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E-Pluribus | November 9, 2022
The meaning of nihilism in politics (if anyone cares); Lincoln and democracy; and not all attempts to banish inequality are equal.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Russ Greene: Nihilism Has Taken Over American Politics
According to Russ Greene at Discourse Magazine, Bohemian Rhapsody may as well be the anthem of American politics: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters. Nothing really matters to me.” The Bohemian Rhapsody reference is mine, not Greene’s, but Greene makes the case in the first of a two-part series on nihilism that the success of the New Right is only the latest sign of the feeling of futility that has infected our political system.
Not long ago, liberal democracy was the consensus position. This term implies not merely democratic elections but also unalienable individual rights, such as freedom of speech and of assembly. Now, few Americans seem to believe very strongly in these rights. For example, a 2021 Pew poll found that “roughly half of U.S. adults (48%) now say the government should take steps to restrict false information, even if it means losing some freedom to access and publish content.” And another poll found that 1 in 10 Americans think violence against the government is justified right now. Without individual rights, though, democracy is a farce.
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Today, win-win opportunities and political moderation are out of style. Take environmental activist Jamie Henn, who recently expressed concern that we might reduce carbon emissions without radically overhauling our entire society: “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere… but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks—oh, man, what a nightmare.” Henn’s nightmare is that we might achieve net zero emissions and yet still suffer the travesty of private enterprise. Oh, how awful! Henn admitted what many on the right already suspected—that the climate is often a pretext for other left-wing policy objectives.
Yet the right clearly has its own version of this. Andrew Sullivan’s August interview with “post-liberal” New Right icon Sohrab Ahmari serves as a case in point. Sullivan suggested a series of marginal changes to mitigate Ahmari’s avowed concerns about obscenity and corporate power. Could Ahmari not address the problems he cares about “within the rubric of a liberal society?”
Read the whole thing.
Allen C. Guelzo: Lincoln’s Vision of Democracy
The combination of substance and brevity of the Gettysburg Address is a major reason for its longevity and fame, so it’s fitting that within the text of the address, three short prepositions are able to say so much about American democracy. Writing at The Wall Street Journal, Allen Guelzo expounds upon Lincoln’s government of, by and for the people, and how it should inform our understanding of the issues we continue to face today.
The least well-examined words of the address… are its expansive triplet: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This wasn’t merely a rhetorical flourish. In that triplet, Lincoln lays out the three fundamental elements of democracy. The first is consent—government of the people. “According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in his 1854 speech objecting to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compromised on slavery, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” That meant plainly “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”
A second distinctive feature of democracy is the people’s voice in the affairs of governing—government by the people. It matters little whether that active voice is the direct participation of individuals, as in ancient Athens, or through their representatives, as in the American Constitution. From his earliest moments in politics, Lincoln argued that government by the people—through their laws and through elections, and not by mobs with nooses and shotguns—was the only legitimate expression of democracy. “I do not deny the possibility that the people may err in an election,” he conceded in 1861. “But if they do, the true cure is in the next election.”
The third basic element of democracy is a government that serves the interests of the people—government for the people—not those of a monarch, an aristocracy or an angry and contemptuous elite. For that reason, Lincoln wrote, government served to do only those things that need “to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves,” such as roads and bridges, schools and asylums, the enforcement of the laws and the defense of the nation. While government isn’t “charged with the duty of redressing, or preventing, all the wrongs in the world,” he said in 1859, it does have the responsibility to keep from “planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.”
Read it all.
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Amity Shlaes: Impoverished by “Equality”
In her City Journal review of The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate, Amity Shlaes has some good news: the war on poverty has been won! But at what cost? Shlaes examines the data and analysis of authors Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund and John Early that puts the lie to the pervasive “inequality” narrative while at the same time giving evidence that the policies put in place to address the issue perversely work against further progress.
The fallacy in the anti-poverty undertaking holds that differences in earnings or wealth betray something inherently wrong about America. After all, we no longer all dwell on some greedy lord’s estate, but rather in a society that often permits even the non-landed to make their way—and even to become wealthy. This transpires through the development of productive ideas we could not have imagined just five years ago, let alone when Johnson signed the Great Society into law. The motivation of capital gains or business profits—to name two forms of revenue so vilified nowadays—has given us products from which most of us benefit, from Amazon to Uber to lifesaving drugs.
As The Myth of Inequality points out, redistribution culture has adversely affected lower earners. The state of affairs today is tragically distant from Johnson’s secondary aspiration of enabling citizens to “use their capacities”; Americans of little income have stopped working. Social mobility remains possible, but low earners increasingly struggle to move up. Staying home does not often help young people to develop skills, and indeed “enshackles” them—to use the verb of John Cogan, author of The High Cost of Good Intentions. The share of working-age Americans at the bottom of the government’s tables opting not to work has doubled since Johnson’s day. Covid payroll protection can only have strengthened that trend. Though the authors penned this book during the pandemic, a 2022 study by the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan, which finds a correlation between Covid unemployment payments and drug-related deaths, supports their conclusion: work is better than the basement couch or man cave.
Read it all here.
Via the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR), relationships should trump politics:
In October, Wesley Yang interviewed a young woman who regrets her gender-transition:
And finally, Jesse Singal speaks for all of us when he says…