What Does a Better Populism Look Like?: A Response to “Against the Dead Consensus”

One of the more interesting debates in politics right now is what is the future of the Republican Party and, to some extent, the Conservative movement.  In the Republican Party right now, there are a wide variety of different viewpoints trying to exert influence on the party.  This includes everyone from the Ted Cruz-aligned Religious Right, to the Rand Paul-aligned Libertarians, to the traditional, more moderate Republican establishment, to mainstream Reagan-style Conservatism.  With the Trump presidency, an avenue has opened up for other ideological variants of the Right to enter the fray.   Much of it has involved the rising of a new class of attention seekers and grifters.  While hacks such as Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and other Republicans of the “Own the Libs” variety existed before Trump, the Trump presidency and continued Reality-Telivification of our politics has given them prominence and profit of a degree not seen before.  Not as prominent has been a more ideological populism, focused more on what ideas and policies might fit the New Republican Party best in the Trump era.

To that extent, the First Things manifesto “Against the Dead Consensus” is a welcome addition to the competition of ideas.   In this relatively short and welcomely accessible open letter, several different writers and thinkers such as Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Dennen, and Rod Dreher offer a few guiding principles for what the new GOP should look like.  The politically diverse group effectively identifies current problems in both society broadly and Conservatism specifically.  As someone who identifies as #NeverTrump and who supports some mainstream Republican policy proposals that at least some signing members of this statement are against, I found it a very helpful guide for understanding what a mature populism in our political sphere might look like.

One of the best elements of the statement is simply that it does focus on actual principles.  Much of what is called populism in our political discourse today is little more than saying whatever will move books and generate Fox News hits.  While political gimmickry is particularly pronounced in populism, it is not only populism that it has infected.  On the eccentric horseshoe that exists between some parts of the “Resistance” Left and the “Never Trump” Right, there is currently a competition to determine whether a Twitter account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow” can gain a certain number of followers.  A lack of seriousness and an anathema to anything resembling ideas, policies, or principles is a part of the political discourse in all ideologies and tribes today, and it is to the credit of the drafters of this statement that they seek to inject populism with general ideals.

Another high point of the statement is that it correctly identifies the problems in our society today and fairly critiques past iterations of Conservatism for failing to combat them.  The authors correctly point out the importance of healthy communities, families, and workplaces as some of the keys to the healthy society, and how the atomization of the individual and the resulting consequences from it destroy these building blocks.  They also fairly point out how Conservatism broadly failed to combat these issues.  For all of their flaws (and there are many), think about how the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s infused the Republican Party with an emphasis on issues such as combating pornography and fighting back against gambling.  As the Republican Party drifted towards Social Libertarianism and focused more on issues such as government spending and aggressive foreign policy, both issues which reasonable people can have disagreements about, issues of traditional values and healthy communities fell out of the Republican mainstream.  Tim Alberta documented this recently in Politico, in an article with supplements this First Things statement nicely.  The Party, in fact, reached a point where an individual who posed in Playboy and who owned casinos could be its standard-bearer.  Looking at society today, it’s hard to say our communities are better places because of our broad acceptance of (including the GOP’s acquiesance to) hyper-individualism and social libertinism.  The authors of the First Things statement are right to call out these failures.

Finally, the authors deserve credit for specifically affirming the importance of human dignity as a guiding principle for the common society.  A large number of our societal issues today, from hyper-partisanship to economic destruction and vulturism to the growing number of deaths of despair can be directly or indirectly attributed to our collective failing to view our fellow humans as worthy of respect and value.  It is particularly right for a Christian publication to make this emphasis.  As Christians, our faith teaches us that we are created in God’s image and that one of our ultimate callings is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This includes the importance of the protection of unborn life, as the authors rightly include.  I am glad the statement rejects attempts to compromise on human dignity, and I believe that regathering a fuller societal understanding of human dignity is one of the necessary ways to remedy the problems described in this statement.

Having affirmed the statement, of which there is much to affirm, there are some critiques that need to be made as well.  One of those critiques is that the statement, like much of the rest of populism, seems unnecessarily hostile to immigration.  In the words of the statement:

In recent years, some have argued for immigration by saying that working-class Americans are less hard-working, less fertile, in some sense less worthy than potential immigrants. We oppose attempts to displace American citizens. Advancing the common good requires standing with, rather than abandoning, our countrymen. They are our fellow citizens, not interchangeable economic units. And as Americans we owe each other a distinct allegiance and must put each other first.

This is partly true.  We shouldn’t view our fellow Americans as inferior beings who, for one reason or another, are inevitably bound to suffer economically.  At the same time, all of the best data shows that immigration does not hurt our fellow Americans.  Immigrants improve our economy, by virtue of being both creators and consumers, and benefit the country broadly.  The anti-immigrant hysteria so broadly espoused in populism today simply isn’t grounded in reality.  We should want to see the economic success of our fellow Americans, but there is no reason to believe that opposing or limiting Immigration accomplishes this.

Another weakness of the statement is that it seems to portray Trumpism as superior to Reaganism.  From the very end of the statement:

Whatever else might be said about it, the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew. We will guard that space jealously. And we respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.

It’s true that “warmed-over Reaganism” is probably not a viable course for the future of Conservatism, and that it had problems which the writers did a good job of analyzing.  A blind spot in the statement, however, is that Trumpism in practice fares even worse than Reaganism when it comes to the ultimate problems recognized.  When we think about the atomization of the individual and the “pornographization of daily life”, those are the very attributes at the heart of Trumpism.  Donald Trump specifically has lived his life according to the social Darwinism and sexual libertinism to which nearly every legitimate problem highlighted in the statement can be traced.  If Reaganism failed to adequately pump the breaks on these issues, Trumpism pushes down on the accelerator.  Reaganism, at a minimum, sought in theory to promote traditional values and national unity.  It’s very difficult to see how Trumpism in practice does even that.  It would have been a welcome addition to this statement if the authors could have accurately recognized that while a populism based in ideas has its advantage over stale Conservatism from yesteryear, Trumpism in practice should be a greater threat to the ideals espoused here.  That would be unless closed borders and immigration restrictionism are more important than the other ideals espoused here, which gets to the first critique.

Finally, one last critique is that while the authors rightly advocate for human dignity, it can ring as inconsistent when some of them fail to uphold a general respect and value of fellow people in their lives.  One of the major human dignity problems in our society today is that in our politics, we fail to treat other groups and political tribes as human beings made in the image of God.  Sadly, some of the authors here exhibit some of these worst tendencies.  One of the authors, like President Trump, mockingly referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and later defended it.  Another habitually crosses the line from rightly defending the religious liberty of Christians to mocking LGBT individuals.  To defend human dignity should be to defend human dignity for everyone, including Racial Minorities, LGBT people, and our political opponents.  The fact that some of these authors have not lived up to their message of human dignity in this statement may lead it to ring hollow to some who read it, which is unfortunate in that it is one of the most important parts of the statement.

This statement has a lot of good in it, and is worth reading regardless of political orientation.  It is a helpful attempt to highlight an ideology that is far too often represented by its worst caricatures, including the President, in the public square.  While it has much too offer, though, it nonetheless falls into some of the same traps as grafter, Trumpist populism though in that it is unnecessarily includes anti-immigration sentiments and exaggerates the extent to which the Establishment is its enemy.  These unfortunate elements keep the letter from having its maximum impact and winning others outside its camp to its view.  A better and more politically potent populism, in the future, will hopefully jettison the anti-immigration hysteria, recognize and identify Trumpism as at least as much a driver of hyper-individualism and social libertinism as the worst of mainstream Conservatism, and inspire us all towards a personal ethic of human dignity that brings out the best of us in all parts of our lives.

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A Few Thoughts on Lifeway’s Announcement

Earlier today, Lifeway announced that they are closing all of their retail locations by the end of 2019 and will be pivoting to an entirely digital platform.  This is very disappointing news, in my opinion.  While I don’t agree with Lifeway on everything (Sho Baraka is amazing, for one thing), they provided access to a variety of helpful resources.  Just in general, the demise of any brick-and-mortar book retailer is a bad thing for our society, as well.  Since different people are already throwing in their thoughts, I’ll add a few of mine in:

  • There are many people who will lose their jobs because of this change. While I don’t want to make this very political, the rise of institutions such as Amazon and how technology displaces jobs is a critical issue that us as Christians need to think about from a perspective of Faith-based Ethics.

 

  • Lifeway’s bread and butter haven’t been as much the retail stores as it has been the development of resources and products. I’ve seen some people talk about how those elements won’t be affected by the store closures.  That’s true in some sense, but a large part of how Lifeway distributes its resources is through its physical storefronts.  That will be impacted, and it will be interesting to see how much of their storefront revenue for Lifeway developed products transfers to its online storefront.

 

  • Finally, some theologically Liberal voices have been celebrating Lifeway’s demise. Their basic argument is something along the lines of “Progressive voices were suppressed by Lifeway’s dominance in this field, so Lifeway’s pulling back will not suppress voices.”

 

  • First, these voices were not suppressed in any meaningful sense of the word.  No author is born with a birthright to any specific retail space or market placement.  The idea that Lifeway carrying specific products that aligned with its institutional values and the values of its consumers suppressed Liberal voices is ludicrous.

 

  • Second, the reason that Progressive voices don’t have as many books with the distribution of other content is because there isn’t widespread demand for theologically Liberal content.  As some pointed out on Twitter, there aren’t exactly theologically progressive bookstores thriving out there.  Additionally, there is this very weird assumption that your typical Lifeway consumer is in the market for Progressive content.  If Theologically Liberal voices can’t get the sales and distribution they want without access to Lifeway, I don’t think getting into Lifeway is going to fix that.  Basically, theological progressives are just whiny that mainline Protestantism is dying and Lifeway is a scapegoat for their lack of appeal.  If you doubt that, let’s see how many Unitarian bookstores pop up in the near future.

Democrats Seem Intent on Losing the Texas US Senate Race in 2020

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why MJ Hegar would be a much better candidate than Wendy Davis for the Texas US Senate race in 2020.  Since then, things have shaken up a little bit.  Hegar is becoming a little more interested in challenging Congressman John Carter, who she nearly beat in 2018, a second time.  This largely corresponded with Congressman Joaquin Castro (Former HHS Secretary and current Presidential Candidate Julian Castro’s twin brother) showing more interest in the Senate race.  At the same time, Wendy Davis has still shown an openness to entering the race.

If the Democrats’ main goal is to win the race, Joaquin Castro would be a strong choice.  He is similar to Beto O’Rourke in that while he is progressive, he maintains a willingness to reach out to moderates and voters who aren’t hyper-partisan.  Castro also has an advantage over O’Rourke in that while O’Rourke struggled with Latino voters in his run against Ted Cruz, Castro has done well with that demographic.

EMILY’s List, the Democratic Pro-Choice organization, was not happy with this.  Today, they came out in favor of a Democratic woman representing the Party in this race.  This presumably refers specifically to former Texas State Legislator Wendy Davis, famous for being a pro-choice extremist and for getting trounced by Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2014 Gubernatorial Campaign.

Texas Democrats have a major opportunity in front of them right now.  They just put up their best performance in Statewide elections in several election cycles.  It is very possible that one of their own will be on the Democrats’ Presidential Ticket in 2020.  While Senator Cornyn isn’t as polarizing as Senator Cruz, he is certainly vulnerable under the right circumstances.  Running a candidate most notable for being an abortion extremist and losing by a large margin before is not the right circumstance.  I’m not a Democrat, so it’s not necessarily my skin on the line.  At the same time, though, Texas Democrats (like National Democrats) will have to decide if they want an ideological extremist or a progressive who can win.  In Texas, though, Democrats have a much smaller margin of error, and will have to tread carefully.

Carly Fiorina Had Some Interesting Thoughts When Asked If She Would Run for Office This Week

Image result for carly fiorina

I have been a major proponent of Carly Fiorina running a primary campaign against Donald Trump for the 2020 GOP Nomination.  I believe she has the most credibility, has the best chance of uniting Moderates, Mainstream Conservatives, and Anti-Establishment types, and has the most to gain from a Trump challenge.  What has been difficult to gauge has been if she would have interest in a run.  As I wrote last month:

At the same time, some of her recent moves seem to be moves that someone looking to keep the option of a Presidential run alive might make.  Just as many political candidates do when running for President, she has a new book coming out in April on the topic of leadership.  She also has retained staff for her personal ventures and foundation that are veterans of her 2016 Presidential campaign, or who have political experience elsewhere.  Finally, while she hasn’t popped up on Fox News Primetime, she has nonetheless done some cable TV appearances, including on Fox News where one would expect a Republican candidate for President to try and attract eyeballs.  These could simply be the moves of any public figure looking to maintain a brand, but an optimistic observer could also see them as the moves of someone at least interested in a run for office.

This week, in an episode of her podcast, Carly was asked directly what future political aspirations she might have.  It’s important to caveat that the question was general, and didn’t mention the Presidency or 2020, but it still gives us insight into whether Fiorina would consider a 2020 run.  The question starts around the 26:30 mark:

Host: What is your political future, will you run for office again?

Fiorina: Well, the short answer, and then I’ll explain, is I don’t know. And the reason my answer is I don’t know, is because that’s the way I’ve always lived my life. If you think about what I said on how I entered the Presidential race last time around, I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a plan to become a CEO. The way I’ve lived my life is to be true to those disciplines and behaviors that I think define leadership and problem solving that we talked about.  Courage and character and the humility and empathy to collaborate with others and imagination to see the possibilities in front of us, and particularly the possibilities in other people.  I try to live my life that way every day, and I’ve learned over time that if I will focus on those things, solve the problems in front of me, that opportunities will knock, and then I’ll make the right choice when the opportunity is in front of me.  And so, that’s how I’m going to continue to live my life.  You know, I had a, not to get too heavy here, but when I battled cancer; Most of my young adult life, I was afraid of dying, and you’ll read about that in “Find Your Way”.  I don’t know exactly why, perhaps because both of my parents lost their parents at a young age, but I was always afraid of dying.  And when I was diagnosed with cancer, of course, all of a sudden, now the threat of death is near and present.  And what I learned going through that is that life isn’t measured in time, life isn’t measured in title or wealth or fame, all though those things can be very important.  Life is measured in love, in moments of grace, and in positive contribution.  And so those are the things that I hope I have in my life every single day, and when opportunity knocks along the way, I usually have the courage to walk through the door.

The entire episode is interesting, but it at least shows that (a) there are a number of people who are interested in the question of if Fiorina will run for office again, and (b) that she hasn’t closed the door to the possibility.  Hopefully she will seriously consider the possibility of seeking the Republican Presidential Nomination in 2020.

Justin Amash Opens the Door to a 2020 Presidential Run

When I listed out some potential options for 2020 primary challengers for Trump early last month, I listed Michigan Congressman Justin Amash as a possibility.  Here’s what I had to say about why he should or should not run:

Why – Justin Amash is about as “Anti-Swamp” as anyone in the United States Congress.  He consistently rails against both parties, and is often on the fringe minority of votes.  He is probably the Republican member of Congress most willing to criticize Trump as well, and has made it clear he is not a fan.  Finally, while he’s not the person to want to climb the political ladder for the sake of it, he doesn’t have many other options at this point to advance.  He has slim chances of winning statewide office in Michigan, and his willingness to rail and vote against his party gives him no chance of advancing in House Leadership or Committee Status.  If he wants to make as big a mark as possible on the national dialogue, this might be his best chance.

Why Not – While Name ID isn’t everything, Amash’s may be too low to even attract earned media and give him a chance to grow recognition.  Additionally, his more Libertarian views may place him outside the party mainstream that, if anything, is shifting towards a larger role of government.  While he may attract small-dollar donors from the same people who Ron Paul enthused in his Presidential runs, his ability to fundraise enough to seriously compete is in question.

Today, he became one of the few Republicans to acknowledge a run against Trump is a possibility.  While he was asked specifically about a Libertarian bid, here are his full thoughts, per Politico:

“I would never rule anything out,” the Michigander said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“That’s not on my radar right now, but I think that it is important that we have someone in there who is presenting a vision for America that is different from what these two parties are presenting,” he said. Amash is the chairman of the House Liberty Caucus, which represents libertarian-minded lawmakers.

…..

“Right now, we have a wild amount of partisan rhetoric on both sides and Congress is totally broken,” Amash said Sunday. “We can’t debate things in a clear way anymore. Everything has become, ‘Do you like President Trump or do you not like President Trump?'”

“I think that we need to return to basic American principles, talk about what we have in common as a people because I believe we have a lot in common as Americans,” he added. “And try to move forward together, rather than fighting each other all the time.”

I don’t know whether he would have a better chance as a Libertarian or a Republican, but he would be a strong addition to the field either way.  He is one of the few Republicans to stand for Refugees and Asylum seekers, fight back against the surveillance state, and to work to get us out of questionable wars.  While I’m definitely not as Libertarian as he is, I would certainly choose him over Trump.  I’m hopeful a more mainstream Conservative enters the race, but Amash would certainly be an improvement over the President, any of the Democrats, or a pro-choice Republican such as Larry Hogan or Bill Weld.

Jason Witten, VFL, Returns to the Dallas Cowboys

Jason Witten

Jason Witten is perhaps my favorite VFL (Vol for Life, for the unacquainted).  Witten is an all around great guy who is tough as nails, is productive on the field, and plays the game the right way.  A lot of people were caught off-guard when the Cowboys made an announcement this afternoon:

I don’t think anyone would be offended if I say here Witten was just not working out with MNF.  I think this is a win for everyone, and I hope it works out.  For Witten, he evidently still has a desire to play.  The Cowboys are an exciting young team that have the potential to do better, and Witten can help them out.  He’s a great veteran presence, and this has the potential to be the best team he’s ever been a part of.

For the Cowboys, they needed more targets for Dak Prescott.  Their passing game was a mess before acquiring Amari Cooper last year.  Their offense was still missing a middle of the field, mid-range guy, though.  You can hardly ask for a better guy to get open and move the ball 10-15 yards downfield than Jason Witten.  Witten helps complete this offense and takes pressure off Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper for making the Dallas offense work.

For Monday Night Football, this is a chance at a fresh start.  They have an opportunity to look at a variety of different options and see what works best.  My advice would be to either (a) offer the Analyst role to Kurt Warner, who has done well in the role on NFL Network when given the chance, or (b) simply move Booger McFarland to the booth, since he seemed to do well last year.  Either of those would be good option.

I believe Jason Witten will come back refreshed and ready to help the Cowboys.  Under wildly different circumstances, think about what a season off from Football did for Adrian Peterson several years ago.  After being suspended for all but one game of the 2014 season, he came back in 2015 and was first-team all-pro.  While Jason Witten is not a RB, he’s nonetheless a very physical player who has taken his share of contact.  A year off is not necessarily a bad thing for him, and he’ll come back in time to benefit a Dallas team that needs him to get back to the next level.  Welcome back, Jason Witten, and I’ll be rooting for the Cowboys to win the NFC this year.

Bryce Harper Signs with the Phillies

After a long, drawn out off-season, Bryce Harper has finally signed.  It’s a doozy of a deal at 13 years, $330 million total.  After much speculation that the Dodgers were on their heels ready to pounce, it turns out the Phillies were able to get a deal done.

I’m split on how to feel about this as a Braves fan.  Bryce Harper is definitely a very good player, and the Phillies have improved more than any team in Baseball this season.  I was hoping Harper would go out to the West Coast or the AL to avoid him.  While I’m not as down on Alex Anthopoulos as some are, I’m a little annoyed that the Braves haven’t done more after dramatically increasing revenue in consecutive years and being told we would be able to shop in any aisle this off-season.  The one big splash they made was at what I would assess as their 4th biggest position of need entering the off-season (OF, Starting P, and Relief P rank higher than 3B).  While there’s still a chance the Braves go out and get Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel, it appears the Braves still let themselves get outgunned by every both the Phillies and Mets when there was absolutely no reason to let that happen as reigning Division Champions.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep things in perspective.  While it’s only 1 year, a healthy Josh Donaldson is probably going to play better than Bryce Harper.  And while it’s only a 1 year deal, a 1 year deal is better than a 13 year deal.  The Phillies are going to be around half-way through this deal just as Acuna, Albies, Swanson, and whichever young Pitchers pan out are hitting their prime.  Most of these long-term deals have gone sour for the teams signing them well before the end of the contract, and I doubt this is an exception.  While the Phillies are big-market spenders, this contract will most likely limit their options for building their roster going forward.  Those are all hopeful points for Braves fans.

Harper is presumably going to be a short-term boon to the Phillies.  That roster is stacked and will be difficult to compete with.  At the same time, the Braves will still be able to compete, and having the Phillies stuck with this contract for years to come could eventually be helpful.  That said, it would still be prudent for the Braves to shore up their Pitching depth before the season starts in order to be in a position to improve on their impressive season last year and make a deeper run in October.