity as entirely zero-sum. We’re in trouble when Americans stop believing their success is mutually dependent.

What gives me hope is that my generation, for the most part, doesn’t buy this crap. While we have grown up profoundly segregated by race, class, and even politics, we are also incredibly diverse, educated, and liberal. We won’t put up with people like Trump and the alt-right; a recent Pew poll shows that 76% of millennials say “immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. I won’t overstate our increased racial tolerance; the General Social Survey conducted by NORC found that white millennials are only slightly less racist than their parents. But millennials are only 55% white, those under 18 are 51.5% white, and those under five are minority white. I look forward to the day when there is no majority ethnicity or race in this country; perhaps, then, we’ll find something better that unites us.

I invite both of us to consider what that might be.

Matthew Scully. A writer’s responsibility.

Many people are thinking about Donald Trump today. I gave plenty of thought to Trump this morning (see my Facebook post below). But I’m done with Trump for the day.

Now I am thinking of Matthew Scully.

Scully is the speechwriter who prepared Trump’s speech last night, with the intention of making Trump seem as presidential as humanly possible, and of terrifying his fellow citizens into voting for Trump.

I once respected Mr. Scully. He wrote a truly extraordinary and courageous book claiming that conservatives and religious people should be passionate protectors of animal rights.

Now he has put his considerable talents at the service of Mr. Trump. Is he truly confident that Mr. Trump is fit to be President? Honorable? Compassionate?

Is he really sure he’s right, and the many  eloquent  fellow conservatives  who  view Trump as both utterly unfit and terrifyingly dangerous are wrong?

How has he come to view Mr. Trump’s values as in any way consistent with those he once claimed in his own writing as a Christian? A man who has told us, explicitly, in so many words, that he intends to torture innocent people and commit war crimes?

I write for a living. Sometimes I write for corporations. They are not perfect. But I would like to think I would never write to support evil. Others will have to judge.

As for Mr. Scully, he had better be damned sure that his judgment is correct, and his colleagues are wrong. History will judge him. I just hope it has mercy on the rest of us.


My Facebook post

Donald Trump is not my voice. If he were, I would be ashamed to look my family in the eye.

And, no, Hillary is not “just as bad.” She’s a flawed human being and politician who actually listens to people, sometimes even learns from her experience and her mistakes, and often winds up making the right choice from a set of difficult options.

I’ll take that over a man who says “I alone can save you,” believes that he doesn’t need to learn anything about any issue because his instincts are already perfect, and attracts the passionate support of neo-Nazis all over this country.

I’ll take that over a man who says that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone in public on Fifth Avenue. If a politician I supported ever said that, I’d bail in a second. It would prove that he holds me in utter contempt.

And, no, Hillary is not *just as dishonest* as Trump. Politifact has been tracking their statements for years. Most politicians, including Hillary, average about 20-25% statements that are mostly or fully false. With Trump it’s 75%. No politician they’ve tracked has EVER lied that often.

Don’t just call Politifact “mainstream media” and close your eyes and ears. They provide all the details you need to evaluate their work for yourself. That’s what a citizen in a democracy does.

And it makes a difference. Let’s say you’re talking about tax policy. Trump has gone all over this country saying our taxes are the highest in the world. If that were true, it would be hard to argue against a tax cut. But it isn’t true: our tax rates are somewhere smack dab in the middle. He rigs the argument by lying.

Worse: Trump stands up before a mob and claims that people were out there asking for a moment of silence for the murderer of those cops in Dallas. It never happened. Even his campaign official, Sam Clovis, says they have no idea where he got that.

Who makes up a claim that incendiary? It’s the kind of thing you’d say if you were trying to start a race war. But he doesn’t care about that, does he?

He doesn’t care about that, or you, or anything but himself.

And, no, Hillary is not “just as bad.”

How goes your “constitution”? Here’s mine

Matt, you said you and Dan were engaging in the theoretical, intellectual exercise of trying to rebuild the US constitution to make it work better. And I’d completely forgotten that about a year and half ago I did almost exactly the same thing.

You’ll recall my obsession with Coursera MOOCs before I went back to graduate school. Well, Coursera has moved to a new technology platform and will permanently remove all of its old courses on June 30th. So this evening, I went back to retrieve as many of my old posts and essays as I could, before they all went into the digital dumpster.

I’ll be posting some of my better stuff here, as I sort through it all and figure out what’s worth showing to you and whoever wanders by. It won’t all be about politics!!! That’s a part of life that must, must, must somehow be kept in perspective. But, lo and behold

…for one course on political philosophy, my final semester project was: create a complete blueprint for a more effective state. 

Here’s what I came up with. [The only edits I’ve made were to eliminate identification of the course and professor, in case he still uses this assignment. Everything else is as I saw the world 18 months ago; I’ve resisted the temptation to update based on all that’s happened since. But there are some things in here that you and I have definitely been talking about, even just today (promoting jurisprudence based on empirical fact)…]

Building a State That Works:
Trust, Legitimacy, Citizen Engagement

We need a state. While arguing against anarchism is far beyond the scope of this project, I will note a single line of evidence: historically, dramatic reductions in violence have been closely correlated with the emergence of states capable of gaining and holding what Max Weber called a “monopoly on violence.” (Hobbes would have said, I told you so.)

We need a state that works. Recent experience suggests this is no easy task. To get such a state, I’ll draw on the ideas of the philosophers we have studied directly or indirectly – for example, Hobbes, Rawls, the Federalists, and others. However, in the 21st century, there are difficult new challenges to making a State work: challenges these thinkers considered only tangentially, if at all.

Why Building a State is Now Harder Than Ever

First and foremost among these challenges: building trust in any institutions whatsoever.

It is true that many institutions have betrayed the trust once given them. However, it is also true that we live in an era where many people reflexively expect the worst from even the best institutions and leaders. Increasingly, many people refuse to believe in anything or anyone, demand perfection from everyone except themselves, and declare themselves betrayed when any institution exhibits the least human imperfection.

Moreover, while the evidence can be debated, I am persuaded that the bulk of evidence shows a greater resistance to operating in large groups for a common public purpose; to participating in traditional roles of citizenship; to working with people culturally unlike themselves; perhaps even to making and keeping friends. Fed by difficult economic times, these trends have built an ever-growing market for fear, anger, and hatred; a market that is served to great profit by modern media.

In a society that has deeply internalized Bob Dylan’s lyric that “not much is really sacred” and Sartre’s phrase “hell is other people,” state-building is forbiddingly difficult. Much of the discussion of constitutions and the structure of democratic institutions elides a key reality: if people hold institutions in contempt, refuse to engage with them, and won’t thoughtfully guide or assess their work, those institutions will fail – no matter how they are structured. The strongest of these institutions will run on momentum for awhile. But then they too will fail. Arguably, Americans and many others are experiencing this right now.

A Closer Look at Trust and Social Capital, and Why They Matter So Much

Robert Putnam defines social capital as “the features of social life–networks, norms, and trust–that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” Social capital powerfully impacts both the way individuals interact with private organizations and with governments; people who are less likely to join the Elks Club or a church are also less likely to vote, serve on juries, or work in political campaigns. They are more cynical about shared efforts to do anything. They are unpromising candidates for citizenry in any democratic republic.

What leads to failures of trust and social capital?

  • They seem to fail when people “hunker down” with others like themselves, rejecting the growing diversity of their societies. Putnam has presented powerful evidence that, for all its long-term benefits, diversity poses a difficult challenge for civic engagement in the short term.
  • They seem to fail when inequality deepens, hardening class distinctions. Deep inequality convinces the poor that they and their children have little chance to advance. It convinces the rich that the poor deserve their current state, whether due to innate or cultural inferiority. While some of the causes (for example, accelerating technology-driven automation) are partially independent of the political system, they collectively make democracy more brittle and less sustainable.
  • Closely related to the preceding points, trust and social capital seem to fail when people sort themselves by religion, class, culture, and especially politics – thereby destroying the cross-cutting ties that have been empirically shown to strengthen democratic societies. This process of sorting is well underway in the US, and seems to be a key cause of its growing internal divisions.

Two examples may suffice. First: the percentage of Americans who said they would be “displeased” if their child married someone from a different political party has grown from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2010. Second: In researching his book American GracePutnam found that “as recently as the 1970′s there was essentially no correlation between how often you went to church and how you voted.” That meant churchgoers met plenty of Democrats, and atheists encountered plenty of Republicans. But, Putnam continued, “far more people have their religion and politics aligned now.” Of those who changed, Putnam added, most “changed their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around… It was hard to believe that people would be making decisions about their eternal fate on the basis of how they feel about Bill Clinton or George W. BushBut that’s the fact…

Building a successful State requires us to somehow counter massive societal trends such as these. Failing that, we must at least make them a visible and central issue in public debate. In significant part, that is my goal for this essay.

Using All the Resources We Have: Philosophical and Empirical

To have any chance at success, we must draw on tools that were unavailable to great political philosophers like Hobbes, Bentham, Smith, and Mill. We have learned some things about human beings in and out of society since they wrote. Hobbes knew much, but knew no evolutionary biology. Adam Smith knew much – including far more about ethics and empathy than is often recognized — but he knew little or no behavioral economics. The founders of the United States sought to create the conditions for happiness, but knew no neuroscience. Even Rawls and Nozick could not benefit from the latest studies of bonobo and chimpanzee tribes.

I don’t mean to overstate our progress towards understanding the human condition. Nor do I claim that an understanding of dopamine replaces Aristotle’s timeless ideas about a human life well-lived. I simply believe we need to draw on all the resources we now have — from both our traditions and the latest sciences, both hard and soft.

When it comes to building trust and social capital, therefore, I will rely heavily on the remarkable work of the aforementioned sociologist Robert Putnam. When it comes to constructing democratic institutions, I will draw on the empirical research of democracy researchers such as Stanford’s Larry Diamond (whose Coursera course, Democratic Development, was immensely valuable to me). When the authors of the US constitution met in Philadelphia, they had approximately one living democratic republic to draw on for comparison, as well as many failures lost in the classical past. We now have over 100 exemplars of varying forms and longevity; we should learn from them.

Setting Specific Goals for Our State

With all this said, I will outline nine explicit goals for my State, and some of what I propose to achieve each goal. I recommend certain constitutional provisions that are more specific than some of what is in the current US constitution (though that document does contain some surprisingly specific provisions that were clearly designed for their time and place and have gradually lost relevance). I am persuaded that we must now enshrine some principles and institutions in the constitution that the founders did not envision. (Implicitly, I believe my State does need a written constitution — first, because it will serve Americans whose tradition expects this, and second, because a written constitution offers something closer to a set of “official rules and guidelines” for managing a State – something that seems more essential now than ever.)

  1. The State must get things done, building confidence in its effectiveness.

Today, measures of State effectiveness and legitimacy that are commonly used with emerging democracies are every bit as relevant to mature democracies. To build its legitimacy, my State will have to get things done. When a State works, people are more likely to buy into it, support its constitutional structure, and resist attempts to undermine or ignore its rules.

To this end, my state will be somewhat less concerned with checks and balances to prevent action, and far more concerned with ways to promote action. For example, while protecting presidential veto, my State’s constitution would forbid requirements for supermajorities to end debate, enact any form of legislation, or confirm executive branch nominations.

Within executive agencies at both the federal and state level, I would seek ways to streamline public input, reduce opportunities to obstruct decision-making through lawsuits related to process rather than substance, and “put a clock” on certain decisions, so decision-making processes don’t continue endlessly, as is now often the case. Citizens will retain (and perhaps enhance) their ability to eject governments that act in ways they do not approve.

To the extent that special interests and “capture” prevent effective action, I will also seek to improve State effectiveness through the steps in #2 below.

  1. The State must aggressively resist capture by elites and special interests, and the corruption and cynicism this generates.

Constitutions represent tradeoffs; they need to prioritize solutions to the society’s most urgent, persistent, and ubiquitous problems, and this inevitably shapes how they define rights. I am far less concerned with the purported free speech rights of those who inject hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns to promote their own ideologies or pet causes. The notion that billionaires will ever have problems using their speech rights to influence the political system seems… unlikely. I am far more concerned that politicians who must spend all their time fundraising have no time left to respond to the petitions of citizens who can’t (or don’t want to) contribute. For American democracy, this problem is immediate and existential. Access to politicians is a zero-sum game; right now, wealthy interests are taking it all.

Research in 2008 by the political scientist Larry Bartels finds that “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.”

Massive influx of private interest money, much of it secret, is now driving national divisions and dysfunction into local elections,including judicial campaigns that ought to be utterly separate from partisan politics. This promotes even greater cynicism about justice as well as politics.

Therefore, my State’s constitution would require public funding of all campaigns, ban large private campaign contributions at all levels, explicitly prevent any court from overturning campaign finance restrictions on free speech or liberty grounds, and prohibit party-based judicial elections at all levels.

If we someday reach a point where our problem is not enough money in politics, or too little power for special interests, or too much oppression of billionaires, we can then amend our constitution to meet the needs of that radically changed society.

To engage true grassroots candidacies and encourage citizen participation in them, my State would also restore tax deductions for small contributions — potentially including in-kind contributions made through campaign volunteer work, if ways could be found to avoid high levels of fraud.

Finally, my State’s constitution would make provision for a well-funded independent special prosecutor tasked with investigating large-scale abuses of the public trust by both public officials and those who do business with or are funded by the taxpayers, and bringing both civil and criminal charges. Reversing the US Supreme Court, my constitution would explicitly permit prosecution based on the deprivation of citizens’ rights to “honest services” from their elected officials.

(The overall effect of the US Supreme Court’s recent decisions has been to accelerate the growth of political corruption. A charitable reading is to note that no current Justice has ever run for public office, and therefore they have no realistic understanding of the realities faced by candidates and elected officials. This has not always been the case; consider former Chief Justices Taft and Warren. One reasonable response is to require my State’s top court to always contain at least two members with elective experience.)

  1. To the extent possible, the State should provide conditions for broad, widely shared prosperity and opportunity.

For many reasons, America (like most mature democracies) is experiencing accelerating inequality. Such inequality is leading to growing social dysfunction, as well as growing disengagement from the political system. It increasingly appears to be a key factor in poor economic growth that impacts even the successful. It makes “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” an impossible goal for growing numbers of citizens, while also making democracy far harder to sustain.

Moreover, large-scale trends are exacerbating the problem. For instance, accelerating automation of both blue-collar and white-collar work is no longer being compensated for by the creation of large numbers of new jobs. We can see the endpoint in societies where only a few live well, and they spend fortunes on security guards and walled neighborhoods to protect themselves from everyone outside. Even pro-technology authors like MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (Race Against the Machine) envision that society may ultimately have to provide a guaranteed income, or at minimum, subsidize wages for tens of millions of people that the market will refuse to pay a living wage.

Given the baneful impact of accelerating inequality on democratic institutions, my State would constitutionalize countermeasures and aggressively utilize tax policy with the intention of moving back towards a more traditional and sustainable wealth distribution.

For example, my State would constitutionalize the right to freely choose union representation, with language modeled on the constitution of today’s most successful capitalist society, Germany: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”

My State would use corporate and individual tax policies to promote higher wages and better training for low-paid employees, discourage soaring executive compensation that has become completely unmoored from business performance; and promote local investment of capital rather than its hoarding or export. My State’s constitution would also explicitly permit the legislature to establish baseline working conditions, including maximum hours and minimum wages; given accelerating automation, there might come a time when the legislature would find it necessary to mandate a shorter workweek.

  1. The State should make decisions based on the best available evidence.

My State’s constitution would enshrine strong, independent, and permanent government research structures to inform decision-makers, such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Technology Assessment (an extraordinarily valuable organization that was unfortunately abolished by Congress in the 1990s.) These organizations would become part of a constitutional structure, and linked directly to the lottocracy features described in Section #9 below, offering randomly-selected representatives the opportunity for objective briefings on key issues from experts not beholden (or at least less immediately beholden) to special interests.

  1. The State should learn from and support institutions that do things well.

My State will seek out opportunities to partner with and support civic and non-governmental organizations at the local level. As James Fallows has eloquently written, “At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity.” My State will seek ways to learn from and encourage more of this.

As Robert Putnam notes, many of the most effective local organizations are religious; my State would seek ways to partner with faith-based (and atheist) organizations wherever this can be done without compromising the rights and beliefs of others. It would posit an imperfect grand bargain: the government will support faith-based organizations in providing social services, but those organizations cannot interfere with the government’s providing additional services to individuals, where these are legal but inconsistent with the faith-based organization’s beliefs.

Since participation in local institutions is a bridge to greater civic involvement, I would promote it in multiple ways. For example, beyond existing unemployment benefits, my State would pay the unemployed a competitive wage for their first eight hours per week volunteering for legitimate tax-exempt organizations.

  1. The State should promote the cross-cutting connections between diverse people that have been empirically shown to strengthen democracies.

One of the greatest failures of modern American democracy is that the vast majority of elected offices are held by people whose political parties have no effective local competition. The Democrat or Republican will always get 65%, 75%, or 90% of the vote, so why bother voting?

Therefore, on the national level, my state’s Constitution would require redistricting for representative offices within states (and perhaps even across regions) to create competitive districts wherever reasonably possible. For example, redistricting maps might require that no district be comprised of voters who had averaged more than 55% or 60% support for the same party in the preceding decade’s elections.

Leading democracy researcher Larry Diamond discusses proportional representation (PR) voting as a potentially valuable tool “for ensuring that all groups in a deeply divided society feel included in the political process, and even for encouraging the development of cross-cutting cleavages that can moderate …conflict over time.”

According to Diamond, majoritarian systems like the current US voting system “have the particularly perverse effect of denying legislative representation to precisely those voters who represent the greatest hope for accommodation, the ones who are willing to vote for a party other than the one that dominates among their group or region… [With proportional representation] votes are not wasted, so parties have an incentive to construct… inclusive lists of candidates, and thus to reach out, integratively, to develop a political base among groups that are predominantly represented by rival parties.”

My State would therefore use proportional representation to temper growing division and extremism, and restrain the tendency to demonize those outside one’s traditional constituencies.

  1. The State should provide equal, fair, and consistent justice, tempered with compassion; and protect human rights against infringement by both public and private agents.

Those who wish their State to deliver equitable, fair justice encounter two difficult paradoxes: How can one build a State that extends equitable, fair justice to all of its people, when many of them seem uninterested in providing such justice to those outside their own “tribes”? And how can one gain the clear advantages of government run at the local level, when empirical evidence indicates that local governance is the type most likely to deny equal justice?

Restorative justice offers significant promise here, given that it combines significant evidence of effectiveness with a sense of intuitive rightness that can appeal to many people who will never take a political philosophy class.

However, my State will also include constitutional provisions to hinder the People when they wish to mete out brutal or unequal justice. For example, I would strengthen the US constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” with additional limitations on punishments for “victimless” crimes and severe restrictions on solitary confinement. My constitution would furthermore guarantee that those who serve their sentences are restored full rights of citizenship and employment.

My State should also constitutionalize a commitment the US (and most nations) have already made: support for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document outlines the core set of human rights that comprised justice as most humans understood it in 1948, after the end of World War II. They include both the types of civil rights enshrined in the US Bill of Rights, as well as rights to healthcare, education, and work. (Nearly every other provision I describe could conceivably earn majority support in the US under the right circumstances. However, I can conceive of no scenario in which a majority of 21st century US citizens would agree to constitutionalize any commitment to international law in any form.)

  1. The State should vigorously encourage greater participation and more meaningful citizenship.

Voting is only a small fraction of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, but it is a start. To that end, my State would make Election Day a national holiday, and would administer voting through an independent national agency the way most successful democracies do. With voting established as a national function, my State’s constitution would mandate a meaningful tax credit automatically linked to federal income tax returns for those who choose to vote.

Again, however, voting is only one piece of civic engagement, and perhaps the least important piece. Election Day and other civic holidays (e.g., President’s Day, Labor Day, and perhaps a new Citizen’s Day) should be recast as major festivals of local and national civic engagement, with opportunities to learn and participate in community and national activities around the idea of meaningful citizenship. While not a constitutional issue, my State would prioritize civic education, and require that it be taught from diverse viewpoints. Where such diverse opinions are not available locally, they can now be provided across the Internet.

Crucially, my State’s constitution would gradually phase in a National Service requirement, making a powerful statement that we all owe something to our nation and society after all. As implemented through legislation, this would be linked to new career opportunities (for example, opportunities to pursue a medical career in exchange for a commitment to serve underserved communities for a specified period of time.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea of “requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service” is supported by 57% of Americans in a recent poll  (though this might be expected to decline if a serious proposal were made). There is unquestionably significant pent-up desire to participate in community service: “in 2011, AmeriCorps received 580,000 applications for only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full-time.” My State would harness this passion to make a contribution.

Finally,  Putnam’s research on the negative impact of diversity on civic engagement does mean that our State will need to enforce reasonable immigration restrictions that do not separate families or exile long-time contributors to our society. We are seeking to rebuild a dying or dead civic culture, while also rebuilding the lost sense that “we are all in this together.” This will be extremely difficult, if it is even possible. Through no fault of the immigrants, ongoing large-scale immigration makes it even more challenging.

Since there is no guarantee that even “long-time Americans” will choose to participate in our State as active citizens, my State’s immigration law would prioritize and welcome immigrants capable of passing a challenging set of exams about American citizenship, and agreeing to participate in civic life once they arrive – perhaps by quickly performing the National Service requirement described above. Large-scale participation in National Service by new immigrants might help soften the nativist attitudes against immigrants that are now darkening political debate in America (and elsewhere).

  1. The State should place decisions as close to the people as possible, consistent with the previous principles (which is to say, definitely not always).

I am persuaded that the advantages of federalism in promoting experimentation and local governance exceed its disadvantages. Moreover, as de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in Americalocal democracy is often the best democracy: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” As James Fallows points out, many good things can be accomplished at levels closer to the people, where citizens are more likely to have direct, unmediated access to decision-makers.

However, I am aware that many of the preceding principles in this list work against local governance. For example, I propose national economic policies that would probably not be chosen in all regions. Moreover, as Americans have learned from experience (and as their current Constitution’s 14th Amendment “Due Process” clause was intended to counter), local communities are often dominated by people who benefit greatly from entrenched discrimination and oppression of the powerless. This is the paradox I’ve struggled most to resolve, with the least success.

Having said that, my State would seek to localize and decentralize in areas where it has been empirically shown to do the most good (for example, economic development involving public-private partnerships); and resist localization where it has been susceptible to the greatest harm (for example, civil rights).

One possible mechanism for strengthening local governance and democratic legitimacy is to establish a jury-like process for selecting citizen task forces to recommend solutions to difficult local or regional problems. This does not, of course, protect local governance from federal intrusion (which, I confess, I often find necessary). Another might be to provide central state financial support for National Service performed through local governments in connection with tasks they select; thereby removing some financial pressure from local governments and giving them new resources to deploy to solve pressing local problems.

On a national level, I am persuaded by our Professor to make substantial use of lottocracy – the random selection of citizens for temporary legislative positions of authority. Lottocracy, if it works, does bring government closer to “something like” the people; though it does so without protecting local governance against the central State.

I would combine the current membership of the US Senate – 100 Senators, two from each state regardless of population – with another 200 members drawn by lot from all US citizens. This would reduce but not eliminate the Senate’s overrepresentation of small states, and dramatically reduce its overrepresentation of multi-millionaires.

My State’s 200 randomly selected senators would serve a single three year term; sufficient to master the process, but only half as long as the standard senate term (thereby protecting citizens from overly lengthy representation by randomly selected incompetents). I would utilize all of our Professor’s suggested mechanisms to protect these citizen senators from capture – high pay, agreements not to go work for lobbyists afterwards, etc. I would also guarantee access by these citizen senators to the non-partisan policy resources discussed above in Section #4.


Building (or rebuilding) a state is a long-term process that will require the rebirth of some level of trust, goodwill, and willingness to compromise. No structure, however well-crafted, can make up for their absence. This is why I have focused so much of my effort on rebuilding legitimacy, eliminating obstacles to action, reducing corruption, and re-engaging individuals in the hard work of citizenship.

Would it work? The odds are long. But I invite readers to consider where current trends lead. Democracies do collapse; societies do fail; cosmopolitan cultures can fall into ethnic hatred and warfare; even the most powerful states and empires can cease functioning virtually overnight (as happened in the Soviet Union just 25 years ago). If we don’t want that kind of future for our children, we had better consider where we are headed, and take responsibility as citizens to steer in a different direction.


My teaching assistant asked me how I drew the line between laws and constitutionally enshrined principles, and asked whether evolutionary insights offered much value to the constitutional project, given the plasticity of human nature. I responded:

Vis-à-vis your question about drawing lines between statute and constitutionally enshrined principle, these are obviously difficult judgments. To the extent that I was gesturing towards a consistent principle, it was this: I would constitutionalize elements that seemed necessary to sustain a democratic state over time.

As our Professor pointed out early in the course, there are deep tensions between growing inequality and poverty and the ability to sustain a thriving democracy. I believe there’s at least some empirical evidence that massive economic inequality translated into massive political inequality leads to growing cynicism about political activity, growing disengagement, and failing democratic institutions. That’s what my economic and political reforms were intended to address. Given the resources of those who would oppose them, firmly constitutionalizing them seemed the best (if imperfect) defense available to me.

As for managing the tension between centralization and localized decision-making, I very much like your suggestion [to clearly identify the problems that must be dealt with nationally if they are to be dealt with at all]. I think it’s sort of related, maybe orthogonal, to my notion that some problems have proven more amenable to local approaches, whereas other problems seem actually to be exacerbated by them.

It’s an interesting question whether the types of problems societies now face are shifting; are they becoming more localized or more global? Problems like global warming suggest the need for wider approaches. However, there are also forces operating in opposite directions (for example, information technology seems to have led to greater decentralization and more loosely-coupled and federated organizations, e.g., today’s wide-ranging supply chains).

Regarding questions of evolution and human nature, I think I take something of a middle ground. I suspect some of the claims evolutionary psychologists make for their understanding of human nature will very much turn out to be “just-so stories,” speculations without evidence that don’t hold up in the long run. However, we do seem to see some real constraints on human nature associated with evolution…

The human race and its close predecessors spent the vast majority of its millennia as hunter gatherers in groups smaller than roughly 200 people, and there does seem to be empirical evidence that at least some of our behaviors are still very much optimized for such environments. Also, things like language structures do seem fairly hard-wired, constraining the kinds of languages humans create and how we use them.

There even do seem to be some proto-ideas of “justice” visible in babies as young as six months; but also proto-ideas of in-groups and out-groups that may underlie bias and bigotry (and could well relate to the aforementioned need to separate “us” from “them” that would have been present in hunter-gatherer societies)…

I think these kinds of issues especially play out in immigration debates, where nativists make all kinds of claims about immigrants that seem to have very deep roots in in-group/out-group psychology as discussed by Jonathan Haidt (immigrants are dirty, diseased, immoral, will rape our daughters), and quickly withdraw legitimacy from democratic institutions that seem to welcome too many foreigners.

That’s an issue where I was especially frustrated with our political philosophers, who seemed to view humans as essentially fungible and cultures as essentially interchangeable. Note that I’m rejecting claims that one culture is “better” than another; simply saying that it’s hard to imagine a democratic society with completely open borders ever surviving for long.

I don’t want to overstate how “hardwired” I think we are. I think societies overall can make progress; I am very influenced by Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and his charts and graphs discussing the reduction of violence over time.

There are so many things that human societies accepted as routine a few hundred years ago; people went to bear-baitings and executions for entertainment; slavery was not just accepted but financialized as big business worldwide, with banks buying and selling bonds backed by slaves just as they now do with mortgages. We can make slow progress over time in, as Peter Singer describes it, widening the circle of concern. But it takes time and indirection; it doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be mandated by constitution. This is why I found the Bush administration’s reversion to torture so horrific; it made a statement that we in America were prepared to reverse hundreds of years of painfully slow and hard-won progress overnight.

Pinker says the existence of a strong central state was one key element in our progress, and I agree. The more I reflect on this, the more I think Hobbes had a really stunningly powerful insight about states and violence.

It’s also why I personally think those who fetishize self-defense and the Second Amendment are taking an awful step back into a more violent past. Delegating protection to a reliable state means that fewer of us will ever have to act violently ourselves; that tends to help delegitimate violence, reduce our tolerance for it, and build less violent societies in the long term. (And it’s why, more broadly, I think libertarians are so terribly wrong.)

…So that’s my constitutional revision. What did you and Dan come up with?