Unknown Unknowns

“What if we were wrong?”

So mused Barack Obama to an aide shortly after November 8, 2016, as the election returns poured in and it became clear Donald Trump—not Hillary Clinton—would be the next president of the United States.  After a full year of assuming someone as vulgar and cruel as Trump could not conceivably be elected commander-in-chief, Obama was suddenly faced with the possibility that he lived in a very different country from the one he inherited eight years earlier—and perhaps he should’ve seen it earlier.

It is the rare politician who has the nerve and humility to admit he was (possibly) mistaken, but the truth is that even us private citizens are loathe to acknowledge personal weakness and tend to avoid doing so at almost any cost.  In the tribal world we now inhabit, certitude takes precedence over nuance every time, because when all discourse is reduced to a zero-sum blood sport, there can be no such thing as ambiguity, complexity or doubt.

With 18 days until the midterms and control of Congress hanging ever-so-precariously in the balance, it is my fondest wish for my fellow Americans to take a cue from President Obama and stop being so goddamned certain about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Surely, if the last election cycle taught us anything—about our leaders, our politics and ourselves—it’s that there’s almost nothing we can claim to know beyond doubt, and the consequences of assuming otherwise can be catastrophic.

To wit:  If the biggest mistake the left made in 2016 was to assume Trump could not possibly win, it stands to reason their biggest mistake in 2020 will be to assume he could not possibly win again.  This despite the fact that a) his three immediate predecessors were all re-elected handily, and b) Trump himself continues to defy all laws of political gravity, maintaining a fairly consistent—albeit consistently tepid—approval rating no matter what unholy nonsense is going on around him.

That so many liberals still refuse to see what is directly in front of their nose—namely, that Donald Trump is, thus far, politically unsinkable—is reflective of the blue team’s broader intellectual weakness of believing Trump and his acolytes are a bunch of rubes who have nothing useful to teach them.

But what if they do?  What if Trump’s personal indestructability is attributable not merely to rank stupidity on the part of 40 percent of the electorate, but rather to concrete policy achievements and genuine political skill?  What if Trump is smarter and shrewder than his critics give him credit for?  What if there are certain issues on which he has acquitted himself well, and not merely through beginner’s dumb luck?

What if, say, the 2017 tax bill really did supercharge the economy and make most Americans lives better?  What if Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea really did bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table?  What if Trump’s proposed Mexican wall really would protect the U.S. from drugs and criminals spilling across our southern border?

Then there are the issues that extend well beyond Trump himself.  For instance, what if the federal government really is overstuffed with bureaucrats and regulations and deserves a bit of thinning out around the edges?  What if the direst predictions about climate change are overblown and the proposed solutions not worth the cost?  What if single-payer health insurance leads to less efficient care?  What if armed guards at schools prevent more gun deaths than they cause?  What if political correctness—on campus and off—has become so pervasive that it now poses a real threat to free speech in the public square?  What if Brett Kavanaugh didn’t assault Christine Blasey Ford in 1982?

None of these questions are settled—some may never be—yet nearly all of us act like the answers are obvious and not worth debatingand, what’s more, that those with differing views are not just wrong, but evil, beyond redemption and deserving of our bottomless contempt.

The result of this—as any clear-eyed person can see—is a society of angry, arrogant, insufferable boors for whom a question like “What if we were wrong?” is treated like a punchline, eliciting guffaws and eyerolls instead of even a moment’s thoughtful pause.

In this disheartening period of civic discourse, I am reminded of a 2006 speech by the late British-American pugilist Christopher Hitchens, who challenged his audience to ask itself, “How do I know what I already think I know?”

“It’s always worth establishing first principles,” Hitchens argued.  “It’s always worth saying, ‘What would I do if I ever met a Flat Earth Society member?  Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?  How sure am I of my own views?’”

Finishing the thought, Hitchens cautioned, “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.

In 2018, there is no such thing as consensus, and we should start acting accordingly.  Not by abandoning all the values we hold dear, but simply by recognizing that ours are not the only values that have value.

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A Woman in the House

Will 2018 be the year of the black woman in Boston?

Massachusetts’ primary elections will be held on September 4—the day after Labor Day, regrettably—and while there are several interesting intra-party races across the Bay State this season, far and away the most compelling is the Democratic nominating contest for the 7th congressional district between incumbent Michael Capuano and his challenger, Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley.

District 7—encompassing most of Boston and a handful of surrounding towns—is the most ethnically and racially diverse in the state (only one-third of its residents are white), yet it has been represented for the last 20 years by Capuano, a straight white man, who has not faced a serious challenger from either party since his first campaign in 1998.

The main reason for this—apart from the historical tendency for incumbents to be re-elected at a near-100 percent rate—is that Capuano, 66, is an unabashed across-the-board liberal who has consistently spoken and voted in the interests of his constituents since the day he took office.  (Among other things, he boasts perfect ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Human Rights Campaign, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the NAACP.)  As such, the good people of the 7th district have found little reason to make a change in who represents them on Capitol Hill.

Until now.

Ayanna Pressley, 44, who has been resoundingly re-elected to the Boston City Council biennially since 2009, is gunning for Capuano’s seat without any particular beef with his record or worldview.  Offered the chance to differentiate her political views from his, Pressley is wont to change the subject or talk herself into a corner, underlining the awkward fact that when it comes to the proverbial issues, there is virtually no daylight between these two candidates.  Line-by-line, pound-for-pound, Capuano and Pressley embody two sides of the same liberal coin.

Pressley’s real argument—enunciated in every interview and every debate—is that there is more to being a congressperson than having the right views or voting the right way.  That in a district where being left-of-center goes without saying, it is equally (if not more) important that a representative possess the life experience and perspective necessary to champion the needs of America’s demographic underdogs, of which her district contains multitudes.

As a black woman with a turbulent upbringing (she speaks of being the victim of multiple sexual assaults in her youth), Pressley presents herself as precisely the sort of person District 7 needs in 2018:  A poised, energetic, indefatigable advocate for her fellow women and people of color, prepared to stand toe-to-toe with House Republicans in defense of everything from abortion rights to criminal justice reform.  If she and Capuano are more-or-less ideologically interchangeable on paper, Pressley is the one with real skin in the game—and, by implication, will fight just a little bit harder for the kind of society her district wants and deserves.

The down-and-dirty truth is that Pressley is running for Congress as if Capuano didn’t exist—or, more precisely, as if his were an open seat and Capuano had no institutional advantage and deserved no benefit of the doubt.  (Capuano regularly cites his seniority as a virtue.)  She is running, in short, because she wants to—and why on Earth shouldn’t she?

Indeed, if this race weren’t a referendum on a 20-year incumbent, it would almost surely be Pressley’s to lose.  Beyond being a black woman in a minority-majority district, Pressley is the more polished public speaker of the two, as well as the more photogenic and the one more adept—for better or worse—at inspiring a rambunctious, loyal following among her would-be constituents.

Does this mean she’ll win the primary on September 4?  The polls say no—an August 2 survey had Capuano ahead, 48-35—but then again, the polls also said Joseph Crowley would beat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York on June 26, and look how well that went.

By any measure, Michael Capuano has been a faithful, passionate and effective representative of Massachusetts’ 7th district these past 20 years (I lived there for eight of them).  His defeat, should it occur, would be a major loss for the people of Boston.  Then again, a victory by Ayanna Pressley would almost surely be a major gain.

A Grand Compromise

Last Wednesday, a 19-year-old lunatic opened fire at a Florida high school, killing 17 students and teachers and wounding several others.  This Valentine’s Day massacre was the 30th mass shooting in the United States so far this year, and the most deadly.

As our fellow citizens raced into their predicable opinion bubbles, ruminating on how to properly react to yet another instance of pointless American carnage, one sentiment struck me with particular force:  “If you oppose gun control, you can’t call yourself pro-life.”

On the one hand, an assertion like that speaks for itself.  Guns equal death; therefore, to foster life, eliminate the guns.  Surely the “pro-life” movement, whose entire platform is based on protecting the young and vulnerable, can appreciate this as well as anyone.

And yet, unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that, if only because of the apparently intractable politics that have enabled America to become the most trigger-happy advanced nation on Earth.  Even when overwhelming majorities of the public support certain basic changes to who gets to own deadly weapons in this country—and who doesn’t—the financial tyranny of the NRA over our elected officials guarantees a bloody status quo on guns for many years to come.

Into this breach, I offer a modest proposal:  Repeal the Second Amendment once and for all, and in exchange, allow the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s right:  I’m suggesting a good old-fashioned trade-off whereby two groups claiming the mantle of “pro-life” can put their money where their mouth is, and two major issues can be addressed in one fell swoop.

Obtuse as it may sound, there is a certain symmetry in tethering gun rights to abortion rights.  After all, both are rooted in core constitutional principles—the former in the aforementioned Second Amendment; the latter in the Fourteenth.  Both involve the direct, deliberate taking of human life, sometimes for morally dubious reasons.  Both provoke deep, painful and ultimately irresolvable debates about what it means to be a free American.  Finally, both hinge on the question of federalism and what it would mean, practically-speaking, if we were to radically decentralize certain rights we have heretofore regarded as (to coin a phrase) inalienable.

Of course, we’ll never find out the exact answer to that question, since neither the Second Amendment nor Roe v. Wade will be disappearing any time in the foreseeable future—a fact that leaves me half-relieved and half-depressed (not necessarily in that order).

All the same, having witnessed lawmakers’ shameful abdication of leadership in the teeth of one heinous—and utterly preventable—mass shooting after another, I have reached the dispiriting conclusion that our national epidemic of gun violence will never abate unless and until we decide, as a people, that there shouldn’t be a right to bear arms in the first place.  While such seemingly obvious fixes as an assault weapons ban or robust background checks would undoubtedly save countless lives, neither addresses the fundamental collective psychosis that is Americans’ fetishization of hand-held killing machines, for which the Second Amendment provides both legal and cultural cover.

Were I to become king, I would gut the Second Amendment tomorrow and hurl every firearm into a volcano.  However, since I am not king and we live in a republic, I recognize that, one way or another, effecting truly transformational gun reform will come at a price—and a painful one at that.  In a country with such wildly divergent views of liberty and freedom and right and wrong, no major ideological settlement can be made cleanly or simply:  There must be a fight, and both sides must be prepared to give at least as much as they are hoping to take.

It’s hard to believe today, but this was something that America used to be able to accomplish.  Indeed, look closely enough and you’ll notice a large chunk of modern American life came about through incongruous—if not outright ludicrous—grand compromises, many of them sealed in proverbial smoke-filled rooms or around dinner tables in between bottles of Port.  Think Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton agreeing to establish a national bank in exchange for moving the capital from New York to Virginia.  Or the Compromise of 1850, which gave us the horrid Fugitive Slave Act, but also California.  (The former was eventually repealed.  The latter, not yet.)  Or the fact that the Constitutional Convention itself gifted us a bicameral legislature, with one house favoring small states and the other favoring large ones.

That was then.  Now, of course, we are represented by a Congress that can’t seem to pass laws everyone likes, let alone ones that divide America straight down the middle.  Because our body politic has become so irretrievably tribal—so blindingly partisan, so stubbornly zero-sum—the very notion of compromise has increasingly been conflated with weakness, capitulation and ideological selling-out, rather than for what it actually is:  the only known way to run a goddamned country.

Hence the rank impossibility of a comprehensive immigration deal—something that could be resolved in an hour if Democrats merely agreed to fund a wall along the Mexican border.  Hence the absence of a plan to strengthen Obamacare, which the GOP prefers to cripple out of spite than make work for its own constituents.

Our leaders would rather get nothing than give their opponents anything, and we are all living with the consequences.  It would be a terribly unfair quandary for this great country to find itself in, except for the pesky fact that every one of those representatives was democratically elected by us, the people.  This is what we wanted, folks, and the madness will continue until we choose—say, on November 6—to make it stop.

The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

Against All Enemies

The election of Donald Trump was arguably the worst disaster to befall the United States since September 11, 2001.  But if you ask what will keep me up at night once Trump assumes power, the answer is:  Whatever disaster comes next.

I say “whatever,” but really, I mean terrorism.  If not a large-scale, years-in-the-making cataclysm like 9/11, then perhaps a series of multi-city, mass-casualty suicide bombings like we’ve seen throughout Europe the last several years:  Barbarous, politically-motivated strikes that, individually, are not destructive enough to bring America to its collective knees but, taken together, have the effect of radicalizing ordinary citizens into seeking extraordinary, extralegal measures to ensure such death and disruption doesn’t become (to use the buzzword of the moment) normalized.

You can see it coming from 100 miles away:  Trump conditions his supporters to view all Muslims with suspicion as potential ISIS recruits.  Then one day, their worst fears are realized when actual radical Islamists commit an actual act of terrorism on American soil.  As a consequence, those citizens who for years have been fed a steady diet of revulsion and contempt toward the entire Islamic faith will feel emboldened to act on those worst instincts.

At the street level, this will inevitably take the form of countless assaults and harassment against any and all perceived “foreigners” by brainless white thugs cloaking themselves in the mantle of “patriotism,” cheered on by fellow white thugs waving the flag of white supremacy.

We know this is what would happen following the next terrorist attack because it’s happening right now in the absence of it:  Every other day, we hear about some Muslim-American or other being targeted by deranged white idiots for the sole crime of reading from the wrong bible and praying to the wrong god.  Never mind that virtually every major act of violence in America since 9/11 has been committed by white Christians; never mind that you’re more likely to be killed by a piece of furniture than a terrorist attack; and never mind that, within the United States, organized Islamic jihad isn’t even remotely a thing.

Nope:  We are now firmly entrenched in a post-fact environment, and there’s no amount of data or common sense that will prevent several million of our dumbest countrymen from viewing several million of their fellow citizens as avowed enemies of our very way of life.

It’s an insane, racist, destructive way to think, and the incoming commander-in-chief has been enabling it every step of the way.

Without much doubt, a Trump administration will be lousy for women, lousy for African-Americans, lousy for gays, lousy for Hispanics and lousy for Jews.  But for my money, it is America’s Muslims who are the most vulnerable group of all, because their “otherness” is so completely (and irrationally) tethered to a gang of murderers 5,000 miles away over whose actions they have absolutely no control.

Like German Jews in the 1930s or the young women of Salem, Mass., in 1692, Muslims have become the designated scapegoats for most, if not all, social unrest in the 21st century, and it is entirely up to us—the non-Muslim majority—to ensure they don’t suffer a similar historical fate.

As with all other heretofore-unthinkable scenarios, we have little cause for complacency on this front.  Never forget:  During the campaign—in response to no specific threat—Trump suggested a blanket prohibition on all Muslims entering the United States “until we know what’s going on,” and also insinuated—albeit in his characteristically slippery, incoherent way—that the government should create some sort of “registry” to keep an eye on Muslims already living in the U.S.  You know, just in case.

The point isn’t whether he really meant it.  As anyone with half a brain ought to know by now, Trump doesn’t really mean anything.

The point—chilling and undeniable—is that, in Trump’s mind, absolutely nothing is out of bounds.  To him, there is no limit to what the president can do for the sake of “national security”:  The ends justify the means, even when the ends themselves are unclear.  Having never read a word of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions or, for that matter, the Old and New Testaments, he believes himself immune to the institutional checks and basic ethical norms that every other democratically-elected official takes for granted and that serve as the societal glue that holds this crazy world together.

Fundamentally, our next president possesses the mind of a dictator, waking up every morning thinking, “If it can be done, why shouldn’t it be?”

Hence the profound unease we should all feel about how he might behave in an emergency—particularly given our country’s abysmal track record in this department.

Remember:  In response to World War II, Franklin Roosevelt systemically violated the Constitutional rights of 120,000 American citizens in the off-chance they were Japanese sleeper agents—and he is considered the greatest president of the 20th century.  Eight decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln reacted to the Civil War by unilaterally suspending habeas corpus—a highly unconstitutional move that was roundly condemned by the Supreme Court, whose judgment the president then promptly ignored.  And Lincoln was the greatest man in the history of everything.

You don’t think Trump’s advisers have studied up on those cases and are prepared to use them as a pretext for rounding up Muslims en masse in the aftermath of the next big national calamity?  More worrying still:  Are we at all confident that, in a 9/11-like situation, Republicans in Congress will summon the courage to defend America’s core principles and prevent Trump from assuming dictatorial powers from now until the end of time?

They won’t if they live in competitive districts and fear being “primaried” in the next election.  They won’t if they expect to be labeled unpatriotic and “soft on terror” if they dare suggest that not all Muslims pose a national security risk.  And they certainly won’t if there is a groundswell of support from America’s basket of deplorables to turn the world’s greatest democracy into a perpetual police state with the sole objective of making white people feel safe.

It’s a central—and oft-repeated—lesson of world history:  Republics cannot be destroyed except from within.  In 1787, our founders designed a system of government—subject to layer upon layer of checks and balances—that could withstand every imaginable challenge to its viability save one:  The failure of all three branches to uphold it.

On January 20, Donald Trump will raise his right hand and swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  If his public statements over the last 18 months are any indication, he will probably violate that oath midway through his inaugural address, at which point Congress will need to decide whether it truly values country over party, and whether the principles established in that very Constitution are still worth defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Particularly when one of those enemies is sitting in the Oval Office.

Amend This

One of the more surreal moments of my four years in college was the evening Phyllis Schlafly came to town.

Although Schlafly, who died on Monday, was correctly known as a conservative Republican firebrand, the audience at her speaking engagement that night wasn’t necessarily any less liberal than the university’s student population as a whole.  As someone whose own worldview was at least 80 percent different from hers, I attended the talk out of sheer morbid curiosity, aware of Schlafly’s considerable historical significance as a 1970s right-wing ideologue, and I suspect that a large portion of my fellow attendees were there for the same reason.

Her spiel (I quickly gathered) was essentially the same speech she’d been giving all across the country for the past 30-odd years:  A broadside against feminism, liberalism, homosexuality, abortion, the sexual revolution in general, and any notion that, in matters of love and marriage, men and women should be treated equally.  In her time, Schlafly was often referred to as an “anti-feminist,” and in person she certainly lived up (or down) to that moniker, asserting, among other things, “Feminism is incompatible with happiness.”

Among today’s progressives, of course, hysterical opinions like that are increasingly viewed as relics of an ancient, oppressive regime that has rightly (if slowly) ground itself into dust.  Maybe it was socially acceptable to rail against gender equality and sexual freedom in, say, 1973, but our society has since gotten over itself and embraced legal equality of the sexes as a veritable no-brainer and a core American value.

Or so we would like to think.

Sure, most of the country has moved on from the misogynistic paternalism of the 1950s, but there is still a robust minority (i.e., the Republican Party) that feels differently about the respective roles of men and women, and it remains a force to be reckoned with.

And one reason for that is Phyllis Schlafly.  If her values have ceased to be America’s values, the residual strength of anti-feminism—the very fact that men and women are not treated equally in 2016—is thanks to her leadership on behalf of that powerful, lousy idea.

Above all, Schlafly’s legacy rests on her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1970s.  First introduced in 1923—and on a regular basis thereafter—the ERA would have enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  If that sounds fairly uncontroversial to you, Congress apparently agreed:  In 1971, the House approved the ERA by a score of 354-24, followed by an equally overwhelming vote in the Senate and the blessing of no less than President Nixon to boot.  By then, all it needed was ratification by three-quarters of individual state legislatures and gender equality would’ve become the law of the land.

So what happened?  Well, it never quite got there.  While a bucket load of states ratified the ERA almost instantaneously—and a handful more tagged along in subsequent months—advocates of the amendment never reached the 38-state threshold they needed and the amendment ultimately faded away.  Why?  In short, because Schlafly and company persuaded those few remaining states that total equality of the sexes wasn’t such a hot idea after all, partly by arguing (wait for it…) that a constitutional right to equal protection based on gender would be irreparably harmful to women.

The continuing story of the Equal Rights Amendment is a true American classic, and it’s part of an engaging exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., called, “Amending America.”  With the Archives being home to original prints of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, this temporary exhibit looks beyond both documents to examine all 27 constitutional amendments that have been ratified to date, plus a sampling of 11,000 proposed amendments that, like the ERA, didn’t make it across the finish line.

You read that right:  American citizens—individuals, organizations and sometimes entire states—have attempted to change the text of America’s most sacred legal document on 11,000 separate occasions over the last 229 years and have failed 99.8 percent of the time.  If you ever wonder why things in America never seem to change all that much, there’s your answer.

The truth is that our founders deliberately made it very, very difficult to alter our Constitution once it was signed, figuring that the supreme law of the land should only be tampered with under extraordinary circumstances and with near-unanimous support from one end of the continent to the other.  In this über-polarized era, it’s no wonder we’ve only done it once in the last 45 years.

In the National Archives exhibit, we are treated to a contextualization of the 27 amendments that succeeded, with various explanations as to why and how certain proposals passed muster with both Congress and the states while so many others didn’t.

The first thing to notice—as this show does—is that more than half of our Constitution’s amendments in some way concern the question of individual rights—the right to free expression, the right to privacy, the right to due process and trial by jury, etc.  Indeed, no fewer than four amendments deal with voting rights alone, removing restrictions based on race, sex, age and ability to pay a poll tax.

Equally noteworthy is that among the amendments that address individual freedoms, only one—the 18th, establishing Prohibition—had the effect of taking away freedoms instead of expanding them.  It can hardly be a coincidence that, a mere 14 years later, the 18th Amendment became the first and only to be unceremoniously axed, following the nation’s collective realization that Prohibition was a terrible idea.

Beyond guaranteeing rights, the object of most successful amendments has been to tweak or clarify the way the government functions—a process whose extreme importance is matched only by its extreme dullness.  For every amendment that has granted mass suffrage or prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, there have also been those that have moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20 or outlined when Congress can (and cannot) give itself a raise.

What’s the common denominator?  Not much, other than a critical mass of concerned citizens looking at a particular national imperfection and thinking, “You know, we really oughta fix that.”

Hence the rather hilarious variety of failed proposals over the years.  Among my favorites spotlighted at the National Archives:

  • A suggestion in the 1930s that instead of banning alcohol, the U.S. simply ban drunkenness, instead.
  • A plea, 100 years earlier, that no one who has engaged in dueling be allowed to run for public office.
  • A more radical plan to abolish the presidency altogether and replace it with a three-person executive council.
  • A similar scheme to divide the vice presidency among three people, ranking them, respectively, as Veep No. 1, Veep No. 2 and Veep No. 3.
  • A proposal—just before the U.S. entered World War I—that every war be put to a popular vote, and that everyone who votes “yes” be automatically enlisted to fight it.

Certainly, not all of the 11,000 duds were that entertaining, creative or outright loony.  Nonetheless, no matter how reasonable and practicable the more serious ones have been, they have failed to win the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and/or three-quarters of state legislatures, begging the question of what sort of amendment could possibly succeed in 2016?

Personally, I’d love to see the Second Amendment canned as definitively as the 18th, but I know better than to hold my breath.  Like much of America, I’d appreciate chucking the Electoral College once and for all, granting either statehood or basic representation to Washington, D.C., and getting big money out of politics, but is the status quo on those issues really so dire that we could muster a sufficient groundswell to actually get the job done?

I suspect not, and that points to the unfortunate truth that national consensus on a major subject—no matter how obvious in retrospect—tends only to occur once in a blue moon.  Lest we forget the immortal wisdom—falsely attributed to Winston Churchill—that Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln enlightened us about the backbreaking work required to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and that was after four years of fighting a damn war over the issue.  For its part, the original Bill of Rights was less an organized coming-together of common interests than an elaborate bargaining chip crafted by James Madison to coax a handful of reticent states into ratifying the Constitution itself.

Indeed, in many ways, this entire country was haphazardly cobbled together in a dizzying confluence of happenstance, compromise and brilliant improvisation, leaving us, in the end, with a series of founding documents that practically beg to be given a second and third look.

And we have indeed done that from time to time, but always while fighting the urge to honor precedent and the founders themselves, as if the ghosts of Washington, Madison and Hamilton will descend from heaven and collectively smite us for going against their divine wishes.

We should tempt the fates more often, for our sake and theirs.  And finally ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment would be a damned good place to start.

Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.