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The Court Does Not Compute



Imagine a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court interrupting an attorney’s argument by saying, “sorry counselor, but I only read at a third grade level, so your brief is just gobbledygook to me.” It’d probably raise a question or two about that jurist’s ability competently adjudicate thorny legal issues, wouldn’t it? If the remark received an enthusiastic “me too” from a colleague peering mystified at an upside down copy of the Constitution, we’d probably worry about the capability of the court as a whole to decide critical matters of jurisprudence, not just an individual justice.

There’s no doubt that illiteracy in a Supreme Court justice would be greeted with open-mouthed astonishment. How could an individual bereft of an intellectual skill so basic and necessary to the job get elevated to such a high and influential office? On the other hand, if a justice cheerfully admits they are innumerate and will have to take off their shoes and socks if required to count past ten, no problem. An inability to read would clearly cause any jurist mortification and embarrassment. Being ignorant of basic mathematical principles, well, that just makes you as dumb as the next guy. To the mystification and mortification of us educators, there’s no shame in that.

Believe it or not, Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts recently more or less made exactly this sort of confession in open court. The me-no-likee-math moment came during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that’s a big hairy deal likely to have far reaching effects on partisan control of state and federal governments for decades. Roberts’ chipper acknowledgement that he can’t deal with numbers is enough to set middle school math teachers on vibrate all by itself. But it’s bigger than that. What we have here is essentially an admission by the chief justice that he’s incapable of understanding the crucial argument at the heart of a potentially landmark case.

The issue here is partisan gerrymandering, a time-honored tradition practiced widely by both parties. Every ten years, after the decennial census, states are required to literally redraw the political map, adjusting the topology of congressional and state legislative districts to fit population shifts. As a general rule, whichever party controls the state legislature enthusiastically seizes this cartographical responsibility to maximize partisan advantage. In other words, they do their best to shuffle voters into a set of districts–a dab of Dems here, a skosh of Republicans there–to maximize the probabilities their party will win legislative seats.

While this sort of thing has always gone on, after the GOP’s “red tide” 2010 election, Republican majorities in many states took it to new extremes. This is what Gill v. Whitford is all about. In 2008’s Wisconsin State Assembly elections, Republicans got 44 percent of the votes statewide and 46 percent of the seats (46 of 99 seats). So, overall, there was a more or less a translation of the statewide popular vote into representation in the people’s house. In 2010, the GOP took control of state government in Wisconsin and enthusiastically began, literally, to change the political geography of the state. In the 2012 assembly elections Republicans got 47 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. In 2016 they received 53 percent of the votes and 64 percent of the seats. So, if we look statewide, Democrats have received more than half (2012) or nearly half (2016) of the votes cast, and ended up with a small minority — less than 40 percent — in the legislature.

And that’s the basic question the Supreme Court is grappling with in Gill: If district maps are jiggered to a fare thee well so that a party supported by a minority of voters ends up with a dominant legislative majority, is everything still constitutionally kosher in equality town? Clearly Republican votes are worth way more in Wisconsin than Democratic votes. That’s not the issue. The real issue is how big does that inequality have to be to justify calling naughty-naughty on the legislature and forcing a districting do-over to more faithfully translate popular votes proportionally into legislative seats?

Well, there’s the rub. You need a dash of math to come up with an answer. Is it even possible to measure the degree of partisan voting inequity? Sure. Social scientists do this sort of thing for a living. The best measure available is what’s known as voting efficiency and it’s not a tough concept. Calculating it requires nothing more than voting totals, the ability to add, subtract and divide, and a cheap calculator. What you end up with is a ratio that tells you how well a party converts votes in legislative seats. So, for example, a voting efficiency gap of .20 means the majority party got 20 percent more legislative seats more than they would have if there was no hanky-panky by the district draw-ers. Undergrads can pick up the logic and the math in about 10 minutes, and I’m betting you can too. You can read a quick introduction here , and reading just the first two pages should make the concept clear.

Apparently, that’s more than Chief Justice Roberts can handle. He called the whole argument “sociological gobbledygook”, and several of his colleagues poo-pooed the idea, smirking that if the court bought into all this quantitative hocus-pocus (i.e. addition, subtraction and division), why, we’d end up with pointy headed political scientists drawing the lines for political districts. Um, well, here’s a newsflash bench-boy: We already do. Republicans and Democrats routinely pay people with our exact qualifications and skill sets seriously big bucks to draw those maps to maximize their electoral fortunes (what can I say, we need the dough). And if the Supreme Court can’t grasp the basic math used in these exercises–again, not that hard–they really have no freakin’ clue what they are dealing with.

This doesn’t seem to bother Roberts. He cheerfully said his lack of understanding, “may simply be my educational background.” That’s a gobsmacking statement. Roberts got his undergrad and law degrees at Harvard (his JD was magna cum laude). I had no clue that after spending a third world country’s GDP on an Ivy League education you could still be left incapable of grasping a basic numerical exercise, something I can get a farmer’s kid from western Nebraska to master inside a quarter hour.*

So, while the Supreme Court’s shameless flaunting of its mathematical illiteracy reflects poorly on the quality of the court’s jurisprudence, it might be good for us teaching at public universities. Roughly a third of political science majors at my institution are pre-law majors–my discipline produces a lot of lawyers (for which I’d like to formally apologize). And while we can’t give our grads the snoot value of a Hah-vahd credential, we sure as shootin’ can (and do) make sure they have a basic understanding of numbers before we release them into the wild.

We do so for a very good reason.These days, a basic quantitative skill set is a basic, and absolutely critical, tool for anyone seeking to make systematic sense out of even the most elementary disagreements about our social, political and economic worlds.  It’s apparently also a skill set that the Supreme Court loudly and proudly lacks.

*This may be an unfair comparison. Unlike Harvard trained lawyers, corn farmers have to be good with numbers if they want to make a living.

Guns ‘n’ Poses

Americans are unique among citizens of Western liberal democracies in believing that freedom comes from a gun barrel. Outside our shores there’s a more or less universal agreement that the business end of trigger pulling and large bangs is simply a projectile moving with explosive force. Even cheese eating surrender monkeys will allow that said projectile might free someone from their mortal coil, but that’s not the sort of freedom Americans are really talking about.

What Americans, or at least the millions of National Rifle Association/Second Amendment gun rights purists, are talking about is actual freedom, individual liberty, guns as a prophylactic against unwanted coercion by government or the neighborhood bullyboys. Sure it’s good to have freedom of assembly and the right to speak your mind and all that. Without a shootin’ iron, though, any Tom, Dick or Redcoat can cozen you out of those hard won liberties. It is only our plug-a-thug capacity that stands between us and terrorists, robbers, Obama, the gummint and sundry other evil doers. True, all this freedom and vigilance does involve collateral damage. Others you might end up shooting include your spouse, your child,  your mailman, your teacher, your preacher, your neighbor, some random tourist, or those dern teens playing their hippity-hoppity music.  And, of course, yourself.

That’s said without any intended sarcasm, irony or condemnation. Near as I can tell, it’s an accurate statement of a belief genuinely held by lots and lots of Americans. It’s a much rarer attitude in other countries where democratically elected governments have enacted strong gun controls with, if not full-throated support, at least without the implacable enmity of the people. The Dunblane massacre in the UK and the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, for example, resulted in a swift regulatory response.  Dunblanes and Port Arthurs are not shocking one-offs in the United States. We have them with a truly disturbing regularity. In response, the government does mostly nothing.

Many outside, and plenty inside, the United States find all of this baffling. It’s not even really a question of public opinion and preferences. There are lots of gun control measures that research suggests will reduce (though far from eliminate) gun violence and already have high levels of public support  (you can see a list here).  Every time there’s a massacre–Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, Virginia Tech, Pulse nightclub–these proposals are lofted back into the Republic’s political discourse only to go splat on the Second Amendment shield hoisted by the NRA. For those expecting the Las Vegas bloodbath to result in any different outcome … um, I’d prepare for disappointment.

Like it or not, the legal right to keep some serious bang-bang in our pockets is pretty much etched into American culture and it’s not going anywhere that isn’t on an NRA-approved map. Las Vegas, no doubt, will set off another competitive round of Second Amendment parsing, but chances are it won’t change the status quo much. The interesting question is why so many Americans are so uniquely attached to unregulated gun ownership that they are willing to put up with gun violence on a scale unthinkable in other places (the US has roughly one mass shooting per day).  A shooting tragedy that elsewhere would be met with a forceful response from the political system in America only evokes some version of, “awful, terrible, thoughts and prayers, yada, yada, yada, but, meh, whaddya gonna do?”

Maybe this is because it’s deeply embedded in the American psyche that our independence was won by a populace taking up arms to take down a tyrannical government. The experience lingers in the national consciousness, so we still feel the need for lots and lots of military-grade firearms because you just never know when the gummint’s gonna get too big for its britches. Yet a lot of the yeoman of nostalgic worship also took up arms for the British. Their guns were deployed not for, but against the cause of liberty (or, depending on perspective, illegal usurpation).* Maybe we should regulate guns because you can never tell who’ll turn out to be a Tory bastard taking potshots at his neighbors for the king. The logic behind that argument seems equally as sound as its opposite, but, whatever. The point is that the whole justification for bearing arms as a check on central government is an anachronism. If nothing else, I seriously doubt that what we’ve got in the gun rack is going to leave the 82nd Airborne or the Coldstream Guards shaking in their boots.

Well, what about the personal protection argument? Despite liberals sputtering to the contrary, that argument actually holds some water. The ability to lay down some lead can be a pretty effective counter to a mugging or home invasion. There are roughly a couple of hundred justifiable gun homicides a year, and 1 percent of crime victims use a gun in self-defense (numbers and source here). So, no mistake about it, guns can and are used to put the hurt on baddies. Just not that much, and not very often. So, if political freedom is secured in America, as it is in all comparable polities, not by guns but by stable democratic institutions and the rule of law, and personal armories are rarely deployed to secure the personal safety and security of individuals, what’s the deal? Why are Americans so attached to the weaponry?

It’s simple: We. Like. Guns.  Stripped down to its essence, that’s pretty much it. We love guns. We own more of them than any other stable democracy (roughly 300 million). We have entire media enterprises–magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels–dedicated to them. We get switched on by thrusting bullets into a chamber and feeling that stress relief when we pop them off. We like a lot of gun violence in our novels and movies. We adorn our vehicles with gun slogans: Glock, the point and click interface; guns don’t kill people, I do; you are free to be a liberal thanks to a man with a gun; and so on and so forth. Is all this fetish-y? Gun porn-y? Well, yeah. That’s kind of our thing. And we’re serious about it. One of the most powerful private political entities in our entire commonwealth–the NRA–is dedicated to making sure not just that we can own shotguns or hunting rifles. In NRA-world we have the inviolate right to own assault weapons, silencers, armor-piercing ammunition, and to conceal about our persons various phallic instruments giving us the power of life and death over our fellow citizens.

Of course there’s a price to be paid for the freedom to indulge such proclivities. Someone’s gonna get killed adjusting their bra holster, the odd toddler is going to get killed searching for candy in grandma’s purse, some guy will accidentally loose off a round while sitting on the crapper in Walmart,  random dipsticks living low-rent Bonnie and Clyde fantasies will shoot up neighborhoods for no reason at all, and suspected terrorists will be legally allowed to buy to guns because they have Second Amendment rights too. Oh, plus there will be the not-so-occasional massacre.

As I said, lots of people don’t get this. This sort of stuff just doesn’t happen in other countries, at least not with the metronomic regularity it does in America.  And if did happen in other countries, it’s a dead certainty some attempt at mitigation would follow. So why do we put up with it? The need to keep a limitation on the encroachment of government? To secure the rights of the Second Amendment? To uphold individual liberty? Personal protection? Nah. Let’s be honest. We just like guns.

* You might be asking if it wasn’t the freedom to bear arms that was the critical element in securing revolutionary victory for the United States, Mr. Smartypants Patriot Disser, what was it? I don’t know (It was the French).

The Fight That Drives Old Dixie’s Hounds

Those who fail to learn history may or may not be condemned to repeat it, but it’s a dead certainty that those who won’t let it go are hell bent on re-living it. And there seems to be a lot of these types about. People who seem more interested in yearning for the mistakes of the past rather than learning from them.

The increasingly acrimonious and belligerent argy-bargy over removing Confederate statues is a current case in point. One side argues all those stone figurines of bewhiskered white guys just glorify racists and traitors. They argue for pitching ‘em off their pedestals post haste in order to strike a blow for group harmony, not to mention delivering some long overdue just deserts. The other side argues they symbolize a proud and honorable heritage and that it’s unfair to treat them as burrs under the saddle of contemporary racial comity. Carting off a marble bust of Robert E. Lee to some darkened hall of shame might bathe some people in warm schadenfreude tinglies, but it’ll do diddly to actually combat racism in the here and now.

Both sides have a point, though one side has more of a point than the other. All those Confederate heroes were traitors to the Republic and their scores on any valid scale of prejudicial attitudes would park them in the category of “bald ass racist”. These, by the way, are objective assessments. They committed the textbook definition of treason in taking up arms against the United States of America, so in straight-up legal terms they are in Benedict Arnold territory. And their acts of treason were committed in the service of preserving an institution that kept millions of African-Americans in bondage. If that ain’t eye-popping levels of racism in action, I don’t have the words to describe what is.

And save me the states’ rights, lost cause, plucky-underdogs-fighting-for-independence-and-freedom, and all that blah-blah antebellum exculpatory blabber and balderdash. I have no doubt some actually believe such stuff and twaddle, but there’s simply no controversy among serious historians of the period that preservation of slavery was the primary war aim motivating the Confederacy. If you want to pick a bone with that analysis, take it up with historian Ty Seidule, who made a viral video explaining the point in detail (see the video here). Seidule, by the way, is not some prog-prof fulminating in an Ivory Tower tilting to the left. He’s a colonel in the United States Army, teaches at West Point, and is a proud graduate of Washington and Lee University, the Lee bit being a nod to Robert E., who ran the place for years after retiring from his distinguished career of kicking Yankee ass.

Which gets us to those hell bent on scrubbing any whiff of respectable memorialization from all historical figures who are not up to 21st Century standards of PC snuff. Sympathy for this perspective, at least on the Confederate front, is more than understandable, and I’ve got a pretty big dose of it myself. After all, according to a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject (see here), there are more than 1,500 public memorials to the Confederacy. That seems a bit overboard. I get that the Confederates were mostly out-manned, outgunned, out-supplied, but very rarely out-fought or out-generaled by the North. And, sure, they look good in those spiffy Gilbert and Sullivan uniforms. Plus they had super-cool names—Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, John Bell Hood, and Beauregard Jubal Sweaty-Breeches Julep. Okay, I made the last one up. Still, you can understand that viewed from a suitable distance this crowd of drawlers and brawlers has a certain cavalier, romantic appeal.

But, jeez, do they really deserve the copious multitudes of pigeon-crap catchers currently serving as rallying points for yet another spasm of conflict over race relations? These fellows damn near blew up the Republic over slavery. Being stylish dressers and alarmingly competent in the military arts should carry, at best, a pinch, a smidge, a mote, a skosh, of compensatory historical kudos. Certainly not freaking hundreds of statues, bridges, street names, and even, for cripes sake, an entire mountain (see here). Someone clearly needed a sense of proportion (not to mention propriety) when all this was going on.

Here’s the thing, though. Some of those monuments really can tell us something important about heritage, though not necessarily in the way assumed by diehard Dixie defenders. Some Confederate combatants not only defended the indefensible and repudiated and visited violence on the values of the Republic. To their eternal shame they turned their army gray for bed sheets (the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veterans) and egged on heirs who would carry on a legacy of appalling racial discrimination through Jim Crow. Others, though, did not. They recognized at least in some dim sense their own moral and political failings and those of the cause they fought for. After wading through the bloody muck and coming out the other side, they wanted others to let go of the animosities that motivated the conflict that consumed their lives.

So, weird as it sounds, the heritage passed on by the likes Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest might still be worth paying attention to, even though their degrees of moral and political repentance varied quite a bit. Longstreet kind of went whole hog in bird flipping the racist cause he once fought for—post-war he is perhaps best known for leading a multi-racial militia to do battle with violent white supremacists in New Orleans.1 Lee clearly struggled over the issues of secession and slavery, even if in the moment of truth he failed the moral test on both counts. Still, after the war he opposed memorials to the Confederacy and generally encouraged people to put the past behind them and seemed to genuinely want the United States to move on. Forrest was a brilliant and ruthless cavalry commander during the war. Before the war he’d been, among other things, a slave trader. After, he was so fast to join the KKK his membership number probably consisted of a single digit. Yet towards the end of his life, even Forrest gave a much commented on conciliatory speech where he assured a black audience that, “I am with you in heart and hand,” which, no surprise, made him persona non grata in certain Sons of the South circles.

The point is, these guys clearly knew and accepted that they and their cause had lost. And, however imperfectly, they pointed the way forward from the terrible conflict in which they had so effectively participated. That way was in letting go of the attitudes that propped up slavery by force of arms and perpetuated racial divisions by the power of racial prejudice. Let’s not get too teary-eyed here–those guys were products of their time and a long, long way from true egalitarians. Still, it is not a small step from high-level Confederate combatant to getting on board with good riddance to slavery and some measured acceptance of the need for racial harmony. Yeah, they didn’t get far down the old multi-racial kumbayah path, but keep in mind they started from way, way, way back.

So if there’s any heritage worth holding onto from the Lees and the Longstreets and the Forrests, it’s that.  Not the celebration of their military victories, but the acceptance of their defeat and the recognition of its consequences. That doesn’t mean forgetting their history. But surely it means letting go of the animus that all too often motivated it. Remembering history is important. Resurrecting the divisions that often drove it is dangerous. Regardless of whether this or that statue remains or disappears, hopefully we can learn to let go of what, 150 years after the Civil War, should have been discarded a long, long time ago.


  1. Longstreet, by the way, is unusual among top Confederate generals in that he never had an actual statue or monument erected in his honor. This seems strange as he was one of Lee’s most able and trusted commanders, and by any measure was a hero of the Confederate cause. Longstreet’s post-war support of racial harmony is the most likely explanation for why his mug isn’t found staring down at us from cenotaph central. Longstreet’s omission from all the Confederate statutory sprinkled around like confetti makes perfect sense if these are viewed as monuments to Jim Crow rather than to heroes of the lost cause.

The New Face of Immigration

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Spaatz, 1 and Chester Nimitz were, respectively, Army, Air Force and Navy commanders who collectively represented America’s secret advantage in World War Two. In taking on dedicated bully boys like the Nazis, America didn’t simply make better tanks, planes and warships than the Germans. America was also in the business of making better Germans than the Germans.

That has always been a particular genius of the United States, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Give us your tired, your poor, your strange accents, funny names, weird food and odd fashions. Into the melting pot they go, where strivers of all stripes can find nourishment for their dreams with extra helpings of individual freedom, that not-so-secret ingredient of American dynamism. The resulting cultural stew might rearrange consonants and vowels here and there (it was originally Eisenhauer), but it produces hearty crossbreeds of invention and tradition, hybrids socially engineered to kick ass and take names. And I’m not just talking about a few World War Two muckety mucks laying the lumber to cousins in the old country.  American immigrants are as varied as Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Eddie Van Halen. The co-founder of Google is an immigrant (Sergey Brin), as is the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla (Elon Musk).

The result of all this cultural mixing and matching is, at least as the tale gets told, the best of the new and the old. French toast, spaghetti and meatballs, and German chocolate cake are actually as American as apple pie, culinary staples inspired by the old world but given life in the new. That urge to take where we’re from and turn it into something bigger and better is in our genes. Come to think of it, it’s also in our jeans (Levi Strauss was born in Germany). America, as it repeatedly tells itself, is a nation of immigrants, a place where citizenship is derived from a commitment to shared values rather than blood or tan lines.

As a nation of immigrants, then, it’s somewhat baffling that we are increasingly, well, anti-immigrant. I’m not just talking about illegal immigration. That’s never been particularly popular with the American public, even if those attitudes have been kind of schizophrenic (“Deport the illegals! But not until they’ve finished the harvest and roofed my house!”). I’m talking about legal immigration which, at least in some quarters, is increasingly viewed as getting too much of a not-so-good thing. Give or take, about 35 percent of Americans want legal immigration levels decreased, though like much else in the commonweal the aggregate number belies deep partisan differences. Among Republican ranks it’s more like 60 percent.

In truth, the Republic has always had a muddled attitude towards the mixed lot that washed up on its shores over the years. Homegrown Anglo-Yanks weren’t too wild about the Irish and Italians who streamed in during the 19th and 20th Century (come to think of it, the Irish and Italians didn’t like each other much either). For decades, mainline Protestants weren’t too fond of Catholics coming in, and neither Protestants nor Catholics were particularly wild about letting in too many Jews.

The disparate European tribe that collectively thinks of itself as representing America did learn to occasionally put aside their traditional enmities and prejudices and forge common ground on immigration policy. They united to stick it to the Chinese immigrants in the old West, and closed ranks to chuck Japanese immigrants into concentration camps during World War II (though later they did generously allow the Nisei to be drafted into racially segregated combat units that were packed off to fight the relatives in Italy and Germany). More recently immigrants from South America and pretty much any place with a surfeit of minarets in its religious architecture get the Irish/Italian/Chinese/Japanese treatment.

All the E pluribus unum rah-rah, in other words, hides a long history of a firm commitment to a WASP-y unum but a lot of waffling and occasional full-on abandonment of any technicolor pluribus. And that’s without taking into consideration what might euphemistically be termed coercive immigration (i.e. importing slaves) and enforced emigration (i.e. exporting Native Americans to places they didn’t want to go). So no one should be super-shocked that the federal government is getting some traction with its plans to limit membership in club America.

What is kind of shocking, though, is just how tight those limits are. If the Trump administration gets its way, there will not only be fewer Muslims and people with non-white skin tones getting past Lady Liberty’s velvet rope. There will be fewer people like me. And as I’m so WASP-y I could practically unfurl wings out of my lats and drop a stinger out my butt, I’m pretty sure there will be fewer people like you too. What’s being kicked around is a points-based merit system, where you get points for having particular skills, qualifications, or a walloping pile of boodle. To qualify for immigration, you have to get a certain number of points. Time magazine mocked up a quiz  so you can figure out if you’d have what it takes to get a shot at being an American. You can take the quiz here. It’s kind of depressing. I didn’t make the cut—too old, my advanced degree is in the wrong field, and I suffer from an un-American deficiency of lucre. All that could be offset by athletic or intellectual glory—you get points for having an Olympic medal and/or a Nobel Prize—but all I had was my second-string high school football career and a college GPA that made my mom proud.

My failure to cut the mustard as a worthy candidate for immigration to America surprised me because, well, I am an immigrant to America. From a one percenter perspective, I’ll allow that in retrospect I might not have been the best investment of a golden ticket to American citizenship. I haven’t won any prestigious awards, or started a Fortune 500 company. I haven’t even got my own Wikipedia entry. All I’ve done is work hard, served in the military, paid my taxes, supported my community, embraced the values of the Constitution, and raised a couple of All-American kids socialized to repeat those same sorts of behaviors. You know, the sort of things the vast majority of US immigrants and their offspring, which is to say the vast majority of Americans, have always done. Clearly the government is considering raising the bar on us, so I’m glad we slackers got in before the rules tightened up.

If the government is going this route, though, in the name of truth in advertising they need to update the poem parked at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus’ scribbling about, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” clearly needs a 21st Century edit. Maybe something like: Give me your rich, your Olympians/your huddled Nobel laureates yearning for venture capital/The rest of you losers don’t bother applying.

Doesn’t sound very American. But then again neither do the new immigration proposals.

  1. Spaatz sounds more Dutch than German, but that was because he added an extra “a” right before World War II. He was born a Spatz, which means sparrow in German. Didn’t matter much because his friends called him “Tooey” and to pretty much else he was “sir” or “general.” Regardless, as commander of the Eighth Air Force he was responsible for bombing the snot out big chunks of Europe.

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.


*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.