To Hell Or Connacht

And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.
Revelations 6:8. 

In republics, it is a fundamental principle, that the majority govern, and that the minority comply with the general voice.
—Oliver Ellsworth.

In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
—Andrew Jackson.

 

“They are at the present eating, or have already eaten, their seed potatoes and seed corn, to preserve life,” goes the sentence from the Proceedings of the Mansion House Committee for the Relief of Distress in Ireland During the Months of January and February, 1880. Not many are aware, but the Great Hunger of 1845-52 (or, in Gaelic, an Gorta Mór) was not the last Irish potato famine; by the autumn of 1879, the crop had failed and starvation loomed for thousands—especially in the west of the country, in Connacht. (Where, Oliver Cromwell had said two centuries before, was one choice for Irish Catholics to go if they did not wish to be murdered by Cromwell’s New Model Army—the other being Hell.) But this sentence records the worst fear: it was because the Irish had been driven to eat their seed potatoes in the winter of 1846 that the famine that had been brewing since 1845 became the Great Hunger in the year known as “Black ’47”: although what was planted in the spring of 1847 largely survived to harvest, there hadn’t been enough seeds to plant in the first place. Hence, everyone who heard that sentence from the Mansion House Committee in 1880 knew what it meant: the coming of that rider on a pale horse spoken of in Revelations. It’s a history lesson I bring up to suggest that “eating your seed corn” also explains the coming of another specter that many American intellectuals may have assumed lay in the past: Donald Trump.

There are two hypotheses about the rise of Donald Trump to the presumptive candidacy of the Republican Party. The first—that of many Hillary Clinton Democrats—is that Trump is tapping into a reservoir of racism that is simply endemic to the United States: in this view, “’murika” is simply a giant cesspool of hate waiting to break out at any time. But that theory is an ahistorical one: why should a Trump-like candidate—that is, one sustained by racism—only become the presumptive nominee of a major party now? “Since the 1970s support for public and political forms of discrimination has shrunk significantly” says one voice on the subject (Anna Maria Barry-Jester’s, surveying many sociological studies for FiveThirtyEight). If the studies Barry-Jester highlights are correct, and yet levels of racism remain precisely the same as in the past, then that must mean that the American public is not getting less racist—but instead merely getting better at hiding it. That then raises the question: if the level of racism still remains as high as in the past, why wasn’t it enough to propel, say, former Alabama governor George Wallace to a major party nomination in 1968 or 1972? In other words, why Trump now, rather than George Wallace then? Explaining Trump’s rise as due to racism has a timing problem: it’s difficult to think that, somehow, racism has become more acceptable today than it was forty or more years ago.

Yet, if not racism, then what is fueling Trump? Journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank suggests an answer: the rise of Donald Trump is not the result of racism, but of efforts to fight racism—or rather, the American Left’s focus on racism at the expense of economics. To wildly overgeneralize: Trump is not former Republican political operative Karl Rove’s fault, but rather Fannie Lou Hamer’s.

Although little known today, Fannie Lou Hamer was once famous as a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegation to the 1964 Democratic Party Convention. On arrival Hamer addressed the convention’s Credentials Committee to protest the seating of Mississippi’s “regular” Democratic delegation on the grounds that Mississippi’s official delegation, an all-white slate of delegates, had only become the “official” delegation by suppressing the votes of the state’s 400,000 black people—which had the disadvantageous quality, from the national party’s perspective, of being true. What’s worse, when the “practical men” sent to negotiate with her—especially Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota—asked her to step down her challenge on the pragmatic grounds that her protest risked losing the entire South for President Lyndon Johnson in the upcoming general election, Hamer refused: “Senator Humphrey,” Hamer rebuked him; “I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.” With that, Hamer rejected the hardheaded, practical calculus that informed Humphrey’s logic; in doing so, she set a example that many on the American Left have followed since—an example that, to follow Frank’s argument, has provoked the rise of Trump.

Trump’s success, Frank explains, is not the result of cynical Republican electoral exploitation, but instead because of policy choices made by Democrats: choices that not only suggest that cynical Republican choices can be matched by cynical Democratic ones, but that Democrats have abandoned the key philosophical tenet of their party’s very existence. First, though, the specific policy choices: one of them is the “austerity diet” Jimmy Carter (and Carter’s “hand-picked” Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker), chose for the nation’s economic policy at the end of the 1970s. In his latest book, Listen, Liberal: or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank says that policy “was spectacularly punishing to the ordinary working people who had once made up the Democratic base”—an assertion Frank is hardly alone in repeating, because as noted not-radical Fortune magazine has observed, “Volcker’s policies … helped push the country into recession in 1980, and the unemployment rate jumped from 6% in August 1979, the month of Volcker’s appointment, to 7.8% in 1980 (and peaked at 10.8 % in 1982).” And Carter was hardly the last Democratic president who made economic choices contrary to the interests of what might appear to be the Democratic Party’s constituency.

The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, after all put the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress: an agreement that had the effect (as the Economic Policy Institute has observed) of “undercut[ing] the bargaining power of American workers” because it established “the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell back into the United States.” Hence, “[a]s soon as NAFTA became law,” the EPI’s Jeff Faux wrote in 2013, “corporate managers began telling their workers that their companies intended to move to Mexico unless the workers lowered the cost of their labor.” (The agreement also allowed companies to extort tax breaks from state and municipal coffers by threatening to move, with the attendant long-term costs—including an inability to fight for workers.) In this way, Frank says, NAFTA “ensure[d] that labor would be too weak to organize workers from that point forward”—and NAFTA has also become the basis for other trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership backed by another Democratic administration: Barack Obama’s.

That these economic policies have had the effects described is, perhaps, debatable; what is not debatable, however, is that economic inequality has grown in the United States. As the Pew Research Center reports, “in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago,” and as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reported last year, “the fact that the top 20 percent of earners rake in over 50 percent of the total earnings in any given year” has become something of a cliché in policy circles. Ingraham also reports that “the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households have captured a whopping 76 percent of all the wealth in America”—a “number [that] is considerably higher than in other rich nations.” These figures could be multiplied; they represent a reality that even Republican candidates other than Trump—who for the most part was the only candidate other than Bernie Sanders to address these issues—began to respond to during the primary season over the past year.

“Today,” said Senator and then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz in January—repeating the findings of University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez—“the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928.” While the cause of these realities are still argued over—Cruz for instance sought to blame, absurdly, Obamacare—it’s nevertheless inarguable that the country has become radically remade economically over recent decades.

That reformation has troubling potential consequences, if they have not already themselves become real. One of them has been adequately described by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz: “as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into a decline.” What Stiglitz means is this: say you’re Mitt Romney, who had a 2010 income of $21.7 million. “Even if Romney chose to live a much more indulgent lifestyle” than he actually does, Stiglitz says, “he would only spend a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes.” “But take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people,” Stiglitz continues, “say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.” That expenditure represents economic activity: as should surely, but apparently isn’t to many people, be self-evident, a lot more will happen economically if 500 people split twenty million dollars than if one person has all of it.

Stiglitz, of course, did not invent this argument: it used to be bedrock for Democrats. As Frank points out, the same theory was advanced by the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee—in 1896. As expressed by William Jennings Bryan at the 1896 Democratic Convention, the Democratic idea is, or used to be, this one:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

To many, if not most, members of the Democratic Party today, this argument is simply assumed to fit squarely with Fannie Lou Hamer’s claim for representation at the 1964 Democratic Convention: on the one hand, economic justice for working people; on the other, political justice for those oppressed on account of their race. But there are good reasons to think that Hamer’s claim for political representation at the 1964 convention puts Bryan’s (and Stiglitz’) argument in favor of a broadly-based economic policy in grave doubt—which might explain just why so many of today’s campus activists against racism, sexism, or homophobia look askance at any suggestion that they demonstrate, as well, against neoliberal economic policies, and hence perhaps why the United States has become more and more unequal in recent decades.

After all, the focus of much of the Democratic Party has been on Fannie Lou Hamer’s question about minority representation, rather than majority representation. A story told recently by Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker in a review of a book entitled Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, demonstrates the point. In 1990, it seems, Lee Atwater—famous as the mastermind behind George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory in 1988 and then-chairman of the Republican National Committee—made an offer to the Congressional Black Caucus, as a result of which the “R.N.C. [Republican National Committee] and the Congressional Black Caucus joined forces for the creation of more majority-black districts”—that is, districts “drawn so as to concentrate, or ‘pack,’ African-American voters.” The bargain had an effect: Kolbert mentions the state of Georgia, which in 1990 had nine Democratic congressmen—eight of whom were white. “In 1994,” however, Kolbert notes, “the state sent three African-Americans to Congress”—while “only one white Democrat got elected.” 1994 was, of course, also the year of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” and the great wave of Republican congressmen—the year Democrats lost control of the House for the first time since 1952.

The deal made by the Congressional Black Caucus in other words, implicitly allowed by the Democratic Party’s leadership, enacted what Fannie Lou Hamer demanded in 1964: a demand that was also a rejection of a political principle known as “majoritarianism”—the right of majorities to rule. It’s a point that’s been noticed by those who follow such things: recently, some academics have begun to argue against the very idea of “majority rule.” Stephen Macedo—perhaps significantly, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University—recently wrote, for instance, that majoritarianism “lacks legitimacy if majorities oppress minorities and flaunt their rights.” Hence, Macedo argues, “we should stop talking about ‘majoritarianism’ as a plausible characterization of a political system that we would recommend” on the grounds that “the basic principle of democracy” is not that it protects the interests of the majority but instead something he calls “political equality.” In other words, Macedo asks: “why should we regard majority rule as morally special?” Why should it matter, in other words, if one candidate should get more votes than another? Some academics, in short, have begun to wonder publicly about why we should even bother holding elections.

What is so odd about Macedo’s arguments to a student of American history, of course, is that he is merely echoing certain older arguments—like this one, from the nineteenth century: “It is not an uncommon impression, that the government of the United States is a government based simply on population; that numbers are its only element, and a numerical majority its only controlling power,” this authority says. But that idea is false, the writer goes on to say: “No opinion can be more erroneous.” The United States is, instead, “a government of the concurrent majority,” and “population, mere numbers,” are, “strictly speaking, excluded.” It’s an argument that, as it is spieled out, might sound plausible; after all, the structure of the government of the United States does have a number of features that are, “strictly speaking,” not determined solely by population: the Senate and the Supreme Court, for example, are pieces of the federal government that are, in conception and execution, nearly entirely opposed to the notion of “numerical majority.” (“By reference to the one person, one vote standard,” Francis E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer observe for instance in Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, “the Senate is the most malapportioned legislature in the world.”) In that sense, then, one could easily imagine Macedo having written the above, or these ideas being articulated by Fannie Lou Hamer or the Congressional Black Caucus.

Except, of course, for one thing: the quotes in the above paragraph were taken from the writings of John Calhoun, the former Senator, Secretary of War, and Vice President of the United States—which, in one sense, might seem to give the weight of authority to Macedo’s argument against majoritarianism. At least, it might if not for a couple of other facts about Calhoun: not only did he personally own dozens of slaves (at his plantation, Fort Hill; now the site of Clemson University), he is also well-known as the most formidable intellectual defender of slavery in American history. His most cunning arguments after all—laid out in such works as the Fort Hill Address and the Disquisition on Government—are against majoritarianism and in favor of slavery; indeed, to Calhoun they are much the same: anti-majoritarianism is more or less the same as being pro-slavery. (A point that historians like Paul Finkelman of the University of Tulsa have argued is true: the anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, these historians say, were originally designed to protect slavery—a point that might sound outré except for the fact that it was made at the time of the Constitutional Convention itself by none other than James Madison.) And that is to say that Stephen Macedo and Fannie Lou Hamer are choosing a very odd intellectual partner—while the deal between the RNC and the Congressional Black Caucus demonstrates that those arguments are having very real effects.

What’s really significant, in short, about Macedo’s “insights” about majoritarianism is that, as a possessor of a named chair at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, his work shows just how a concern, real or feigned, for minority rights can be used as a means of undermining the very idea of democracy itself. It’s in this way that activists against racism, sexism, homophobia and other pet campus causes can effectively function as what Lenin called “useful idiots”: by dismantling the agreements that have underwritten the existence of a large and prosperous proportion of the population for nearly a century, “intellectuals” like Macedo may be helping to dismantle economically the American middle class. If the opinion of the majority of the people does not matter politically, after all, it’s hard to think that their opinion could matter in any other way—which is to say that arguments like Macedo’s are thusly a kind of intellectual strip-mining operation: they consume the intellectual resources of the past in order to provide a short-term gain for a small number of operators.

They are, in sum, eating their seed-corn.

In that sense, despite the puzzled brows of many of the country’s talking heads, the Trump phenomenon makes a certain kind of potted sense—even if it appears utterly irrational to the elite. Although they might not express themselves in terms that those with elite educations find palatable—in a fashion that, significantly, suggests a return to those Victorian codes of “breeding” and “politesse” that elites have always used against what used to be called the “lower classes”—there really may be an ideological link between a Democratic Party governed by those with elite educations and the current economic reality faced by the majority of Americans. That reality may be the result of the elites’ loss of faith in what even Calhoun called the “fundamental principle, the great cardinal maxim” of democratic government: “that the people are the source of all power.” So, while the organs of elite opinion like The New York Times or other outlets might continue to crank out stories decrying the “irrationality” of Donald Trump’s supporters, it may be that Trumps’ fans (Trumpettes?) are in fact in possession of a deeper rationality than that of those criticizing them. What their votes for Trump may signal is a recognition that, if the Republican Party has become the party of the truly rich, “the 1%,” the Democratic Party has ceased to be the party of the majority and has instead become the party of the professional class: the “10%.” Or, as Frank says, in swapping Republicans and Democrats the nation “merely exchange[s] one elite for another: a cadre of business types for a collection of high-achieving professionals.” Both, after all, disbelieve in the virtues of democracy; what may (or may not) be surprising, while also deeply terrifying, is that supposed “intellectuals” have apparently come to accept that there is no difference between Connacht—and the Other Place.

 

 

**Update: In the hours since I first posted this, I’ve come across two different recent articles in magazines with “New York” in their titles: in one, for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore—a professor of history at Harvard in her day job—argues that “more democracy is very often less,” while the other, written by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine, is entitled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.” Draw conclusions where you will.

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Several And A Single Place

 

What’s the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate?
Coriolanus 

 

The explanation, says labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, possesses amazing properties: he can, the one-time congressional candidate says, “use it to explain everything … because it seems to work on any issue.” But before trotting out what that explanation is, let me select an issue that might appear difficult to explain: gun control, and more specifically just why, as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post wrote in July, “it’s never the right time to discuss gun control.” “In recent years,” as Ingraham says, “politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum have responded to mass shootings with an invocation of the phrase ‘now is not the time,’ or a close variant.” That inability even to discuss gun control is a tremendously depressing fact, at least insofar as you have sympathy for the needless waste of lives gun deaths are—until you realize that we Americans have been here before. And that demonstrates, just maybe, that Thomas Geoghegan has a point.

Over a century and a half ago, Americans were facing another issue that, in the words of one commentator, “must not be discussed at all.” It was so grave an issue, in fact, that very many Americans found “fault with those who denounce it”—a position that this commenter found odd: “You say that you think [it] is wrong,” he observed, “but you denounce all attempts to restrain it.” That’s a pretty strange position, because who thinks something is wrong, but yet is “not willing to deal with [it] as a wrong?” What other subject could be called a wrong, but should not be called “wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics,” and conversely should not be called “wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.” To sum up, this commenter said, “there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong!”

The place where this was said was New Haven, Connecticut; the time, March of 1860; the speaker, a failed senatorial candidate now running for president for a brand-new political party. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

He was talking about slavery.

*                                            *                                        *

To many historians these days, much about American history can be explained by the fact that, as historian Leonard Richards of the University of Massachusetts put it in his 2000 book, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860, so “long as there was an equal number of slave and free states”—which was more or less official American policy until the Civil War—“the South needed just one Northern vote to be an effective majority in the Senate.” That meant that controlling “the Senate, therefore, was child’s play for southern leaders,” and so “time and again a bill threatening the South [i.e., slavery above all else] made its way through the House only to be blocked in the Senate.” It’s a stunningly obvious point, at least in retrospect—at least for this reader—but I’d wager that few, if any, Americans have really thought through the consequences of this fact.

Geoghegan for example has noted that—as he put it in 1998’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life—even today the Senate makes it exceedingly difficult to pass legislation: as he wrote, at present only “two-fifths of the Senate, or forty-one senators, can block any bill.” That is, it takes at least sixty senatorial votes to overcome the threat known as the “filibuster,” the invocation of which requires a supermajority to overcome. The filibuster however is not the only anti-majoritarian feature of the Senate, which is also equipped with such quaint customs as the “secret hold” and the quorum call and so forth, each of which can be used to delay a bill’s hearing—and so buy time to squelch potential legislation. Yet, these radically disproportionate senatorial powers merely mask the basic proportionate inequality at the heart of the Senate as an institution itself.

As political scientists Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer point out in their Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, the Senate is, because it makes small states the equal of large ones, “the most malapportioned legislature in the democratic world.” As Geoghegan has put the point, “the Senate depart[s] too much from one person, one vote,” because (as of the late 1990s) “90 percent of the population base as represented in the Senate could vote yes, and the bill would still lose.” Although Geoghegan wrote that nearly two decades ago, that is still largely true today: in 2013, Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post observed that while the “smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population,” their senators “can successfully filibuster [i.e., block] legislation.” Thus, although the Senate is merely one antidemocratic feature of the U.S. Constitution, it’s an especially egregious one that, by itself, largely prevented a serious discussion of slavery in the years before the Civil War—and today prevents the serious discussion of gun control.

The headline of John Bresnahan’s 2013 article in Politico about the response to the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, was “Gun control hits brick wall in Senate.” Bresnahan quoted Nevadan Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, as saying that “the overwhelming number of Senate Republicans—and that is a gross understatement—are ignoring the voices of 90 percent of the American people.” The final vote was 54-46: in other words, the majority of the Senate was in favor of controls, but because the pro-control senators did not have a supermajority, the measure failed. In short, the measure was a near-perfect illustration of how the Senate can kill a measure that 90 percent of Americans favor.

And you know? Whatever you think about gun control, as an issue, if 90 percent of Americans want something, and what prevents them is not just a silly rule—but the same rule that protected slavery—well then, as Abraham Lincoln might tell us, that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because far from the Senate being—as George Washington supposedly said to Thomas Jefferson—the saucer that cools off politics, it’s actually a pressure cooker that exacerbates issues, rather than working them out. Imagine, say, had the South not had the Senate to protect its “peculiar institution” in the years leading to the Civil War: gradually, immigration to the North would have slowly turned the tide in Congress, which may have led to a series of small pieces of legislation that, eventually, would have abolished slavery.

Perhaps that may not have been a good thing: Ta Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic, has written that every time he thinks of the 600,000-plus deaths that occurred as a result of the Civil War, he feels “positively fucking giddy.” That may sound horrible to some, of course, but there is something to the notion of “redemptive violence” when it comes to that war; Coates for instance cites the contemporary remarks of Private Thomas Strother, United States Colored Troops, in the Christian Recorder, the 19th century paper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church:

To suppose that slavery, the accursed thing, could be abolished peacefully and laid aside innocently, after having plundered cradles, separated husbands and wives, parents and children; and after having starved to death, worked to death, whipped to death, run to death, burned to death, lied to death, kicked and cuffed to death, and grieved to death; and worst of all, after having made prostitutes of a majority of the best women of a whole nation of people … would be the greatest ignorance under the sun.

“Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war,” Coates continues, “perhaps I’d write differently.” Maybe in some cosmic sense Coates is wrong, and violence is always wrong—but I don’t think I’m in a position to judge, particularly since I, as in part the descendant of Irish men and women in America, am aware that the Irish themselves may have codified that sort of “blood sacrifice theory” in the General Post Office of Dublin during Easter Week of 1916.

Whatever you think of that, there is certainly something to the idea that, because slaves were the single biggest asset in the entire United States in 1860, there was little chance the South would have agreed to end slavery without a fight. As historian Steven Deyle has noted in his Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, the value of American slaves in 1860 was “equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government”—certainly a value much more than it takes to start a war. But then had slavery not had, in effect, government protection during those antebellum years, it’s questionable whether slaves ever might have become such valuable commodities in the first place.

Far from “cooling” things off, in other words, it’s entirely likely that the U.S. Senate, and other anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, actually act to enflame controversy. By ensuring that one side does not need to come to the bargaining table, in fact, all such oddities merely postpone—they do not prevent—the day of reckoning. They  build up fuel, ensuring that when the day finally arrives, it is all the more terrible. Or, to put it in the words of an old American song: these American constitutional idiosyncrasies merely trample “out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

That truth, it seems, marches on.