Republicanism and redistribution

Today’s plan by Elizabeth Warren is more republican orthodoxy. She wants to keep private equity firms from looting and destroying U.S. corporations.

I first read about private equity firms in Robert Kuttner’s book, published last year, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?:

Invariably, a private-equity takeover means an even deeper squeeze on worker wages, benefits, and job security. The truly nefarious aspect of the private-equity business model is that windfall profits are typically extracted in advance, so that when the actual operating company falters, the equity partners experience very little loss, if any. The model turns on its head the usual incentives to operate a business prudently and to view workers as long-term assets. Private-equity partners accomplish this trick by borrowing heavily against a newly acquired company, paying themselves an exorbitant “special dividend,” as well as management fees, that together typically far exceed the actual equity they have invested in the company. Then then move to aggressively cut costs. If they succeed, they often sell the stripped-down company to someone else. if they cut too deeply, they’ve already made their fortune up front, and they can use bankruptcy either to shut down the operation or to shed its debts and restructure it.

As an example, Kuttner gives Bain Capital’s takeover of KB Toys in 2000. Bain sent KB into bankruptcy, shedding 10,000 jobs but raking in a 360 percent gain on its investment.1

If you want some background for most of Warren’s policies, read Kuttner’s book as well as Ganesh Sitaraman’s 2017 book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. Sitaraman, the book’s back flap reports, is a law professor as well as Warren’s former policy director and senior counsel. It was Middle-Class Constitution that tipped me off to Warren’s republican roots.

By “republican roots,” I don’t mean that Warren was a Republican, though she was. And by “republican” (lower-case “r”), I don’t refer to a party but to someone who supports a republican form of government, as opposed particularly to a monarchy. The republican-monarchist debate was big in England during the seventeenth century and big here around the time of our revolution. We should debate it anew: our president wants a monarchy, and he’s trying to tear down what’s left of republicanism.

England’s seventeenth century brought the republican theorist behind Sitaraman’s title. James Harrington’s 1656 book Commonwealth of Oceana describes what Sitaraman calls a “middle-class constitution.” Harrington’s idea is based on the balanced constitution of Aristotle and Polybius — the one, the few, and the many — except that the balance isn’t simply the short-term avoidance of the ancients’ frequent civil wars between the haves (“the few” in the ancient constitutions) and the have-nots (“the many”). His insight was the constitutional potential inherent in the “middle people” (our middle class) who were unknown to the ancients.

James Harrington

Harrington had two principal insights, according to Sitaraman. First, “If inequality between rich and poor created strife, relative economic equality should eliminate internal conflicts, create a stable government, and guarantee freedom.” Political freedom, as Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, was the express purpose of both the American and French revolutions. Both revolutions started with liberation from monarchy, but only the American one ended with what would be a longstanding republican constitution. The French Revolution was taken over by the destitute, and the purpose of the revolution’s “relative economic equality” wasn’t to guarantee freedom but to guarantee bread.

The success of the American Revolution relative to the French one would not have surprised Harrington. The economic inequality in France fed the revolution, but in the long run it starved freedom. Napoleon was as much of an absolute ruler as Louis XVI before him.

Warren’s policies don’t set out to create a revolution in the French tradition or otherwise, but to restore us to our current revolution, which began in 1776. Her economic policies have a political end (“political” still in the larger sense: republican vs. monarchical government) — republican freedom.2

Harrington’s second insight, Sitaraman continues, was that “if the balance of property changed, the political system would change as well.” We’ve lived through Harrington’s insight in reverse since the mid-1970s: our middle class has shrunk and the rich have gotten far richer; consequently, we’ve become (as  Jimmy Carter pointed out) an oligarchy. Our political system has changed for the worse.

Harrington’s plan for addressing the economic inequities of his day was enacting agrarian laws, which would cap real estate ownership by annual yields and end primogeniture in favor of equal distribution to the children of large fortunes.3 Our situation is too complicated to be addressed by agrarian laws, as Warren’s plan today attests.

Before Harrington and the Hebrew Revival that influenced him, republican theory concerning property was much like today’s classical liberal theory: defend property rights with almost no exceptions. But Harrington’s then-new republican theory, which came as the threat of a republican form of government was being realized in England, changed republican orthodoxy. Harvard Professor Eric Nelson points out Harrington’s influence on Montesquieu’s and Jefferson’s views on the limits of private ownership:

It is a measure of Harrington’s extraordinary influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.4

Montesquieu explicitly states his fear that economic inequality would sink a republic: “Inequality would enter at the point not protected by the laws, and the republic will be lost.”5  Sitaraman summarizes Montesquieu’s proposed solutions:

The answer Montesquieu suggested, was to “regulate to this end dowries, gifts, inheritances, testaments, in sum, all the kinds of contracts.” Passing on wealth to others in an unregulated fashion would “disturb the disposition of the fundamental laws.” After a long discussion of innovative methods for regulating the transfers and concentration of wealth, Montesquieu recognized a practical reality: “Although in a democracy real equality is the soul of the state, still this equality is so difficult to establish that an extreme precision in this regard would not always be suitable.” He therefore suggested establishing outer bounds of wealth and then passing laws that will “equalize inequalities” thorough “burdens they impose on the rich and the relief they afford to the poor.”6

A mid-1880s letter from Jefferson to Madison addresses the mass unemployment Jefferson was observing in France at the time. Here’s the more theoretical part of the letter: 

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”), and he says that the unemployment of those who wish to be employed is a sign that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.”

Jefferson’s concern for what America could do to avoid the kind of economic disparity he saw on the streets of Paris should be ours, too. It’s certainly Warren’s concern. Her concern for economic fairness, I believe, is not borne chiefly out of compassion but out of statesmanship.

Our heritage of Atlantic republicanism, therefore, has always been anchored in an awareness of how economic disparity can undermine a republic. Republicans who fail to share that concern are republicans in name only.

  1. Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, at 111.
  2. Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, at 53 – 55.
  3. Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, at 79.
  4. Nelson, supra, at 86.
  5. Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, at 5.5 (45).
  6. Sitaraman, supra, at 57 – 58.

Safety

Earlier this week I got a fundraising email from my congresswoman. Here’s how it started:

Peter, I didn’t get into politics to play it safe.

I spoke out immediately on behalf of our federal workers when Trump needlessly caused a shutdown. I’ve taken on the NRA in my district to push for comprehensive, common sense gun safety legislation.

And recently, I’ve called on both Ben Carson and Kellyanne Conway to resign, because they’ve betrayed the public trust by lying and violating the law.

I don’t apologize for a single word or action. But when you take on Donald Trump’s closest allies, you make yourself a target.

Monday’s Post. I get the paper edition to support free press and to take in the essential irony afforded by each morning’s layout.

Here’s my response in lieu of cash:

Dear Rep. Wexton,

But you are playing it safe with respect to an impeachment inquiry. Playing it safe is what the Democrats did in 2016. The stakes are much higher now than then because this moment may be the last in which to investigate the president for his impeachable offenses. If you want to play it safe, look at the polls: before Congress opened the impeachment inquiry against President Nixon, only 19% of the public wanted him impeached. It took leadership for a Democratic House to impeach the president then, and will take leadership for this Democratic House to open a formal impeachment inquiry against our president.

I found patronizing Speaker Pelosi’s remark about wishing to see Mr. Trump in jail after the expiration of his term of office. As I hope you and the speaker know, there is far more at stake this year than the fate of Mr. Trump. We have the republic to consider.

In light of what’s at stake, your stands with respect to the HUD and press secretaries seem not bold but pusillanimous.

I am not a Democrat, but I voted for you in hope that you would stand up to this administration’s many-faceted attack on our Constitution before it is too late. The balance of power on which our Constitution rests, as well as the political freedom it was designed to protect, may rest on what the House does about Mr. Trump this year.

Peter Stephens

Stolen voices

Victoria and I talked this morning about our fears of not being heard. For my part, I’ve been working on a book that I may or may not ever finish. I’ll let Victoria speak for herself.

Hannah Arendt’s vision of the political is essentially positive: the political is a realm where people are seen and heard. All creation, it seems, wants to be seen and heard, to express the god-ness that God has placed in each.

° ° °

Today’s Post.

When I teach, I teach too much. That is, I talk too much. This summer I’ve worked hard on a plan to talk a lot less this fall.

I talk so much I didn’t know that one of my students, forced like the rest into relative silence, was working hard this spring choreographing an award-winning musical that meant so much to me and many others. What kind of talk is that, that doesn’t care to know its listeners?

° ° °

The most important prayer is what’s prayed through us: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Or the most important prayer is whatever’s on your mind: “You have not because you ask not.” Are these concepts so different? Because prayer is fundamentally communion, its content — the petition side of the operation — won’t come together outside of communion. The petition side is about hearing and being heard, the real presence that always expresses itself in communion.

° ° °

We all know by now that, despite his almost 11,000 false or misleading claims since becoming president, the president can count on the unwavering support of a very large base. That’s because, for the first time in their lives, many people in that base feel heard by their government. (The “familiar themes” in today’s headline refer to themes the president made to his base in 2016.)

° ° °

Consider two verses in which three steps seem to do the job of two:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.. – Romans 10:17 (NASS)1

And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. – 1 John 5:14 – 15 (NASS)

Our dyadic Western minds want to truncate these verses into simple, two-figure propositions: “Faith comes by the word of Christ,” and “If we ask anything according to his will, our prayer will be granted.” It’s not so simple, or at least it’s not so mechanical. In the former proposition, we’ve left out our hearing God. In the latter, we’ve left out God hearing us.

Hearing and being heard are among the most triadic and capacious of actions and are close to the ultimate “mediators,” to employ Charles Pierce’s concept.2

° ° °

Walter Lippmann in his essay “The Indispensable Opposition” defends freedom of speech with a unique argument: we need what our opponents have to say:

Unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.

° ° °

Five things (among many) that steal voices:

  1. Abortion. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, whether you see abortion as murder or as the lesser of two evils, you are probably not pro-abortion. Abortion silences voices. The birth of a hero saga turns the births of Moses and Jesus into tales of survival; each hero in his birth survives an edict to kill babies. In a sense, considering the number of sperm that never fertilize eggs, we are all survivors. We are also all heroes. (I’ve listened enough to my students to finally understand this.)
  2. Poverty and economic inequality. The French Revolution focused on the poor’s need for food, and it discovered that the poor speak this need with one voice, fulfilling Rousseau’s concept of the General Will. On the other hand, the American Revolution, when it addressed the poor at all, focused on the poor’s need to be heard. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, John Adams believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings. Adams’s thinking about the poor was in this respect different from Robespierre’s: “The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.”3  The American  Revolution focused not on discerning and addressing the General Will but on forms of government, including (imperfect and incomplete) forums for the expression of specific viewpoints. The effective price of admission to these forums keeps many people out.
  3. The destruction of the local community and of Tocqueville’s mediating institutions.
  4. Facebook. Ironically, I suppose.
  5. That image I just saw for a split second: a rock star’s windmilling his last chord, raising his arms in triumph. The next split second: his adoring crowd.

° ° °

Arendt on the “too apathetic or too stupid”:

It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 193017 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been “spoiled” by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.4

° ° °

and this from U2 (moments before the Edge windmills the last chord):

I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred
I get so many things I don’t deserve
All the stolen voices will someday be returned
The most beautiful sound I’d ever heard

[Outro:]
Your voices will be heard
Your voices will be heard

° ° °

There. I’ve said enough.

  1. All Scripture quotations in this post are taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. www.Lockman.org.
  2. “When processes of comparison grow complicated, new ‘third terms’ or ‘mediators’ may be needed at each stage of one’s undertaking. . . .  it is by means of the use of a ‘third’ that each act of comparison is made possible, — whether the case in question be simple or complex. And the mediator plays each time the part which Pierce first formally defined.” — Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, at 301.
  3. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  4.  Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, pages 311-312.

Primal political events

There’s Euphoria, another TV show I’ve never watched but read about in, this time, The New Yorker Today. Euphoria is about the homeland generation, the generation I teach. I didn’t know all of this was going on outside of my classroom.

The New Yorker review accounts for “all of this” in part by citing this generation’s “primal political event” — 9/11. The review’s account wouldn’t work for Hannah Arendt: for her, violence isn’t a political event but merely signals a political failure. Her vision of the political is broad and positive, as is (I’m discovering) Roland Barthes’, who distinguishes between “the political” and “politics.” For Barthes, “the political” is “a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said.” Arendt, too, defines the political as something like pure act and speech. “Politics,” on the other hand, for Barthes is “the same old story, the discourse of repetition.”1

Arendt and Barthes were of the same generation, born nine years apart, like Victoria and me, and a century before my students.

I was born halfway between those writers and my students, and my own primal political event was a mere placeholder. It was the scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, the impetuous William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I first saw the movie when I was my students’ age. I was euphoric: never man spake like this man.2 Get a load of some of the movie’s other dialogue here.

I guess it’s only a kind of justice that the generation I teach is portrayed on TV (outside of life) as having been defined by a political event outside of politics, and that my own primal political event happened not in life but in a movie. Viewing it this way, 9/11 is a kind of Truman Show, a TV show — or a movie, rather, about a TV show. The Truman Show was released just three years before the planes hit, and that attack out of the blue seems to have been anticipated by a TV studio’s light fixture falling from what Truman had taken from birth to be the sky.

I call A Man for All Seasons a “placeholder” for a “primal political event” because the dialogues between More and Roper — and More and Cromwell and More and Norfolk and More and Henry VIII — were eventually replaced for me by the real-life dialogue between Edward Coke and King James I, not a Tudor this time but England’s first Stewart monarch. Coke argued for the common law and therefore for lawyers, for the continuation of their archetypal function as a civic priesthood, a mediator (if not always an intercessor) between God and civil society.

Coke’s context was James’s attempt to become England’s judge as well as its king. James’s rejoinder to Coke, according to Coke, was “that he thought the law was founded upon reason, and that he and others had reason, as well as the Judges.” Here’s Coke’s account of more of the dialogue, beginning with his reply to the king:

that true it was, that God had endowed his Majesty with excellent science, and great endowments of nature; but His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgement of law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it: and that the law was the golden met-wand [measuring rod] and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected his Majesty in safety and peace: with with the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, with was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Braxton saith, quod Rex non debit esse sub homie, sed sub Deo et lege [the king ought to be under no man, but under God and the law].3

Did the conversation really stop there? If so, was it because Coke threw some Latin at the king? There’s this scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Henry engages the engaging Margaret, More’s daughter who is then engaged to Roper, with a little Latin. Margaret answers in a torrent. The king loses the thread and turns away.

Our own executive, too, has answered calls for his circumscription by the rule of law with accusations of treason. His understanding of the State doesn’t extend past his mirror, but our larger problem is the modern concept of the State, which James here well articulates. The State is sovereign, so the State threatens the political. And both the State and political sovereignty are modern concepts. In fact, for me these two concepts define modernity. They are modernity’s violent and primal political event, to redeploy that oxymoron.

I’ve always liked Coke’s bold description of law as based on “artificial” reason best construed by lawyers and judges. Some evangelicals, in the spirit of Roper, count how many signers were Christians. Hannah Arendt instead counts how many lawyers were in the colonial legislatures when the first state constitutions were drafted after July 4, 1776 (the Gettysburg Address’s contender for “primal political event”). Lawyers writing constitutions: so much treasonous artificiality, according to the colonies’ sovereign, King George III.

We need art and the artificial. I saw The Truman Show on my TV, after all. In Barthes’ playful prose, he acknowledges, “the political is constantly present, but hidden.”4 The political (as opposed to “politics”) is in what Richard Howard calls in his preface to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text “an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowing, bubbles, trial balloons, ‘phylacteries,’ as he calls them, of an invisible design . . .”5 There’s some political religion for you: phylacteries. Overt reminders for their wearers to keep the law.

Jesus had no problem with phylacteries, you know. He just didn’t like broad ones — ones to be seen by men and not by the Pharisees wearing them.6 He wasn’t lopping off phylacteries to get at the Devil.

Maybe if our schools passed out phylacteries, there wouldn’t be so much sex in Euphoria.

Howard’s isn’t the only preface to demonstrate how fragments — reality’s intrusions onto ideology — are sometimes a writer’s instinctive response to the modern thirst for sovereignty. Consider Greil Marcus’s preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, the latter written as a kind of newspaper-blog in Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power:

One thing that linked Benjamin, Aragon, Adorno, and Chtchelgov (and, for a moment, Ruttmann, before he became a Nazi) was the philosophical conviction, or instinct, that the totality had to be resisted, even chipped away, even defeated, by the fragment: the street, the sign, the name, the face, the aphorism, the evanescent, the ephemeral, the worthless, the unimportant, the meaningless.7

And Benjamin’s One-Way Street reads like Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text — seemingly random fragments piled like sandbags against ruinous politics that, like sovereignty in man’s hands, have no concept of banks or boundaries.

Both books, of course, read a lot like any reporter from the past 700 years compiling cases construing the common law. (You’ve seen these reporters — numbered, beige books behind lawyers who are interviewed on TV from their firms’ conference rooms. I’ve never heard of anyone, lawyer or otherwise, reading one from cover to cover.)

Here’s some more political religion for you: sovereignty is God’s alone. As Arendt says in the context of the political, “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.”8

It’s Father’s Day, and James I thought himself a father to his people. In fact, James was the first patriarchalist king, adopting the modern theory of sovereignty espoused by the likes of Robert Filmer and known today as the Divine Right of Kings. The Athenian polis, the argument perhaps goes, should be replaced by permitting the Athenian domestic dictatorship that supported it to overrun its banks.

An in-law of mine once defended her vote for our president to me this way: he’s a good father.

More from that New Yorker app: if your father seemed a remote figure, here’s why.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, at 218.
  2. John 7:46.
  3. James R. Stoner, Jr., Common Law and Liberal Theory, at 30.
  4. Barths, supra, at 219.
  5. Richard Howard, “A Note on the Text” in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, at viii.
  6. Matthew 23:5.
  7. Greil Marcus, preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, at xvi.
  8. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, at 163.

School, government . . . the whole bit

The seventy-two came back jubilant. “In your name, Lord,” they said, “even the demons submit to us.”

“Wup woo,” Jesus replied. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning, from heaven. And I have given you the power to tread underfoot snakes and scorpions and all the forces of the enemy. Nothing will ever harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but that your names are enrolled in heaven.”

-Luke 10:17-20 (REB, with a small addition)

Schooled in heaven! “Enroll,” I’ll admit, seems here closer to “write the name of (someone) on a list or register,” but today, when I laughed reading it, “enrolled” means registered in a course of study. These guys report back from a practicum.

But my joy is more about where our community is situated, about what it consists of — heaven. And on earth as it is, in fact, in heaven. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says. We’ll find our education as well as our politics if we find our community.

It’s Jefferson’s small wards, the local participation in government that he said would save our republic. It’s our participation in the Trinity suggested by how most liturgical prayer ends, e.g., “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”

It’s the bit that’s part of the whole, or Blake’s world in a grain of sand.

The spirit of democracy

We had dinner in D.C. with a friend and her new boyfriend not long after the 2016 election. He’s a civil servant, high up in a federal bureaucracy, so I took the opportunity to ask him what many of us were worried about: Would the new administration destroy American democracy?

He was no fan of the president-elect, but he reassured me that American republicanism was up to the challenge. Our norms and institutions, including our federal bureaucracy, would easily withstand this threat.

Just over five hundred years ago, a similar threat presented itself to republican Florence when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici took over the city with a papal army. The Florentine historian and political theorist Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and an acquaintance of his countryman Nicollo Machiavelli, wondered if Florence’s republic would survive the invasion.

Guicciardini’s Florence were a liberty-loving people. This was significant to Guicciardini because it limited what a would-be tyrant could do. A ruler, Guicciardini thought, was limited by the nature of the people he ruled. In a way, this approach to how a city could be governed anticipates Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Both Guicciardini and Montesquieu argued not for government based on universal standards but based on what a particular people needed. Guicciardini believed that “it is useless to speak of government abstractly and in general,” summarizes J. G. A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment. “One must take into account the individual character (natura) of both the people and the area (luogo, sito) to be governed.”1  And for the Florentines who were used to governing themselves, “good government is no substitute for self-government.”2

Guicciardini examined his country’s past. The Florentines were “anciently free.” (Pocock here characterizes Guicciardini’s thoughts.) Maybe the Florentines had taken a hiatus from this freedom in the years before the Medici family first came to power in 1434 to resolve Florence’s extreme factionalism, Guicciardini acknowledged, but Florence was free when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici and his army invaded Florence in 1512.3 In 1495, in fact, a year after the Medici family was first overthrown, Florence had adopted a constitution that included the Consiglio Grande, a legislative body that institutionalized a democratic element in the Florentine republic. Thanks to the Consiglio Grande, according to historian Kenneth Bartlett, “never before had so many [Florentine] citizens been able to serve the state.”4 Even before the new constitution, Guicciardini argued, Florence was (again, in Pocock’s words) “addicted to concerning themselves with public business.”5

Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X and His Cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (1518 – 1519).

Such an addiction can change a people, Guicciardini argued:

The natures of the men, or at least their social and political dispositions, can be changed; but the only two forces recognized as capable of working such a change are custom and use on the one hand, which work slowly, and political participation on the other, which quickly works effects that it takes time to undo.6

Based on the quick work of Florence’s democratic innovations, Guicciardini concluded, the reign of the restored Medici was insecure.3 If de’ Medici was to be successful in converting Florence to an autocracy, he had better act slowly.

One wonders if the 2016 election found the United States with the “custom and use” of democracy or with the “political participation” to withstand the president’s depredations. Before the election, had we been fundamentally transformed in Guicciardini’s sense by our custom and use or by our experience of political participation? Would a ruler’s actions taken to delegitimize our elections, our intelligence community, our free press, and truth itself come across as acting “suddenly and brutally,” to use how Pocock describes Guicciardini’s characterization of the Medici’s actions, so that there would be little opportunity for the people “to forget the experience of citizenship”?8

I don’t think so. Our public realm, for the most part, is but a sleep and a forgetting. We have little democratic “custom and usage” or “political participation.” Voting is important, but it isn’t democracy. (Until the recent past, in fact, voting was considered an aristocratic practice; sortition was the more democratic way of filling offices.9) We have forgotten what Tocqueville discovered about us a generation after the Founding, which can be described in the same way that Sheldon S. Wolin defined democracy: “originating or initiating cooperative action with others . . . throughout the society in response to felt needs.” Through this action, “political experience is being made accessible, experience that compels individuals to deal with the complexity of interests and the conflicting claims that have hitherto been reserved for politicians and bureaucrats.”10 This is the transformative experience that would slow down or stop Guicciardini’s would-be tyrant. Instead of this, however, we have what Wolin in 1989 called “a politics without memory” and a “democracy without the citizen.”11

Florence’s democracy, limited though it was, exceeded ours in direct participation. Despite this, just before Medici’s army entered Florence in 1512, most of the functions of the Consiglio Grande had been taken over by an aristocratic senate.12 Likewise, we began to self-identify more as consumers than as citizens long before 2016. Wolin, in fact, wrote Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism eleven years before our last presidential election. We’re used to being managed.

Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, and his successors in Florence ultimately destroyed the country’s republic. From the time of the 1512 invasion, the Medici family ruled Florence continuously until 1737.

  1. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, at 141.
  2. Id. at 141.
  3.  Id.
  4. Kenneth Bartlett, The Italian Renaissance Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company 2005, at 162.
  5. Pocock, supra.
  6. Id. at 144. This is, again, Pocock’s summary of Guicciardini’s writing.
  7.  Id.
  8. Id. at 143.
  9.  Id. at 134; see also Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws 2.2 (13): “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
  10. Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, at 150.
  11. Id. at 184.
  12. Pocock, supra, at 122.

The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

God and mammon

Oligarchists (to the end they may keep all others out of the government) pretending themselves to be saints, do also pretend that they in whom lust reigns are not fit for reign or for government. But libido dominandi, the lust of government, is the greatest lust, which also reigns most in those that have least right, as in oligarchists; for many a king and many a people have and had unquestionable right, but an orlgarchist never; whence from their own argument, the lust of government reigning most in oligarchists, it undeniably follows that oligarchists of all men are least fit for government.

-James Herrington, A System of Politics (ca. 1661)

Is Elizabeth Warren too conservative for America?

In the eighteenth century the French centralized despotism was viewed as the vehicle of reform and progress; only conservatives such as Montesquieu could see advantages in what was generally held to be the corrupt, disorganized, fractionated and backward English political system.

– Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968)

I’m reading a seminal work of conservative sociology — Robert Nisbet’s 1952 book The Quest for Community — and that context makes me view Elizabeth Warren as what would be either party’s most conservative presidential candidate. Nisbet argues against the forces that substitute power for community. View Facebook and its times through Nisbet’s eyepiece:

All too often, power comes to resemble community, especially in times of convulsive social change and of widespread preoccupation with personal identity, moral certainty, and social meaning.

Fearing a loss of the local community and, with it, freedom, conservatives used to challenge liberalism’s embrace of laissez faire economics. They argued that the unregulated marketplace flattened local life and eliminated public life. The result, they sometimes warned, would be a form of equality one often finds in despotism — the one against all.

Warren’s proposal to break up the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is an unexpected flowering of this old-time civil religion. As conservatives used to argue, the effects of unchecked market forces go beyond economics. Warren points out that these giant tech companies adversely affect democracy. Warren’s insight and her other economic policies seem to make her Tocqueville’s candidate. Indeed, after reading Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, which is largely a nostalgic view of America’s postwar economic consensus around Bretton Woods, I’m about ready to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat in her honor.

° ° °

Attempts at reconstructing local communities involve difficult choices, ones beyond closing Facebook accounts and patronizing local shops and farmers’ markets. A friend of mine passed along to me a criticism of John Brown: instead of sticking with the intentional community he helped to begin, he got involved in national politics. Brown’s struggle, thus expressed, led me to buy an old biography of him.

The tension between the draw to intentional communities and the draw to national politics also got me re-interested in Bonhoeffer, and I just finished Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. As the first director of the first Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer sets out to make disciples instead of preachers. He preaches instead of instructing in homiletics, he prays long prayers in contravention of Lutheran sensibilities, he promotes music, and he insists on recreation. The seminary’s routines and activities suggest both a monastery and my more idyllic memories of the neighborhood I grew up in.

Oddly, in the context of the biography, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot against Hitler’s life seems a natural outgrowth of his focus, wherever he travels and works, on the local community. I wonder how that tension will play out in Brown’s biography.

Meanwhile, in our own longstanding community of disciples, we wait. Or to use that Old High German cognate, we abide.