Four reasons why quoting the Bible rarely settles political disagreements

I spend a fair bit of time hanging out with mild-mannered progressive Christians.  One thing that I like about the members of that group is that they don’t often try to spring Bible quotes on you as a means of settling political disagreements.  The last couple of weeks, though. there has been a tremendous amount of backsliding among progressive Christians in this regard. As a result, I’ve been avoiding social media lately.* So many of my friends have been quoting passages from Leviticus and the Gospel According to Luke as if those passages made it obvious what policies the United States of America and the European Union should adopt towards refugees and migrants from southwest Asia, and have been calling down fire and brimstone on those who are unconvinced, that my news feed on Facebook and my stream on Twitter have started to feel like a tent revival with an especially dyspeptic preaching staff.  Quite a few people whom I know to be committed universalists, believers in a doctrine holding that all souls are destined for salvation, have posted statements that those who do not share their position on this issue will be going to Hell.

There are many hazards to attempts to use the Bible to settle political disagreements.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example:

  1. Not everyone agrees that the Bible is authoritative. This is a sufficiently familiar point that I can hardly imagine it needs elaboration.
  2. Not everyone who does agree that the Bible is authoritative agrees on how it should be interpreted.In connection with border policy, relaxationists like to quote two excerpts from the Gospel of Luke. These excerpts are the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The Samaritan is good because he shows hospitality to a non-Samaritan, the shepherd chooses those who perform such acts of mercy as welcoming strangers and rejects those who do not.  Advocates of a relaxationist stand on border policy trot these verses out in confidence that they will clobber restrictionists into silence.

    And so they may.  But beware.  One Samaritan is good to the beaten man; three Jews are bad to him.  That story could as easily be called “The Parable of the Bad Jews” as the “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And so on with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, including the sheep and the goats.  The consistent, overarching theme of the whole thing is that early first century Jews are hypocrites, unworthy of their divine heritage, and that they will be punished unless they join the movement forming around Jesus.  Progressive Christians reflexively identify themselves and the church as the heirs of this rebuke, and say that the strictures that Jesus lays upon the superficially pious Jews of his day apply to the superficially Christians of our day.  But that is not the only interpretation Luke has received over the centuries.  Plenty of readers, among them people wielding whatever form of sacred or secular authority you may find impressive, have read Luke as a mandate for every form of anti-Jewish activity, up to and including genocidal violence.  If that’s the road you’re bent to follow, nothing in the Bible will stop you traveling down it.

  3. The Bible is a complex book, political disputes are complex situations, and overlaying the one complexity on top of the other leads to more confusion than enlightenment.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really does not accept that a book like the Bible, 36,000 verses in a variety of languages and literary genres, produced by the work of untold numbers of people over more than a dozen centuries, can provide a reader with support for any position that reader would like to see supported. Still, people do seem to lose sight of this.Here’s a tweet that exemplifies the problem:

    To which a smart-aleck might reply that the command to uproot the seed of Amalek is limited neither by the liturgical calendar nor by the passage of centuries, and inquire if that is the model Mr Willis would have us follow.

    If we do want to stick with something specifically called for by the liturgical calendar, in the impeccably progressive Episcopal Church this morning’s Daily Office reading from the Old Testament was from the prophet Joel (chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 9-17.) It includes a call for the Jews of the Diaspora to reverse what Isaiah had seen, to beat ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, to stand in the valley and do battle for the heritage of Israel.  It concludes with the lines “And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.”

    I’d certainly rather we lean towards a relaxationist line than a restrictionist one, and if we have no choice but to cite Bible verses in defense of border policy, I’d always prefer a sanitized view of Luke to a full-throated version of Joel, or Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Samuel, or Joshua.  But I think a wiser use of the Bible starts with verses 26.4 and 26.5 of the Book of Proverbs:
    26.4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    26.5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

    Do these verses contradict each other?  Obviously they contradict each other; that’s the point.  The Bible is a reliable companion, and can be a wise counselor, if we listen to it in the right mind.  But it doesn’t make our decisions for us.  We’re still responsible for living our lives.  We need our own judgment to tell us whether any particular group of people are fools or not.  Having decided that they are fools, we need our judgment to decide whether, in a given situation, it is more important to keep ourselves distinct from their foolishness or to try to persuade them to leave it behind.  Once we’ve made that decision, the appropriate proverb will tell us the consequence of our decision.  Holding aloof from folly, we must abide it in silence.  Trying to correct folly, we must ourselves become somewhat foolish.

    In regard to border policy, I think the Bible is useful to us only after we have decided whether we, like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and Joel, are members of a community that is called upon to establish itself as a distinct people with a distinct destiny in the divine drama of history, or whether we, like the contemporaries of Jesus as described in Luke, are members of a community that has gone as far in that drama as distinctiveness will take it and so must set our distinctions aside and embrace a new kind of identity.  I tend to lean toward the shedding distinctiveness side, and rarely read the violent passages of scripture without horror and revulsion.  But my progressive friends, in their spasms of self-righteousness, have managed to take their immigration relaxationism so far that I am coming to see value even in the injunctions to smite Amalek.

  4. One theme the Bible makes abundantly clear is that God will surprise us.  The Bible time and again tells us explicitly that God will surprise us; it articulates a world-view every portion of which implies that God will surprise us; it tells the stories of hundreds of people, all of whom are at some point God surprises; and readers of the Bible, every time they turn to it with their ears and minds open, will be freshly surprised by its contents.  Sometimes the surprises the Bible tells us to watch for will be pleasant. God will answer prayers, make miracles, and provide evidence that we are right and the other fellow is wrong.  These are very agreeable surprises.  Other times the surprises are extremely disagreeable.  Among the consequences of disagreeable surprises is the realization that all of our beliefs have been ill-founded.  Therefore, citing the Bible in order to justify one’s certitude that one’s beliefs are well-founded is likely to exasperate those daily readers of the Bible who have internalized its injunctions to accept that God alone is wise, that God alone knows in full what God’s plans are for us and for the world, and that God’s ways are not our ways and cannot be searched by our lights.

*WordPress is an unsocial medium, an online hermitage, as witness the fact that it’s almost indecent to blog under your real name here.

I think I’ve figured out the 2016 Republican presidential contest

Yesterday I saw a piece on Politico called “Jeb Bush is 2016’s John Kerry.” Reading that, it struck me why I had thought that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had a 90% chance of emerging as next year’s Republican nominee for president: I was unconsciously assuming that the 2016 Republican contest would play out along the lines of the 2004 Democratic contest.

In the Politico piece author Bill Scher mentions that former Florida governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is currently registering 4% support on polls of likely Republican primary voters, then reminds us that in November 2003 then-Massachusetts senator John Forbes “John Forbes” Kerry registered 4% support in polls of likely Democratic primary voters. Since Mr Kerry went on to win his party’s nomination, Mr Scher suggests, Mr Bush might be able to follow his example and become the Republican nominee next year.

I don’t agree with Mr Scher’s analysis. What makes the 2016 Republican contest look so much like the 2004 Democratic one is that the early going is dominated by an unlikely insurgent, former Vermont governor Howard Brush “Doctor” Dean among the Democrats in 2004, loudmouth landlord Donald John “Don John” Trump among the Republicans this year.  In each case, the insurgency is fueled by the disconnect between the party’s elite and its mass supporters over one key issue. In 2004, the vast majority of Democrats were firmly convinced that it had been a mistake for the USA to invade Iraq the year before, while the party’s moneymen were giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who supported the war. Dr Dean rose to the head of the Democratic polls as the only seemingly plausible candidate who was unequivocally opposed to the war. This time around, over 90% of Republicans are firmly convinced that immigration policy should be made more restrictive, while the party’s moneymen are giving their backing to presidential candidates and other politicians who want to make it less restrictive. As the loudest and most extreme restrictionist voice, Mr Trump has driven relaxationists like Mr Bush to the sidelines.

How did John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and didn’t admit that he’d been wrong to do so until 2006, manage to win the nomination of a party whose voters were almost as solidly against that war in 2004 as Republican voters are today against the relaxationist line on immigration to which candidates like Mr Bush are committed? First, he benefited from good luck, as Dr Dean and then-Missouri Representative Richard “Dick” Gephardt allowed themselves to be drawn into a highly visible and extremely unattractive personal feud in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, an event held in a state where people famously value politeness.  That feud knocked those two men out of contention there, opening the door for Mr Kerry to win a surprise victory in Iowa which led directly to wins in New Hampshire and the other early states, turning him from a no-hoper to a front-runner almost overnight.

Second, the only people who pay much attention to a presidential campaign the year before the voting starts are enthusiasts and professionals. The enthusiasts greatly outnumber the professionals, and are not consistently focused on the ability of a candidate to win a general election. Once the voting starts, a wider variety of people check in to the process, and electability is usually one of their top concerns. Dr Dean did not look like a very good bet to beat George Walker “W” Bush in that year’s general election, and other antiwar candidates, such as then-Ohio Representative Dennis “Look at My Wife!” Kucinich and the Rev’d Mr Alfred “Al” Sharpton seemed likely to pose even less formidable challenges to Mr Bush.  Mr Kerry struck those voters as a likelier winner, and while his support for the Iraq war would prove to be an embarrassment in the general election, his background as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and as a relatively dovish senator reassured Democrats that once in office, he would be eager to end the ongoing wars and reluctant to launch new ones.

Mr Bush may yet benefit from fighting among the top-tier candidates, but the rest of the scenario that put Mr Kerry on the top of the Democratic ticket seems most unlikely to replay itself in his favor. As the brother of George W. Bush, Mr Bush has always faced serious doubts about his electability, making him an unlikely recipient of votes from people looking for a winner.  And as someone who has for decades been outspoken and firm in his support for a relaxationist approach to immigration, he has no credentials at all that would make him acceptable to Republican restrictionists as Mr Kerry’s antiwar past made him acceptable to Democratic doves. In that way, Mr Bush’s 2004 analogue is not the once-and-future peace campaigner Mr Kerry, but then-Connecticut senator Joseph Isadore “Joe” Lieberman, whose near-universal name recognition as the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee gave him a place at the top of the polls when campaigning started, but whose relentless hawkishness pushed him first to the back of the Democratic pack, and then out of the party altogether.

Other candidates who might be acceptable to the Republican party’s elites, notably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Cara Carleton “Carly” Forina and New Jersey governor Christopher James “Chris” Christie, have been making restrictionist noises of late.  If history repeats itself in the way Mr Scher suggests, it will likely be one of those two, not Mr Bush, who clambers over the wreckage of the Trump insurgency to enter the top tier of candidates.

So, how do I think the race will go?  The Republican elites who have despaired of Mr Bush are now apparently trying to push Florida senator Marco Antonio “I dreamed there was an Emperor Antony” Rubio forward. If r Rubio manages to open the voting by winning the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, he will likely go into the 9 February New Hampshire primary with the kind of momentum that swept John Kerry to victory in that contest in 2004, and like Mr Kerry will be poised to run the table of major contests, winning the nomination easily.

If Mr Rubio does not win Iowa, the likeliest winner there is Dr Benjamin Solomon “Ben” Carson, whose deep well of support from the Christian right virtually ensures that he can stay in the nomination race as long as he likes, taking 10%, 20%, 30% of the vote in state after state until the last primaries on 28 June.  Dr Carson has no plausible path to the nomination, but his supporters are so devoted and well-organized that no foreseeable event that will force him to drop out of the field.

If neither Mr Rubio nor Dr Carson wins Iowa, then the winner there is likely to have been Texas senator Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz.  Mr Cruz is running a campaign that strikes many observers as the most similar to a winning campaign of any in the field at the moment, he has been concentrating his efforts on Iowa, and his hard-right profile might appeal to Republican caucus-goers.  If Mr Cruz does win Iowa, he will probably go directly to South Carolina for a showdown with Dr Carson.  If Mr Cruz wins both Iowa and South Carolina, he might consolidate the support of the Republican right-wing; if not, he will struggle to stay in the field, no matter how well-balanced the structure of his campaign may be.

New Hampshire’s primary is the least predictable of the early contests.  Seven candidates have a real chance of winning there: Mr Rubio, Mr Christie, Mr Kasich, Ms Fiorina, Mr Trump, Mr Cruz, and Mr Bush.  While New Hampshire is typically leery of hard-right figures such as Mr Cruz, the presence of so many other candidates, coupled with the possibility of a boost from an upset win in Iowa, makes it possible that he might win there with 20% of the vote or so.  And Mr Trump’s strong polling in that state is to be taken relatively seriously, as New Hampshire residents do check into the process a bit earlier than do most Americans.

If Mr Christie, Ohio governor John Richard “Ouch! My Back!” Kasich, Ms Fiorina, or Mr Bush should win the New Hampshire primary, that candidate would become an alternative for Republican elites in case Mr Rubio falters.  It would be very difficult for any of these candidates to follow up such a win, however, since none of then is currently operating an organization in or raising funds from even half the states where the nomination will be decided.  And none of those four can continue without a win in New Hampshire.  But Mr Rubio is in many ways an extraordinarily slight figure; he does not lead the field in national polling, early-state polling, fundraising, cash on hand, organization, endorsements, or any other measurable index of strength.  He is a first-term senator who would be facing an uphill battle for reelection were he trying to become a second term senator; only 15% of Floridian voters say they would like to see him as president.  So he might collapse after a loss in New Hampshire, and one of these four might move into the elite-favorite role.  If that is Mr Christie or Ms Fiorina, that role might culminate in the nomination.  Mr Bush and Mr Kasich, however, are so badly compromised in so many ways that even the united support of the establishment probably could not get them past Mr Cruz or Mr Trump.

If the winner in New Hampshire is Mr Rubio, Mr Trump, or Mr Cruz, those elites will have only Mr Rubio available to them as the sort of candidate who makes them comfortable.  That would suit Mr Rubio’s interests, of course. However, it may also suit Mr Trump or Mr Cruz.  Those men do not want to gain the support of the party’s establishment; they want to revolutionize the party and replace its establishment.  If the GOP’s principal moneymen rally around Mr Rubio after New Hampshire, Mr Trump or Mr Cruz may choose that moment to drive the message home to the party’s restrictionist base that Mr Rubio is as much a relaxationist as Mr Bush.  Drop that hammer, and the Rubio 2016 may seem less like an army to march with and more like a burning building to be trapped in come the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses of 1 March.

So there are a number of ways that the race could play out.  It is quite possible that Mr Rubio will win every major contest.  It is equally possible that after Super Tuesday, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will be the two candidates fighting it out for the nomination.  The “smart-money” pundits seem to be expecting a Rubio-Cruz showdown; I don’t see a lot of scenarios where those two men are both viable candidates after 1 March, though certainly some of them are possible.  And one of the other four elite-friendly candidates could win New Hampshire, pick up the wreckage of a Rubio collapse, and go on to edge out Mr Cruz or Mr Trump after a hard-fought primary season.

Scott Walker withdraws from the 2016 presidential race. I withdraw my estimate that Scott Walker has a 90% chance of being the Republican nominee in the 2016 presidential race

No idea which of those other clowns will make it, though.  John Kasich waited a year too long to start campaigning, Marco Rubio has too many skeletons in his closet, Jeb Bush doesn’t even have his own mother’s sincere endorsement, and none of the others is at appealing to the GOP donor class.  Maybe Messr.s Kasich, Rubio, and Bush will all stay in the race long enough to divide the mainstream Republican vote and allow one of the protest candidates to squeak in as the nominee.  Probably not- probably Bush will be the next to go, and Kasich won’t catch on beyond the scale of John McCain’s 2000 campaign, and Rubio’s closet door will stay tightly enough closed that his skeletons won’t prevent him facing off against Hillary Clinton.  But still, it is a remarkably volatile situation.

Why are some shy people interested in politics?

Dude stole my game

As a child, I was both unusually shy and unusually interested in politics.  As early as the age of eight, I was reading up on campaigns and legislation.

I think that what appealed to me about politics was the same thing that made me so shy.  In politics, I saw people interacting according to rules that were explained in words and charts.  Those explanations represented a promise that political activity would eventually be comprehensible.  I could start by learning the rules, and work out from there in my efforts to figure out what was going on among the people involved.  Moreover, the adults I knew best, when the topic of politics came up, would speculate and try to puzzle out what was really going on among political figures.  Meanwhile, in the actual social life around me, I saw people interacting in ways that I found utterly mystifying.  In something like ordinary small talk, I couldn’t find any set of rules that I could start by learning, and it seemed that not only all of the adults in my life, but even all the other children knew exactly what was going on and couldn’t understand why I was confused.

As I grew up, I did find rules I could understand and follow in my interactions with others, and by the time I was college age I was about average in my number of friends and level of comfort in social situations.  As that developed, my interest in politics tapered off.  So one evening when I was in college, my phone rang and it was my brother asking me what a particular presidential candidate had just said in a televised debate.  Remembering me as I’d been several years before, he was surprised to find that I wasn’t watching the debate, and amazed that I had to get off the phone because I was going out on a date.

I’m still interested in politics, as readers of this blog will have noticed.  I do find it difficult to resist a political discussion when I’m among friends, and even more difficult to avoid mentally dwelling on political topics when I feel isolated from friends.  But I’m a married man whose wife is only mildly interested in politics as such, and we have a fairly active social life.  For my wife, politics is interesting mostly when it relates to feeding the hungry and stopping war.  She is a Quaker by conviction, and her religion puts those issues at the center of public life.  For many of our friends, politics is interesting as a way of building a feeling of team spirit.  They enjoy getting together with others who all root for the same political party, much as they enjoy rooting for the same sporting franchises. I recognize the importance of the issues and am not immune to the appeal of team spirit, but my background as a one-time obsessive who found in politics an intelligibility that eluded him in everyday social interaction inclines me to value process, impartiality, and fair play to an extent that is alien to most of my acquaintances.  I think that it is important that there should be people who have that inclination, and so I think that people with such a background, depressing as it undoubtedly is in some ways, have a contribution to make to the political life of the community.

It is probably best that we make our contribution in roles outside elected office, however.  I can think of a number of strong introverts who have attained high political office, and they haven’t generally turned out too well.  People who knew Richard Nixon all remarked on his intense shyness; it was by dint of great intelligence and self-discipline that Nixon was able to rise to the US presidency.  When that self-discipline broke down, though, Nixon plunged into a whirlwind of anger and self-pity that expressed itself in bizarre behavior, most obviously in regard to the Watergate matter.   Barack Obama seems to be just as deeply introverted as was Richard Nixon, though more self-disciplined- certainly Mr O has never allowed himself a public display like Nixon’s infamous 1962 “last press conference”:

I’m no fan of Mr O, any more than I am of Nixon or any other US president since Warren G. Harding.  While it is possible that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama may, as shy children, have been drawn to politics for the same reasons that I was drawn to it, their time as active participants in politics at the highest levels kept that experience from settling into a concern for process, impartiality, and fair play, and indeed the two of them stand at the opposite extreme from me in regard to those values.  So the role that people like me ought to play is not one in which they are directly involved in competition for office or particularly influential as individuals, but in which we are a subset of the population whose goodwill policymakers would like to have.  That’s where blogs each of which attracts about a hundred readers a day come in.  A site like this one is of infinitesimal significance by itself, but considering that a couple of hundred thousand of us maintain similar blogs, we as a group occasionally sway enough opinions that policymakers are wise include us as one factor in their decision-making processes.

There are other ways in which introverts can have an influence on the political process, of course.  Rich introverts can give money, introverts with special expertise can become staff aides, introverts with the time to devote to it can volunteer for campaigns and make themselves indispensable to parties and candidates, etc.  But all of these forms of involvement tend to engage the competitive drives, and can very quickly undermine the very qualities that give our contribution its value.  So something like blogging is essential for the shy citizen to do all s/he can to promote the common good.

Civil disobedience works when it makes the authorities look like sore losers

xkcd 1431, from October 2014

A week or two ago, one of the biggest news stories in the USA was about a woman named Kim Davis, the elected Clerk of Courts in Rowan County, Kentucky.  Ms Davis became nationally famous by refusing to issue marriage licenses, claiming that her religion forbids her to issue such licenses to same-sex couples and acknowledging that the laws of the United States forbid her to treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples.  When the courts ordered her to do that part of her job, Ms Davis at first went to jail rather than comply, then returned to work, delegating the issuing and registering of marriage licenses to an assistant.

Ms Davis described her actions as a principled case of civil disobedience, comparing her arrest to the arrests of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks for defying regulations that enforced racial segregation.  Her opponents compared her to the officials who ordered those arrests and to other last-ditch defenders of de jure racial segregation.  As a supporter of gender-neutral marriage, I am inclined to be unsympathetic to Ms Davis, and being aware of my bias against her I hesitate to endorse an unflattering characterization of her.  But there is in fact a strong resemblance between what she did and what the defenders of Jim Crow did in the 1950s and 1960s.  After the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the case of Brown et al. vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the slogan among Southern white politicians was “Massive Resistance,” and that “Massive Resistance” did indeed include just such acts by elected officials as Ms Davis has committed.  Most spectacular of these acts of defiance was Governor Orval Faubus’ 1958 decision to shut down Arkansas’ entire public school system rather than allow black and white students to attend the same classes.

Orval Faubus started defying the laws of the United States after the federal courts, national public opinion, and the consensus of the country’s corporate and financial elite had turned against his side.  While his office gave him considerable power, for example enabling him to keep the schools in Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock closed for a whole year, his actions therefore struck most Americans as petulant and childish, ultimately dooming his own political prospects and bringing his side of the civil rights issue into disrepute.  In other words, he came out of the controversy looking like a loser, and segregationism came out of it looking like an ideology for losers.  The first rule of politics is that people don’t want to follow a loser, so Faubus’ actions were costly to his side.

Ms Davis is in the same position.  Most Americans support gender-neutral marriage.  That majority has been growing rapidly, and in a very few years, if present trends continue, it will be as difficult for a person who openly opposes gender neutral marriage to be elected to public office anywhere in the United States of America, even Rowan County, Kentucky, as it now is for a person who openly opposes race-neutral marriage to be elected to public office.  Therefore, if elected county clerks were to be granted the power to decide what sorts of couples would be allowed to marry, that would be of little benefit to opponents of gender-neutral marriage.  Indeed, as opposition to gender-neutral marriage takes on the same stigma that has long attached to opposition to race-neutral marriage, county clerks might find themselves tempted to play for popularity by refusing to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry same-sex couples.  That may be illegal, but it would be popular now for a county clerk to refuse to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry interracial couples, and doing the same thing to anti-gay clergy will very probably be popular in the near future.  The only worldly hope social conservatives will have once they become a small and unpopular minority is the hope that other small and unpopular minorities have, which is that public officials will scrupulously follow the law.  By refusing to follow the law herself, Ms Davis and the politicians who have embraced her have ensured that social conservatives will look ridiculous when they demand that officials respect their legal rights.  Looking ridiculous is another form of looking like a loser, and as such a step towards political extinction.

Blogger Rod Dreher is a social conservative, opposed to gender-neutral marriage on religious grounds, and he sees all this very clearly.  I’ll close by quoting some remarks of his from a recent post on the same theme as the paragraph above:

Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have a column out ripping the Supreme Court, the Kentucky governor, and the federal judge in the Kim Davis case, but the piece also makes a very important point about religious liberty and prudential judgment:

[W]e must recognize the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancingtest is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

I can’t make the point more strongly or clearly than these Southern Baptists — both conservatives — have done here. If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously.

Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant. The Kentucky Pentecostal county clerk who refuses the gay couple a marriage permit in principle legitimizes the California Episcopalian county clerk who refuses to record marriages performed by ministers of churches that don’t marry same-sex couples.

Is this really what orthodox Christians want? You had better think hard about it, because we are on the losing side of the same-sex marriage question, and on gay rights in general. Louisiana is one of the most socially conservative states in the country, but a generation from now, gay marriage will be the majority opinion even here.

Some more thoughts about the 2016 US presidential candidates

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: Mega-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch seem to have settled on Mr Walker as their preferred candidate, and most of the other super-rich guys who finance the Republican Party seem satisfied with their choice.  Some eccentric billionaires might choose to boost other candidates, and there are candidates who might be able to keep their names on ballots throughout the process without big money backing, but the way the US process works, the Kochs (pronounced “Cokes,” as in what may as well be Mr Walker’s personal anthem, “I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, to do with as they please/ I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, and make the workers scream…”)

Former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush: Entered the race as the presumed front-runner, has struggled to stay in the top tier.  Perhaps he ran for president of the wrong country.

New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump: Has attracted a large following among Republicans while espousing ideas that do not fit with the anti-tax, ultra-free trade orthodoxy of the party’s Washington-based policy elite.  I grant that his ideas are not good ones, but the interesting thing he has demonstrated is that there is a market among Republicans for ideas that Grover Norquist wouldn’t like.  Perhaps the next cycle will feature a Republican candidate or two who has ideas that are both unorthodox and good.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 99% chance of being the Democratic presidential nominee.  If something unforeseen happens to her while the filing deadlines for the primaries are still open, or after she has accumulated a majority of delegates, then Vice President Joseph Biden will likely enter the race and the party’s moneymen will transfer their loyalty to him.  So Mr Biden has a 0.9% of being nominated.  If both Ms Clinton and Mr Biden become unavailable for some reason, then the establishment will find some other stooge to put in that place; former Vice President Albert Gore has been mentioned in that connection, but it could be any of a number of people.  So I’d give “Some Other Stooge” a 0.09% chance.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: If, due to some freak occurrence, Hillary Clinton becomes unavailable after the filing deadlines have closed and before a majority of delegates have been selected, then an already announced candidate would likely win the nomination.  Mr O’Malley’s campaign seemed at first to be premised on this remote possibility, that he might be the person to step in should such a thing happen.  He carries some pretty heavy baggage, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the party would rally around so obviously flawed a candidate in the turmoil that would follow Ms Clinton’s sudden implosion at so inopportune a moment.  Therefore, I wouldn’t assign a very large fraction of the 0.01% chance that the party will nominate someone other than Ms Clinton, Mr Biden, or Some Other Stooge to him.  Perhaps 0.001% might be a fair estimate of his likelihood of being nominated.

Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders: A vote for Mr Sanders is a vote for the Democratic Party to move to the left on economic issues, and so I plan to cast my ballot for him.  Were he a viable candidate for the nomination, however, it would be necessary to oppose him vigorously.  I’d say that the biggest problem with US policy in Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa is that we are too supportive of Saudi Arabia’s various projects, as the biggest problem with our policy in Europe and Northwest Asia is that we are too supportive of Germany’s ambitions.  In each case, the tail has wagged the dog so strongly that the US has waged multiple wars that do not promote any identifiable national interest of this country.  Mr Sanders not only does not see it this way, but actually calls for the USA to show even greater deference than it already does to Saudi Arabia.  Be that as it may, Democratic voters are if anything less likely to turn to Mr Sanders as a safe harbor in the event of a Clinton collapse than they are to turn to Mr O’Malley.  The “socialist” label he has from time to time embraced will likely scare many of them off, his ludicrously feeble response when two or three people from Outside Agitators 206 confronted him a couple of weeks ago left him looking like Abraham Beame, and any aggressiveness he might muster in an attempt to breathe life back into his flagging campaign would also alienate the Clintonite voters who would become available in that event.  So 0.001% is a generous estimate of his chance of winning the nomination.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee: As a bland moderate who is attracting no support the polls can measure, Mr Chafee will probably not have made a negative impression on anyone by the time the voting starts.  Therefore, if he can file delegates, he will be in the best position to become the substitute candidate should something happen to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race between the end of December and the beginning of April.  Perhaps his chance of winning the nomination should be rated as high as 0.005%

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb: I’ve left 0.003% unaccounted for.  I wouldn’t give more than about a 0.0001% chance to Mr Webb.  I like him a lot, but he isn’t the sort of fellow today’s Democratic Party would find at all appealing.  The other 0.0029% is a reserve in case something entirely unforeseen happens, like a deadlocked convention or a genuine insurgency on behalf of a non-establishment candidate or an asteroid striking the earth and canceling the election, something that is theoretically possible and should be given some kind of numerical value, though it can be disregarded for all practical purposes.

The road to Walker vs Clinton

Since I did such a great job predicting the outcome of this year’s UK general election, getting it only 100% wrong, I don’t see how I can justify withholding my insights on next year’s US presidential election from the public.

Democratic candidates:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 99% favorite for the nomination.  The other 1% is reserved in case she gets sick, is caught in a real scandal, or has a religious awakening and drops out of the race to devote herself to Hare Krishna or whatever.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders: A vote for Mr Sanders is a signal to the Democratic Party that there is a room to the left of the positions they’ve been taking lately, and so I hope he gets a lot of them.  But I’m pessimistic.  For one thing, that disrupted rally in Seattle last week made him look like the teacher who can’t control the class, the worst possible optic for a presidential candidate.  That’s going to stick with him.  Added to his other limits, it makes me doubt whether he’ll still be the clear second-place Democrat come January.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: The rationale for his campaign was “In case something happens to Hillary,” and his promise was going to be to do for the USA as president what he did for Baltimore as mayor.  But then Freddie Gray happened, and the country realized what he did for Baltimore.  And when he was targeted for disruption, he was humiliated even more thoroughly than Mr Sanders.  Honestly, it’s just embarrassing having him around at this point.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee: Not exactly an electoral powerhouse, but at this point the likeliest to step up in case something happens to Ms Clinton.

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb: I love the guy, but he has no chance.  A former Reagan administration Navy secretary whose c.v. includes authorship of an article titled “Women Can’t Fight” has zero chance in as Democratic primary where the frontrunner is a woman.

Republican candidates:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: likeliest nominee; if I were laying odds, I’d give him a 90% chance of emerging as the Republican standard-bearer next fall.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio: running for president rather than betting his career on an uphill reelection bid, as then-North Carolina Senator John Edwards did in the 2004 cycle.  The old stereotype is that Democrats get in trouble about sex and Republicans get in trouble with money; as Mr Edwards’ career was ultimately destroyed by his sexual indiscretions, Mr Rubio’s history of personal financial troubles may well prove his undoing.  But in the meantime, he may well catch the same kind of wave that made Mr Edwards a major player in the 2004 Democratic race.  And if something goes wrong with Mr Walker’s campaign, he may well be the one who will step into his place.  So a 5% chance of winning the nomination.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul: Son of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who had some horrible ideas and some pretty good ones.  Dr Paul isn’t his father, though- he has most of the horrible ideas, but none of the good ones.  If he finds an issue that Republican voters care about, and Mr Walker and Mr Rubio both implode, he may well get a second look from voters, but that’s a pretty unlikely set of events. A 2% chance of winning.

Ohio Governor John Kasich: On paper, the logical front-runner.  A former chairman of the Budget Committee in the US House of Representatives, Mr Kasich was last year reelected governor of Ohio by almost a 2-1 margin.  Ohio is a swing state that has gone for the Democrats in each of the last two elections, but no Republican has ever been elected president without Ohio and none is likely to be any time soon.  Despite his popularity in Ohio, Mr Kasich is not universally beloved, and he was late to start putting his presidential campaign together.  His support may rise above the 1% of voters who have been telling pollsters he is their first choice, he may even mount the kind of insurgency that gave John McCain the second place in the 2000 Republican race and therefore the favorite for their 2008 nomination.  Maybe a 1% chance of pulling out the nomination if there is a series of surprises.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: A loudmouth jerk who gained a national following among fans of loudmouth jerkdom by publicly berating some public school teacher.  But people who are looking for a loudmouth jerk have Mr Trump, who greatly outclasses Mr Christie in that calling.  Like Mr Kasich, may have a 1% chance if there is a series of surprises, but some of those surprises would have to be pretty big.

All of the rest put together have about a 1% chance of qualifying for the general election ballot, but I do have opinions about them:

New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump: May well continue leading the polls throughout the silly season of the 2015, but will probably vanish without a trace by the time the voting starts.  His appeal is based on a mixture of entertainment value and name recognition.  His current levels of support are probably very close to the total number of Republicans willing to back him for the nomination, a number which might make him a giant in a seventeen candidate field but which will shrink him severely once the caucuses and primaries concentrate voters behind Mr Walker and perhaps Mr Rubio.  Besides, if Mr Trump does well, New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Robert Durst might think he has a mandate to run.  At least Mr Durst could promise to save money from the defense budget by discontinuing drone strikes and carrying out targeted killings personally.

Former Florida Governor John Ellis Bush: Probably has a lower ceiling of support than does Mr Trump.  The fact that Mr Rubio, a fellow Floridian who began as Mr Bush’s protege, has raised millions of dollars for his campaign shows that many of his longtime financial backers are signaling their reluctance to back a campaign to create a third President Bush.  And despite nearly universal name recognition, Mr Bush has yet to break 20% support in any poll.  Unless something changes dramatically, the J. E. Bush presidential campaign will probably be remembered as a vanity project and an embarrassment to the Bush dynasty.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson: Tremendous success raising money from small donors, but a sleepy TV demeanor that raises the question of how he could stay awake long enough to perform a brain operation.  Dr Carson won’t win the nomination, and unless he perks up while he’s on the air he won’t get a deal from talk radio or cable TV.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz: The story about him as a Harvard Law student trying to organize a study group consisting only of students with undergraduate degrees from “major Ivies”* always reminds me of this guy.  But Mr Cruz is very very smart, well-connected, and he does know how to appeal to Republican base voters.  He may very well make an impact.  Still, he is no likelier than Dr Carson to be nominated.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee: Could have been nominated if he had followed up his strong 2008 run with a campaign in 2012.  This time, though, he’s running, not as last time’s runner-up, but as the author of a book called God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.  In other words, he isn’t running for president, he’s trying to land a showbiz gig as a cartoon hillbilly.  

Former tech executive Carly Fiorina: I read The Economist when Ms Fiorina was boss of Hewlett-Packard.  David Packard, one of the heirs of the founders, is a Classics PhD who uses his inheritance to underwrite the field.  As a classicist myself, I followed the news about that company with attention.  If she does for the USA what she did for Hewlett-Packard, Ms Fiorina will earn the eternal gratitude of al-Qaeda.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: Mr Santorum has a flair for logic exercises and an interest in people who work with their hands, but he also has a brittle, dry personality that explains why he lost his Senate seat in a landslide a decade ago and hasn’t been a serious contender for public office since.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry: When one of the felony charges pending against him were dismissed earlier this year, Mr Perry should have celebrated that as the making of a good year.  Instead he chose to wage a presidential campaign that is already in a state of collapse.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham: Relentlessly hawkish foreign policy stance might have sold with Republican voters as recently as 2008, but not likely to attract much support this time around.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal: Unpopular in his home state and unknown outside it.

Former New York Governor George Pataki: Waited much too long to run- might have had an outside chance twenty years ago.  Could still have a good run somewhere along the line if relatively moderate voters start showing up in Republican primaries, but no way the base will rally around him.

Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore: Forgotten even in his home state.

*”Major Ivies” is a term people who went to Princeton use to bracket Princeton with Harvard and Yale; people who went to the other five Ivy League schools do not recognize this distinction, and people who went to Harvard and Yale don’t, either.

It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!

My guesses about the upcoming UK general election

Might look slightly different in a few weeks.

Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who has been Britain’s senior representative in five countries (as Ambassador in Ethiopia, Poland, and Benin, and High Commissioner in the Commonwealth nations of Nigeria and Australia,) maintains a blog on which he has recently been sharing his thoughts about the general election that will be held in the United Kingdom on the seventh of May.  A while ago, he gave his opinion that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (or SNP, as it is known) were likely to form an agreement after this election under which Labour would conduct a minority government with the SNP lending its support when needed to pass relatively controversial legislation.  In two posts (here and here,) Ambassador Barder* recommended that Labour and the SNP should negotiate the terms of this agreement before the election, ideally in public, so that the electorate would know what it was being offered.

I believe that such public negotiations would be unwise.  At election time, parties ask activists to volunteer a great deal of time, do a lot of hard work, and present themselves to the public at a considerable risk of rejection and abuse, all without monetary compensation.  Their motivation is their belief in their party’s destiny and the opposing parties’ wickedness,  Public negotiations based on the premise that Labour will not win a majority, but will do a deal with one of its fiercest opponents, would demoralize Labour’s activists and energize supporters of the other parties.  Here is the first comment I offered in response to one of Ambassador Barder’s posts on this topic:

Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.

“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction.** “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland (sic) does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Barder responded to this as he customarily does, with unfailing promptness and consideration.  He enlarged on his idea that Britain has entered a period of “New Politics,” in which an honest admission that multiparty politics have come to stay is likelier to help a party than to hurt it.

I cannot say that I was convinced by this argument, admirably though Ambassador Barder stated it.  I did raise another concern in this followup comment:

“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.

Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.

I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?

Ambassador Barder added his reply to these concerns as a note within the original comment, saying that SNP would not actually have much power were it to enter a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, since its supporters so hate the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives) that they could not credibly threaten to throw their support to it.  This made me wonder why SNP would enter an arrangement that did not give them new power.  They are a political party, after all, power is their business.  But I did not want to drag the discussion out, so I left it there.

A few days ago, Ambassador Barder posted his reflections on the televised debate held last week among the leaders of the seven parties contesting multiple seats in Britain.***  Ambassador Barder indicated his overall assessment of the debate with the title “Ten Depressing Things About the Seven-Leader Election Debate Last Night.”  Several of the depressing things had to do with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s not-very aggressive approach to his Tory counterpart, British premier David Cameron; another had to do with Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg’s focus on deficit reduction.  The non-depressing things were to be found in the fine performances of the three women on stage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru (viz, Welsh nationalist) leader Leanne Wood.****

In the weeks since that earlier post, I’d thought more about the election, and Mr Miliband’s behavior in the debate, like Ms Sturgeon’s and Mr Clegg’s, seemed to be quite reasonable.  In a comment, I began to explain:

I’m beginning to suspect that the likeliest outcome is a grand coalition. I know that all the insiders keep saying that the SNP vote won’t be nearly as high on the night as the polls are suggesting, and they may be right, but there is still likely to be a parliament in which SNP, plus either Labour or the Tories, would have a majority. I can’t imagine Labour doing anything that would help SNP present itself to Scottish voters as a serious force in national politics, and Tory backbenchers are all going to be such in a cold sweat if the UKIP vote swings even a dozen seats from Conservative to Labour that any leader who wanted to make a deal with SNP would be ousted immediately. So that leaves a grand coalition as the only available outcome. Unless, of course, the SNP vote collapses more dramatically than anyone is predicting while UKIP surges more dramatically than anyone is predicting, in which case Labour may squeak in with a narrow majority,

So perhaps what we saw in the Miliband-Cameron exchanges was a phase in what you’ve been calling for, a semi-public discussion between potential coalition partners, and not a debate between opponents at all.

Ambassador Barder’s response to this was rather incredulous.  I quote it in full:

I don’t believe that a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives with Labour is conceivable or desirable. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband, brought up from infancy in the heart of the Labour party, would consider it for a second: I’m convinced that he would resign as leader without hesitation in the unlikely event that his party colleagues tried to steer him into it. It would split the party in a way that would make the defection of the Gang of Four seem like a minor disagreement among friends. The echoes of Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer, would be defeaning. A huge proportion of Labour party members (certainly including me!) would resign from the party in anger and disgust if the Labour leadership were to go into a partnership with the most reactionary, anti-social, inhumane, chauvinist and incompetent Conservative party of our lifetimes. Conflicting attitudes to Europe and to the welfare state alone make any such collaboration unthinkable. I guess that the Conservatives would be equally deeply split. It’s not as if the country faces the kind of existential threat that made an all-party national government essential in 1939-40: we face grave problems but there are clear remedies for most of them readily available — and almost no consensus between the two major parties about what the remedies should be. And, finally, it’s unnecessary. As experience in Scotland and continental Europe has demonstrated, a minority government can function quite satisfactorily in a multi-party parliament provided that it can forge temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times to enable it to win parliamentary support for at least some of its programme.

To which I responded:

The makeup of the next government all depends on what the state of parties is after the election, of course. If, let’s say, Labour win enough seats that they can put together a majority by agreement with either the LDP or SNP or a combination of other small parties, then there will be a chance of a government based on “temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times.” If, however, it turns out that Labour and the Tories are each separated from an overall majority by fewer seats than SNP hold, that will be impossible.

Granted Labour voters are deeply hostile to the Tories, and would hate a Grand Coalition almost as much in 2015 as they did when Ramsey Macdonald tried it in 1931. But that does not mean that a party split would be on the cards, as it was then, if Ed Miliband were to form such a coalition as a way of keeping SNP on the fringes of UK politics. Labour politicians may share some measure of their supporters’ antipathy to the Tories, but in the SNP they see a direct threat to their own personal ambitions. A Labour-SNP pact would risk putting the SNP in a position of dominance in Scotland in decades to come comparable to that which the Ulster Unionist Party held in Northern Ireland half a century ago, and no Labour politician can fail to see how dramatically that outcome would reduce his or her chances of ever being a senior figure in government. And if no Labour MPs bolt the party, there can be no party split, no matter how unhappy the rank-and-file may be.

An historical comparison that comes to mind is the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election. After his meeting with Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe announced to the press “He offered us nothing.” Well, of course Heath offered Thorpe nothing. Moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite Tory MPs- precisely that faction of his party who formed the core of Heath’s support- tended to represent moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite constituencies which were the most responsive to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party, and so those MPs saw in the Liberals an immediate threat to their ability to hold their seats. By approving a deal that would have made the Liberals a serious party of government those MPs would have been signing their own political death warrants. Far better to let Harold Wilson form another government and to oppose that government than to make a bargain that involves the end of one’s own career.

Continuing with the scenario in which SNP could provide a majority to either Labour or the Tories, we can rather safely rule out the idea that one of the major parties might carry on for more than a few months as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the other. That arrangement would give the official opposition all the power and none of the responsibility in the policy-making process. Assuming neither Labour nor the Tories want to call a second election before the year is out, that means a Grand Coalition.

Again, that is only one possible scenario. I notice that 538 dot com is now***** predicting that the new parliament will be made up of 287 Tories, 271 Labour, 42 SNP, 27 LDP, 17 from the Northern Ireland parties, and 6 others. If that comes true, there would be almost as little prospect of a Labour government sustaining itself by the sort of shifting alliances you describe as there would be if (let’s say) Labour and the Tories tied at 287 with SNP holding 42 seats and a majority for either. Labour would need the SNP and virtually everyone else any time they faced Tory opposition, a situation that could well require the party not only to give up on Scotland but to write off seats wherever the LDP or Plaid Cymru were strong. Even if Ed Miliband’s upbringing had instilled in him a genuinely fanatical hatred of the Tories, he would have to match that hatred with an equal hatred of the Labour Party to try that course.

As for the Tories, under the 538 dot com scenario they too would be stuck with a Grand Coalition. As I mentioned in my first comment, UKIP doesn’t have to win a single seat to scare Tory backbenchers into demanding that their party turn further to the right. They just have to receive, in a handful of constituencies, more votes than separated the Tory candidate from the winning candidate. That will tell Tory backbenchers that if they do not appease UKIP voters they might lose their seats. So a Tory deal with SNP would not only be unpopular in Scotland, it would be a non-starter in the parliamentary Tory party. Likewise a renewed pact with the LDP, even if the LDP had the votes to give the Tories a majority. The only government the Tories could enter, on 538 dot com’s projection, would be a Grand Coalition, as indeed the only government Labour could enter on that projection would be a Grand Coalition.

When so many voters are leaning to minor parties, polls are particularly tricky to evaluate, so it is certainly possible that one of the major parties could emerge with a majority, or that LDP might bounce back and be in a position to give Labour a majority, or that multiple small parties will break through and it will become possible to have the a government by ad hoc, informal agreements. At the moment, however, the likeliest outcome of next month’s general election would seem to be a Grand Coalition. Mr Miliband’s debate performance, the aspects of it that puzzled you, might then be best understood as a stage in the negotiations to set that coalition in place. For that matter, both Ms Sturgeon’s glittering performance in the debate and the peculiar controversy that has sprung up about her since then might be evidence that she too expects such a coalition to emerge, and is taking advantage of the freedom it gives her to attack both Labour and the Tories as the tactical exigencies of the moment may require.

As this comment was already quite unreasonably long, I did not add that Mr Clegg’s focus in the unpromising topic of fiscal rectitude might make quite a bit of sense if he expected his party to be in opposition to a grand coalition in the next parliament.  Before they became a party of government by entering the present ruling coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats tended to be something of a clean government lobby, hectoring whichever party was in power about administrative irregularities and, especially, about cloudy statements from the Treasury.  Perhaps Mr Clegg is preparing the Liberal Democrats for a return to this role.

Ambassador Barder, in his reply to this, expressed admiration for my “ability to marshal such a weight of argument and evidence in support of such an inherently improbable proposition.”  He went on to defend his view that a grand coalition is still overwhelmingly unlikely to be the result of the election, pointing out that the manifestos of SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru are so much closer to what Labour voters want than are the policies of Labour’s own leadership that Labour would be risking a massive revolt if it did not strive to make a deal with them.  He closed with “We shall see!,” a nice way of asking for respite.

My reply started with a pleasantry, to assure Ambassador Barder that I appreciated his time and efforts, and proceeded to another bland remark that I hoped would allow us to part in good spirits:

Thanks very much for your replies. You are not only consistently informative and thought-provoking, but may well be the most courteous blogger on the web.

Certainly, in view of Labour’s history, a grand coalition is an “inherently improbable proposition.” But the very thing that makes politics so fascinating is that yesterday’s inherently improbable proposition can occasionally become today’s sole viable alternative, and tomorrow’s tediously settled reality. Who knows, perhaps the next parliament will feature something even harder to imagine than a Labour-Tory coalition. Indeed, we shall see!

*Brian Barder would more properly be referred to as “Sir Brian,” since he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.  Those sorts of titles strike me as impossibly silly, however.  Since he is an extremely polite person, I will not call him simply “Barder.”  So “Ambassador Barder” it is.

**In that same post, Ambassador Barder had complained about this ungainly neologism.

***Leaders of parties contesting seats only in Northern Ireland were not included, nor were leaders whose parties were not likely to keep their deposits in more than one constituency race.

****Nigel Farage of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) struck Ambassador Barder as “the most shameless,” an unsurprising assessment given Mr Farage’s low opinion of the institutions to which Ambassador Barder has devoted his life’s work.

*****That’s what 538 was predicting when I wrote that comment.  It’s adjusted the prediction a bit in the hours since.  Now, Labour are down to 270 and SNP are up to 43.

An atypically typical campaign season

Click on the image for source article at PBS dot org.

It looks like the the principal candidates in next year’s election for US president will be Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.  An election between the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two others does make one wonder how the two parties can call themselves “democratic” and “republican” when “restorationist” and “hereditarian” would seem more fitting.

Also, the last time the USA had a Clinton/ Bush presidential contest eccentric billionaire H. Ross Perot ran an independent campaign that attracted many millions of votes.  Maybe this time Mr Perot’s son will throw his hat into the ring.  He has made himself even richer than his father, and seems to be just as peculiar.

Mr Bush faces a large number of challengers for his party’s nomination, while Ms Clinton has so far drawn only token opposition on her side of the ballot.  It occurs to me that it is strange that it isn’t always that way.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate the early favorite virtually every time.  The only two Democrats in recent decades to win the nomination without having been the early favorite were Barack Obama, who was at least a clear second to Ms Clinton in the early stages of the 2008 race, and James “Jimmy” Carter, who in 1976 triumphed over a field that never had a clear front-runner.  And the last Republican to emerge as a true surprise nominee was Wendell Willkie in 1940.

One of the ways to become the early favorite in the Republican contest is to place or show in the previous contest.  Five of the last six Republican nominees- Willard M. Romney, John McCain, Robert Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan- had all finished close behind the eventual nominee in the last open contest before they were themselves bore the party’s standard.  For their part, the Democrats take comparatively little note of losing candidates for their nomination.  The last five Democrats in recent decades to capture their party’s nod after an unsuccessful first try have been Albert Gore, who after his 1988 attempt had served two terms as vice president; George McGovern, whose 1968 bid as a placeholder for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy really shouldn’t count; Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president in 1964 after his failed bid in 1960; Alfred Smith, who came back from losing the nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention to lead the Democrats into a landslide defeat in 1928; and the only winner in the whole bunch, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who received a few votes at the 1908 Democratic convention, then won the nomination and the presidency in 1912.

In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic nominee chose one of his rivals as his vice-presidential running mate.  As Messrs Gore and Humphrey showed, election to the vice presidency is a path to front-runner status in the presidential race.  However, the last time before 2004 that a losing candidate for that year’s Democratic nomination was chosen to run for vice president was 1960, when John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who led the US Senate.  And the last time before that was 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt chose John “Cactus Jack” Garner, a Texan who led the US House of Representatives.  The dozens of losing candidates for the Democratic nominations before 2004 who controlled neither a chamber of Congress nor Texas’ electoral votes generally emerged from the experience with little to show for it except the disappointment of their supporters and a heavy load of personal debt.

Looking at that record, ambitious Democrats have virtually no incentive to run for president unless they begin at the head of the pack, while ambitious Republicans have a great deal of incentive to run even if they look weak at the beginning of the race.  Granted, beyond a certain age that incentive fades; while there is probably some slim chance that former New York governor George Pataki, for example, might pick up enough momentum to emerge as Mr Bush’s main rival in the closing stages of the nomination race,  the reward for doing that would be a chance of becoming the front-running candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 or 2024, when Mr Pataki will be 75 or 79 years old.  It seems unlikely that even a very strong performance in the 2016 primaries would convince the Republicans to rally around such an elderly candidate.  Granted, Messrs Dole and McCain were both in their mid-70s when they were nominated, and as Adlai Stevenson said, “Once a man has been x-rayed for the presidency, he stays radioactive for life.”  So it wouldn’t be surprising if Mr Pataki were to run in earnest.


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