Robert Bork’s Dark Legacy

Robert BorkOn 1 March 1927, Robert Bork was born. He is most notable for becoming acting Attorney General under Richard Nixon after Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Regardless of much after the fact apologetics, Bork did the deed, very likely because of a promise from Nixon to appoint him to the Supreme Court. Of course, Nixon could not follow through on that given that he wasn’t president for long enough.

Bork was very important to my political education. When he was later nominated to the Supreme Court by another felonious president, Ronald Reagan, I followed the nomination hearings very closely. There was a huge push to stop him from going on the court. I was very much against him given what I had read. But by the end of the hearings, I was just confused. Bork seemed very reasonable answering questions. And his justifications for things he had written seemed plausible. So when he was not confirmed, it didn’t mean much to me and I got on with my life.

But then Bork became something of a public intellectual doing debates and such. And I got to hear and read what he had to say about stuff outside the context of trying to fool the Senate Judiciary Committee. What I found was that he was an entirely unreasonable and unreasoning man. He was a conservative true believer, very much in the mold of Antonin Scalia. (I supposed it is actually the other way around.) He had a brilliant mind but he used it almost exclusively to justify opinions that had likely ossified during his childhood.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Bork was never on the Supreme Court. He is probably the most important advocate for originalism—the idea the law is not fluid but means whatever those who originally wrote it thought it meant. I don’t agree with this philosophy, but that isn’t the main problem. As we have seen time and again with Scalia and Thomas, the original intent only ever constrains a law if it leads to a conservative (some might say Paleozoic) interpretation. The supposed originalists are more than willing to come up with the most radical of ideas when it suits them.

And given who Robert Bork showed himself to be during his career, I’m sure he would have been the same on the Supreme Court. The law for people like Bork is just a plaything—something they use their enormous intellects to manipulate in order to come to predetermined conclusions about keeping the powerful powerful and the low low. What is the point of the law if it is used for that purpose?

Robert Bork was born 87 years ago and that is the legacy of his life.

The Racism of White as a Non-Race

Paul WaldmanWhite Americans have to constantly remind ourselves of our privilege. The reason is that a big part of our privilege comes from our race being seen as a “non-race.” I don’t have to wince when the television news shows the picture of a white man who is wanted for murder. No one thinks that the fact that the suspected murderer was white says anything about the white race. If I were black or Latino or Chinese or any other non-European, I would wince under similar circumstances because I would know that people did think the actions of other people of my race reflected on me.

In fact, this is how racism reinforces itself. If you think that blacks are stupid, you take every example of a stupid black person to bolster your theory. Every example of a smart black person is simply disregarded as exceptional and the theory lives on. Tim WiseIt is why it is so hard to fight your own racism once you’ve stereotyped different groups. And it is as true of good stereotypes as much as bad. For example, we do the same things if we decide that Indians are a smart race.

The privilege inherent in white being the “default” race is a big part of Tim Wise’s excellent book White Like Me. But there is a tendency for white conservatives especially to claim that they don’t see the world this way. This is the basis of Stephen Colbert’s routine about not seeing race, “People tell me I’m white and I believe them because police officers call me ‘sir.'” I would go so far as to say that the more a white person can’t see their “default” race privilege, the more racist they are.

Yesterday, Paul Waldman wrote an excellent article on this very subject, The Infinite Circle of Black Responsibility. It is about how it is generally accepted without embarrassment that blacks ought to be held responsible for what other blacks say and do in a way that would never be applied to whites. Bill O'ReillyThe article starts with a great example of that ultimate exemplar of the Washington establishment, Tim Russert, asking then Senator Obama to comment on something Harry Belafonte had said about the Bush administration. And why? Only because both men were black.

That shows just how deep the problem goes. Waldman also quotes Bill O’Reilly, a man who would never admit to being racist, but is somehow surprised that upper class blacks act just like upper class whites. Most recently, O’Reilly went straight for the “isn’t that just like blacks” playbook. Waldman explains:

Yesterday, President Obama held an event at the White House called “My Brother’s Keeper,” to encourage people to help create more opportunities for young men of color. Afterward, O’Reilly told Jarrett that on “the streets,” there’s a problematic culture. “It’s not just blacks—it’s the poor, and the hard core, what they call ‘gangstas.'” He went on: “You have to attack the fundamental disease if you want to cure it. Now I submit to you that you’re going to have to get people like Jay-Z, all right, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers, to knock it off.”

But what can we expect? Bill O’Reilly is a bigot. And he’s not self-aware enough to even know it. The rest of us who are aware of the way that the media constantly reinforce racist stereotypes must constantly work against such traps.

How We Got the Crazy Republican Party

Robert KaiserFormer Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser is tired. After leaving the Post last month, he wrote an article explaining why he wasn’t too sad to leave Washington, How Republicans Lost Their Minds, Democrats Lost Their Souls and Washington Lost its Appeal. At first I thought that it was just more Washington insider false equivalence. But I was pleasantly surprised.

Kaiser is very concerned about the rightward trend of both parties. He’s clearly a liberal. But he still has an old-fashioned notion that both sides ought to make sense, even if you doesn’t agree with one or both parties. And when it comes to the Democrats, it is pretty clear. He talks about the primary motivation of the Democrats in the 1980s to court the rich for campaign donations. He doesn’t go into it (probably because it is obvious to him), but this is how the Democratic Party turned from primarily an economically liberal party to a socially liberal party. This is the defining issue in American politics today.

The biggest issue in his article is that the Republicans have lost their minds. My belief is that this is not something that the Republicans did on their own, however. It was a joint venture with the Democrats. As the Democrats gave up on economic liberalism, the Republicans had no real choice but to move toward their current radicalized economic policies. If the Democrats are for low corporate taxes, then the Republicans are for no corporate taxes. And on and on. (See Real Corporate Tax Reform for a very interesting idea on that issue.)

But the article does suffer from the fact that it is an older man looking back on days when he was less cynical and mistaking that for better times. For example, he notes that in the 1960s, the Senate had Republicans ranging from the anti-government zealot Barry Goldwater to the very liberal Jacob Javits. As it was, Javits was considered an outsider in the Republican Party even at that time. And he only became more so throughout the 1970s.

The 1960s were a period of transition for both the Democrats and the Republicans. For some reason, Kaiser isn’t willing to say what was really going on. But he knows the history. Basically, the southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party. And Republicans like Javits switched to the Democratic Party. And that is all about one thing: white racial resentment. That’s what got Nixon elected and that’s what got Reagan elected.

So I think it is wrong to say that those days were better just because the parties were more ideologically diverse. The real problem we have is that the two parties together are not as ideologically diverse. Most people who voted for Obama in 2008 thought they were voting for someone who was more than just another New Democrat who would have fit nicely in the Republican Party of the 1970s. That’s the critical shift that has happened during Kaiser’s career.

But the overall narrative is correct. The only problem I have with what Kaiser wrote is that he leaves too much implicit. And the paths of the two parties are intimately linked. In the 1970s, the Democratic Party started moving to the right on economic issues. Part of this was policy based—looking for better ways to do things. In the 1980s, it was made worse by the embrace of big money donors. And from the 1990s onward, it was made worse still by false lessons about electoral losses in the 1980s. In this history, I really do think that the Democrats are the the ones to caused the changes.

The Republican Party just reacted. As the Democratic Party moved more to right, the Republicans shifted to the right as well. What has happened in the last decade or two is that the intellectual hollowness of Republican economic policy has become clear. It was fine in 1980 to believe in supply side economics. The truth is that no one knew for sure if it was valid. But over time, we’ve seen that all those policies did was enrich further the already wealthy and cause the incomes of the rest of society to stagnate or worse. In an effort to support this policy, the right has turned to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. And that’s what leaves us today with a Republican Party that is intellectually vacuous.

I don’t doubt that Robert Kaiser would agree with this narrative, at least in the broad sense. But his article is not really concerned with why things have gotten to the current state, but rather just that they have. He ends the article in a very disturbing way, however. He predicts that we are headed for a discontinuity, although he doesn’t say what he means. It could be something as simple as the young and poor starting to vote in greater numbers. Or it could be something as bad as revolution. I agree with him that we need something “to happen to change this awful game we are playing.” But I’m not certain that something will happen. Humans have an amazing ability to accept bad situations as long as they don’t get too bad. But it is hopeful that a war weary journalist in his 70s like Kaiser still thinks positive change can occur.