Good Friday Morning! We’re past the Congressional testimony of Robert Mueller. We’ve had the investigation, the report, and now the very useless testimony before Congress. I have a column coming out with the Conservative Institute today fleshing out my thoughts on all things Mueller. Suffice it to say – I didn’t think much of them.
This week I’m writing about the issue of ambition in government — the kind of ambition the founders anticipated, but which doesn’t seem to exist anymore. We’re living, I believe, in a reactionary moment. That has profound effects on how some of our institutions interact. We need to become more mindful of those effects. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
‘Normalcy’ is not coming back – The Conservative Institute
There’s a common trope going around that if only Trump got removed from the picture, America would return to some form of ordinary politics. I disagree with that narrative.
Reigniting the dream and hope of space exploration – The Conservative Institute
A look at how we can push back into space race mode and forge our way to the stars.
The legislature should recognize better Tennesseans than Forrest – The Tennessean
My guest column at the Tennessean is asking the state legislature to recognize people like Davy Crockett or Alvin C. York rather than Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Our reactionary moment
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This line is the most consequential of all The Federalist Papers and summarizes federalism. Government is constructed with multiple branches to counter each other. Power gets diffused out to federal, state, and local levels. No matter how powerful or ambitious one person is, there is an equally determined person working against them.
But what happens when ambition fades? What happens when ambition gets stunted through endless cycles of reactionary politics? We ask why Congress is weak or doesn’t take action. We offer solutions and rules tweaks, but the answer is cultural. Congress is weak because of reactionary politics, which destroys anyone who makes an effort.
The outrage culture has subverted the power of ambition by making tribal reactionaryism the only choice. We have several names for this, outrage culture, shame culture, or woke. It’s not a real culture; it’s more of an overlay of existing conditions. Kevin D. Williamson, in his new book, calls it the Instant Culture:
What we have is Instant Culture, which is to culture what stevia is to sugar, what masturbation is to sex, what Paul Krugman’s New York Times vomitus is to journalism, what Monday’s dank memes are to the English language: a substitute that replicates the real thing in certain formal ways but that remains nonetheless entirely lacking in the essence of the thing itself.
That instant culture has produced instant politicians — the form of a stateman is there, but there’s no substance. The same can be said for our “new” political movements. The new socialists and right have one thing in common. They’re very loud on social media and very shallow in every other regard. They react to the slights, perceived or real, against each other.
Why is this the case? I’d argue it’s because we’re in a reactionary period of history. That isn’t unique, and we’ve had other reactionary times in the past. What is different in the current moment is that the fuel available to provoke a reaction, on the left and right, is near-infinite. Our reactionary groups aren’t reacting to one overarching issue — but rather a series of small stories.
One of my favorite ridiculous sci-fi action movies is from 2003, The Core, starring Aaron Eckhardt and Hilary Swank. The premise is simple: a rag-tag team of heroes must journey to the earth’s core and detonate a nuclear warhead to restart the core, or everyone dies. It’s the most American solution to a sci-fi problem ever; it’s Armageddon except with a gigantic drill as a ship.
They run into a problem towards the end. The viscosity of the earth’s mantle, which is somehow as bright as the sun during external shots, isn’t as dense as expected. They don’t have enough nuclear power to restart the core (that’s how you know this is a fictional universe — America always has enough nukes). The solution they come up with to restart the Core is not to have one big explosion, but rather multiple smaller nuclear blasts that cause a reinforcing ripple effect that makes the core to rotate.
The plan, of course, works. And in the end and our heroes are saved by whales who could answer a phone call, just like in Star Trek IV: The Journey Home.
Our current reactionary age functions in a similar manner. In the past, when reactionary politics surged into popularity, there was one big event that fueled events. The size and speed of these events varied, but there was usually one general cause, as Andrew Sullivan describes:
It appeared in early modernity with the ferocity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the emergence of Protestantism. Its archetypal moment came in the wake of the French Revolution, as monarchists and Catholics surveyed the damage and tried to resurrect the past. Its darkest American incarnation took place after Reconstruction, as a backlash to the Civil War victory of the North; a full century later, following the success of the civil-rights movement, it bubbled up among the white voters of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” The pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes it swings back with unusual speed and power.
Those are single events that cause a reactionary phenomenon. Currently, we don’t have one major eruption in our politics — we have several explosions, and each one reinforces the waves before it. What further makes us different is that the forces driving the narratives have monetized the cycles. They can gain money, fame, and power by exacerbating the reactionary cycles.
Jonah Goldberg began one of his recent G-file’s by observing, “One of the things that makes politics so depressing right now is that the incentive structure is set up to reward the worst behavior of the worst actors.”
He’s right. Look at the last few flashpoints in the culture wars: the Kavanaugh hearings, the Covington Catholic kids, Colin Kaepernick and Nike, police shootings, a black mermaid, and on and on. Some of these stories are real, others are fake, but they’re all small flashpoints that drive a broader culture war. It’s an ongoing set of stories that cause a series of small nuclear explosions on the culture front, and everyone reacts tribally.
The explosive power of our reactionary age is moving both to the left and right, which is what makes us feel the constant tearing apart of our national fabric. Our politicians, seeing this landscape, batten down the hatches because the only incentive structure they have is to avoid making decisions — only react to various culture war flashpoints.
Democrats and Republicans learned the wrong lessons from voting on the Iraq war and TARP. Instead of passing better laws, they’ve decided to avoid taking hard votes at all. Only hard primaries await someone faced with a hard vote. That’s why no one, left or right, wants to stand up to politicians in their own party. There’s no incentive — and there’s little proof you or I would act any differently were we in their position.
Our politicians are an elected pundit class because we’ve replaced real ambition with instant-culture ambition. “Winning” isn’t about ambition or legislation; it’s just about media points scoring.
The Founder’s system plays into this too. James Madison sought to create as many factions as humanly possible to create the divisions that would amplify the effects of federalism. But in our modern media environment, the more factions you have, the more potential you have for outrage cycles because someone is always mad about something.
In regular times, ambition countering ambition works because the incentive structure is set up for that kind of politics. Our reactionary era punishes legislative actors. That leaves media punditry as the only outlet for ambition.
The only way to counter reactionary ages is to remove the accelerant fueling the reactionary fires. The media is monetarily incentivized to drive division and outrage until nothing is left. We’ve seen some of this impact when the media has shifted how it reports on mass shooters — denying the shooter fame and recognition.
We need the media to learn this lesson on outrage culture and cycles. Because until we reign in those effects, normal isn’t coming back. The reactionary swings are only going to get wider and wider from a constant source of cultural nukes going off.
Links of the week
The Smart Way to Overturn Roe v. Wade: The strongest limits on abortion are likely to be struck down and never reach the Supreme Court. – Clarke D. Forsythe, The Wall Street Journal
America Needs to Rediscover Tact: In our politics, holding back and minimizing pain has given way to rubbing people’s noses in defeat. – Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal
Does Trump mean what he tweets? – Jonah Goldberg, The LA Times
Robert Mueller breaks his silence — and still has nothing – John Podhoretz, The NY Post
Probe Launched After Not a Single Girl Among 216 Babies Born in Indian District – Brendan Cole, Newsweek
When It Comes to Taxes, Sometimes It Pays to Say ‘I Don’t’: Committed couples who decide not to tie the knot can reap substantial tax savings – Laura Saunders, The Wall Street Journal
Bernie Sanders Campaign Responds to $15 Minimum Wage Controversy with Better Hours for Staff – Alexandra Hutzler, Newsweek
[The most bonkers story I’ve ever read] The Most Gullible Man in Cambridge: A Harvard Law professor who teaches a class on judgment wouldn’t seem like an obvious mark, would he? – Kera Bolonik, The Cut
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
TVs In Waiting Room Outside Hell Playing Steady Stream Of CNN – The Babylon Bee
AFTERLIFE — A new report from the afterlife indicated that the television sets in the waiting room outside hell are playing a steady stream of CNN’s 24/7 broadcast.
As people condemned to hell wait for their paperwork to be processed, they’re forced to sit around idly as CNN is piped into the room.
“Look, we just want people to get used to being tortured for all eternity,” a representative for hell said as he sharpened his pitchfork. “It’s a little jarring to jump right from the world into hell, so we give people a few hours to adjust by forcing them to listen to CNN’s reporting.”
Thanks for reading!