TBT: What is Popular Sovereignty?

Today’s #TBT looks back at an essay entitled “What is Popular Sovereignty?”  It was a follow-up, of sorts, to “American Values, American Nationalism,” one of my most-read posts (a post that I still largely agree with, though I am moving away slightly from the idea of American as absolutely a “propositional nation”—I do think it was an outgrowth of a distinctly Anglo-American culture, though it’s proven remarkably adaptive as peoples of different nationalities and cultures have settled here).  A friend posted a Facebook comment taking issue with the idea of popular sovereignty as I presented it in that essay, and this was my attempt to address his objections.

As I point out in the essay below, I do think we should have some un-elected positions within government.  If the government is building a hydroelectric dam, I don’t want to hold an election for the lead engineer.  I’m also not advocating for pure democracy, which the Framers of the Constitution rightfully saw as an odious and dangerous form of government that would, inevitably, collapse into mob rule and, ultimately, tyranny.

What I do warn against is the law-making power invested increasingly in the hands of an unaccountable federal bureaucracy, one that is technically under the control of the executive branch, but which functionally operates independently—the “Deep State,” as it were.  If the President did have control over the bureaucracy, it would be bad enough—the executive would wield legislative powers.  But an unaccountable bureaucracy that even the executive cannot rein in is even more frightening.  At least we could hope for an “enlightened despot” executive who would minimize the damage of his bureaucracy, but if the bureaucracy runs itself, regardless of who holds the presidency, liberty is deeply threatened.

So, here is 2016’s “What is Popular Sovereignty?”:

On Wednesday, 8 June 2016, I posted a piece entitled “American Values, American Nationalism.”  In that piece, I discussed the “Five Core Values of America,” a set of values inspired by a government textbook I used to use with my US Government students.  The second value, “popular sovereignty,” is deals with the idea that power in our political system ultimately derives from the people–as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, our government is “by, of, and for the people.”

This post received quite a few comments on my Facebook page, including this one from a good friend of mine:

Now watch as I set my progressive-libertarian friend straight–respectfully.

My friend raised a very valid point:  the Framers of the Constitution were suspicious, if not outright terrified, of democracy.  Aristotle had identified democracy as one of the “bad” forms of government that came when rule by the people went bad.  The Framers had seen the consequences of a federal government that was too weak, namely the barely-contained chaos of Shays’ Rebellion in 1785.  Naturally, they wanted a government by, of, and for the people–thus the requirement that the Constitution be ratified by 3/4ths of the States in special ratifying conventions (designed to circumvent the Anti-Federalist state legislatures)–but they recognized that unbridled populism would lead to demagoguery.  It’s pedantic to say it, but Nazi Germany is the quintessential example of a desperate people granting dictatorial powers to a charismatic individual.

Pure democracy, without any checks on the majority’s power, quickly turns to one-man authoritarianism.”

The French political philosopher Montesquieu argued that the English government succeeded because it balanced monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy effectively, which further influenced the belief of the Framers that government should filter the will of the people through a complex system of checks and balances, and a rigorous, jealously-guarded separation of powers.  Thus we have such institutions as the much-maligned (but quite brilliant) Electoral College, and a Senate that is designed to act as a break on the people’s (often fickle) will.  Indeed, before it was corrupted by the XVII Amendment, the Senate was intended to represent the interests of the States themselves, rather than the will of the people, which is represented in the House of Representatives.

***

So, how did I address my friend’s concerns?  Here is my reply (with some minor edits for clarity and brevity) to my friend’s remarks, and to elaborate on the concept of “popular sovereignty”:

You are correct in noting the skepticism with which the Framers viewed unbridled democracy. There was much wisdom in their skepticism, precisely out of concern that a well-positioned demagogue could, in the right circumstances, sway the fickle populous to his whims. Pure democracy, without any checks on the majority’s power, quickly turns to one-man authoritarianism.

When I write about popular sovereignty, then, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I mean “consent of the governed.” The people consented through our constitutional order when they elected delegates to special state ratifying conventions (circumventing the generally Anti-Federalist-controlled state legislatures). The people, then, ultimately gave consent to that government, and continue to do so through regular elections. Of course, a complex system of checks and balances tempers the will of the people (voiced primarily through the House of Representatives, which controls the power of the purse), balancing with it the will of the States, and vesting a great deal of authority to halt dubious legislation in the hands of the executive.

As for Thomas Jefferson’s love of revolutions and his proposal to rewrite the Constitution each generation, the actual Constitution provides a useful mechanism that makes such rewrites generally unnecessary, but possible: the amendment process. So far, every proposed amendment has come from the Congress, and all but two have been ratified in state legislatures (the other two were ratified, like the Constitution itself, in special state ratifying conventions). However, the Constitution provides another method–one that has yet to be used–to propose amendments: 2/3rds of the States can convene a constitutional convention to propose amendments. Texas’s current governor, Greg Abbott, is currently working on just such a convention of the States. In short, the Constitution provides us a way to change it to fit current needs without throwing out the whole document.

Of course, I would argue strenuously for an originalist reading of the Constitution and its amendments, all of which should be read in the context of those who proposed them. This still allows for changes through the amendment process, and for congressional elaboration. The Constitution is not meant to cover ever eventuality, and gives a great deal of space to Congress and (this is important and often forgotten) the States.

“It approaches something like tyranny when the President has the power to write laws (indirectly through the bureaucracy he manages) and to enforce them.” 


As for your comments about technocrats, perhaps I should clarify here, too. What I am primarily concerned about is the ability of federal agencies to write their own rules, many of which have the force of law. This practice is dangerous because most of these federal agencies operate within the executive branch and have little congressional oversight. Law-making powers are meant to rest solely within the Congress, and the job of the President is to duly enforce those acts to the best of his ability. It approaches something like tyranny when the President has the power to write laws (indirectly through the bureaucracy he manages) and to enforce them. Even scarier is the prospect that the federal bureaucracy has become so large that the President cannot exercise effective control over it, or even know what it’s doing! Many presidents–particularly our current one–have used bureaucratic rule-making to push unpopular measures without input from the people’s representatives. Congress is complicit in this, as it has delegated these powers to the executive bureaucracy, and the Supreme Court has allowed it to do so.

That being said, you are absolutely correct that there is a need for an intelligent, qualified, and motivated civil service, and, naturally, we want our dams to stay sealed tight and our roads to be paved and efficient. I would never dream of proposing we elect, say, the head of the South Carolina Department of Transportation. Here, again, the Constitution provides precedent: at the national level, the President appoints his cabinet heads, as well as federal and Supreme Court judges and justices. The Senate, however, has the responsibility of confirming these nominations, helping to prevent egregiously bad appointments.

If these proper checks and balances are maintained–if the different branches stick to their constitutional duties and limits, and if the proper relationship exists between the federal government and the several States–even a reckless executive can only do so much damage. If Congress vigorously protects its legislative prerogatives, an unqualified or authoritarian-minded president may still do some harm, but his ability to do so will be greatly diminished, and the damage can be contained.

***

This conversation went back and forth for a few more posts, which I will possibly include in future pieces.  In the interest of space–as this rumination is already quite lengthy–I will refrain from sharing them now.

However, I would ask that you permit me one parting thought:  we should be on guard against the lionization of the presidency.  The Congress–which represents the people and is, therefore the seat of popular sovereignty–may be consistently unpopular, but it is the proper branch to resist the huge expansion of the presidency.  Presidents increasingly attempt to speak for the people, but in a country that is divided between two entrenched, fundamentally incompatible political philosophies, it is nearly impossible to do so.  Indeed, attempting to do so leads to a Rousseau-style attempt to impose “the common will” on people–whether they want it or not.

Instead, let’s speak for ourselves.  We can do that through involvement in local politics, but also by communicating with our Congressmen and Senators.  Let them know that we expect Congress to reclaim its proper legislative powers from the executive bureaucracy.

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Lazy Sunday III: Historical Moments

My Internet is out at the house, and the technician won’t be out until Friday, so posting this week may be a bit dicey and inconsistent.  As a result, I’m phoning it once again this Sunday—the perfect way to start (or end, depending on your perspective) the week.

Brace yourself for “Lazy Sunday III:  Historical Moments” (read “Lazy Sunday” and “Lazy Sunday II“).  These posts are derived from a series of short talks I gave to the Florence County (SC) GOP in 2018.  They are presented in chronological order.

1.) “The Formation of the Republican Party” – this post was featured in “Lazy Sunday II:  Lincoln Posts,” as is the second piece in this list (sorry for the redundant recycling).  It’s a quick overview of the origins of the Republican Party in the 1850s.

2.) “Lincoln and Education” – another post from “Lazy Sunday II,” this Historical Moment explores Lincoln’s education, as well as his views on the subject.

3.) “Veterans’ Day 2018, Commemoration of the Great War, and Poppies” – like President George W. Bush, I am not one of the great orators of our time, but when I delivered this Historical Moment, it was probably the most powerful oratorical presentations I’ve ever given.  That is not due in any way to my own speaking abilities (although I do possess a rich, chocolate-y baritone when speaking), but to the emotional power of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field.”  It was an arresting moment when I delivered the lines of that simple, sweet poem.

4.) “The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding” – this talk was a longer-form version the usual Historical Moments, which are usually about five minutes long.  I was asked to give a slightly longer speech about the influence of Christianity on the founding of our nation at a joint FCGOP-Darling County GOP Christmas dinner.  It’s a complex topic, but, yes, Christianity was and is key to the American experiment in self-government.

So there you have it—more TPP greatest hits.  Enjoy, and have a restful Sunday!

 

Lazy Sunday II: Lincoln Posts

I’ve been out of town all weekend—thus yesterday’s very belated post—and it’s getting to the point in the academic year where all the craziness hits at once.  That being the case, I’m posting another one of these “compilation” reference posts to give you, my insatiable readers, the illusion of new content.  It’s like when a classic television show does a clip show episode:  you relive your favorite moments from the series (or, in this case, the arbitrary theming I foist upon you).

Today’s “Lazy Sunday” readings look back at my posts that pertain to President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator (read the first “Lazy Sunday” compilation).  I noticed that I’ve been writing more about Lincoln over the past week (perhaps my quiet homage to the recently-completed Black History Month?), so I decided to compile, in one place, all of my Abraham Lincoln posts (at least, the ones I could find on this blog).

Without further ado, here are The Portly Politico‘s Lincoln Posts (in chronological order):

  • TBT: Happy Birthday, America!” – a reblog from the old TPP site, this post largely lets Lincoln speak for himself, as it features a full transcript of the Gettysburg Address.  Always good for patriotic goosebumps.
  • Historical Moment – The Formation of the Republican Party” – this short post was adapted from a brief talk I gave to the Florence County Republican Party.  The purpose of the meeting, I recall, was to focus Republicans on who we are as a Party and what we believe, so I thought it would be useful to give a brief introduction to the formation of the GOP.  As the first Republican President (although not the first Republican presidential candidate—that honor goes to John Charles Fremont of California, who ran in 1856), Lincoln obviously exercised huge influence on the young party.
  • Lincoln on Education” – another “Historical Moment” adaptation (I’m all about recycling material), I was supposed to deliver this moment before a forum of candidates for the Florence School District 1 race in autumn 2018.  I was all set to deliver it, but the FCGOP Chairman (accidentally?) skipped over me in the agenda, so I saved it until the following month’s meeting (again, why let good copy go to waste?).
  • Lincoln’s Favorability” – here’s one of TWO posts from last week about Abraham Lincoln.  I’m going to give Lincoln a rest after tonight—he worked hard enough during the Civil War—but this piece looked at an interesting Rasmussen poll, that shows Lincoln is massively beloved by the American people.
  • Reblog: Lincoln and Civil Liberties” – this post is a reblog from Practically Historical, the blog of SheafferHistorianAZ.  Sheaffer—a fellow high school history teacher—wrote a post detailing how Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeus corpus was, indeed, constitutional.

Happy Sunday!

–TPP

Reblog: Lincoln and Civil Liberties

One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to read the work of other writers in the “blogosphere.”  Recently, I’ve been reading SheafferHistorianAZ‘s work at his blog, Practically Historical.  Sheaffer writes brief, pithy posts about various historical figures and problems, and seems to have a particular interest in both Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower, two of my favorite presidents.

Yesterday, he posted a piece entitled “Lincoln and Civil Liberties” that touches on an interesting constitutional question:  did the Great Emancipator violate the Constitution when he suspended the writ of habeus corpus and arrested Americans without due process or the chance to see a judge?

Sheaffer argues that Lincoln was completely justified, as those arrested were actively seditious and traitorous.  He cites the case of John Merryman, the Marylander arrested for his attempt to spur Maryland to secede from the Union.  From Sheaffer (all links are his):

John Merryman was not an innocent victim… of government tyranny as portrayed by Chief Justice Roger Taney.  Merryman led a detachment of Maryland militiamen in armed resistance to troops in Federal service.  Taney was a partisan Democrat staunchly opposed to Lincoln and supportive of secessionist doctrine.  Ex parte Merryman is not legal precedent at all and cannot be cited as such- it is a political document designed to hinder Lincoln’s attempts to protect Washington and preserve the Union.  It was issued by Taney alone- scholars often make the mistake of assuming that the Supreme Court concurred with the ruling.

As Sheaffer points out, there is a trend in Lincoln scholarship that recasts the president as an out-of-control tyrant.  The most prominent figure in this revisionist school is probably Thomas DeLorenzo, and the idea has circulated broadly, even if it hasn’t penetrated the American psyche (remember, Lincoln enjoys a 90% favorability rating among Americans today).

No doubt the American Civil War expanded federal powers, and indelibly changed the relationship between the States and the federal government, in some ways to the detriment of constitutionalism.

Consider that, prior to the Civil War, many States assumed they could “opt out” of the Constitution, having previously “opted in” to it.  Lincoln argued that the Union predated the Constitution, and therefore could not be left; Daniel Webster earlier argued that the Union and the Constitution were “one and inseparable.”

Regardless, the American Civil War resolved by force of arms what could not be resolved in Congress or debating societies (of course, no political question is ever settled permanently).  After that, the States would never have quite the same leverage over the federal government (probably for the better, but perhaps for the worse in some ways), and would lose even more with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment.

These are interesting questions to consider.  Sheaffer’s contribution to this discussion is sober and direct.

 

TBT: Federalism Denied

It’s a late #TBT post today, faithful TPP readers, as the school year is gearing up and constraints on my time increase.  Better late than never, yes?

This week’s throwback post discusses the Seventeenth Amendment, which ended the election of US Senators via their respective State legislatures, and instead moved that choice directly to the people of the several States.

One of the Progressive Era Amendments—which gave us such chestnuts as the graduated income tax (Sixteenth Amendment), Prohibition (Eighteenth Amendment), and women’s suffrage (Nineteenth Amendment)—the Seventeenth Amendment was part of a broad cultural and political shift toward, paradoxically, greater choice and enfranchisement for the electorate on the one hand, and greater government control and oversight on the other.

Americans were optimistic in the power of the government at all levels—and, increasingly, at the federal level—to solve problems like poverty and privation, naively believing that, in a democracy, the people would make wise decisions about selecting its technocratic, managerial elite.

Not surprisingly, the managerial elites gained enormous power, and the people got the shaft.

This essay explores the consequences of the direct election of US Senators, as well as why State legislatures came to support the idea.  On the one hand, States lost their representation in Congress—the Senate was designed to represent State-level interests nationally—but State legislatures were also relieved of responsibility for what was becoming an onerous duty, susceptible to corruption, or even carelessness.

Here is “Federalism Denied”:

In last Wednesday’s post, “Politics, Locally-Sourced,” I urged readers to become more interested in and educated about their local and state governments.  A keystone of modern conservative political philosophy (and of the classical liberalism of the Framers) is decentralization, the idea that power should be spread broadly, both in terms of population and geography.  Due to the massive power the federal government accrued during and after the Second World War, decentralists also argue that power should devolve from the federal government back to the States.  The federal government, of course, plays an important role in maintaining the national defense, conducting foreign affairs, and regulating interstate commerce, among a number of other constitutionally delineated areas, but a great deal of power is reserved for the States in the X Amendment.

The X Amendment reads thus:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Clearly, then, where the Constitution is silent, the States are reserved broad powers.  They cannot become dictatorial–their constitutions must not conflict with the national supremacy of the US Constitution–but they can have broad latitude in determining statewide regulations, taxes, and the like.

In theory, at least, this federalist structure is how our nation is supposed to operate, and it manages to do so, despite significant hobbling from the federal government.  Congress has forced upon the States a number of unfunded federal mandates.  Essentially, a large portion of State budgets are consumed with fulfilling orders from Washington, D.C., without any form of assistance.  Additionally, States are often coerced into adopting certain policies or passing certain laws, lest the federal government withdraw their funding (this tactic was used to increase the drinking age from 18 to 21–not necessarily a bad thing, but the means matter almost as much as the ends; such coercion circumvents the proper amendment process).

What brought about this change, and how can we reverse it?  How can we restore the proper balance between the States and the federal government?

There are no easy answers here, and the centralization of power in the federal government occurred for a complicated host of reasons:  the acceptance of a desperate people of a greater role for the government in the economy during the Great Depression; the (temporary) success of a massively planned economy during the Second World War; the massive expansion of the welfare state during the Great Society; the (necessary) fight at the national level to protect the civil rights of black Americans; and more.

However, I would argue that a major source of this problem was the passage of the XVII Amendment.

The XVII Amendment replaced the old system of selecting senators with their direct election.  Prior to its passage, senators were selected by their state legislatures, which were themselves chosen in local elections.

There are a number of compelling arguments for why this amendment was adopted.  For one, many states had already moved to a de facto system of direct election, in which voters essentially “elected” their senator, and the state legislatures were duly pledged to vote in accord with the people’s choice.  Also, there were several scandals in which senate candidates merely bribed state legislators for their votes.  Finally, many state legislators found that voters cared more about who the legislators would elect to the Senate, not what they thought about state problems.

You can review these arguments in a (rather condescending) piece from Slate by David Schleicher entitled “States’ Wrongs.”


“[T]he States no longer have a constitutional role in the federal government.”

However, while there certainly appeared to be need for reform in senatorial elections, many of these problems still persist.  Voters are still overly-fixated on national politics, even more so than voters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  If anything, state elections are even more focused on national issues than they were before.  Special interest groups still manage to exert influence over the Senate, and can do so even more effectively by whipping up voters.

Most importantly, though, is that the States no longer have a constitutional role in the federal government.  The Senate used to serve as the representative of the States’ interests, while the House still operates as the representative of the people’s interests.  Now the people have direct influence over both branches of Congress, and an important, necessary brake on the fickle will of the majority is gone.

States’ rights has become an ugly phrase, associated as it is with slavery and segregation.  However, just because states’ rights has been invoked to defend the indefensible doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea.  The States function as an important bulwark against tyranny, and federalism affords many opportunities for policy innovation and experimentation–Louis Brandeis’s “laboratories of democracy.”  Also, the geographical, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of the United States practically demands states’ rights, as different States have different needs, goals, and desires.

Repeal of the XVII Amendment is extremely difficult and unlikely:  people like to vote (actually, people like to know they can vote, even if they often choose not to do so).  But Congress, specifically the Senate, can do much to keep the further expansion of federal power in check.  Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is spearheading this effort through his speeches, delivered from the Senate floor, about the proper role of the Senate and its obligation to be an august, contemplative chamber.

We, the people, can also take steps to become more involved in state politics.  Ultimately, the drive to restore federalism starts with us.

***

For more information about the XVII Amendment and different approaches to addressing it, here are some resources:

The Campaign to Restore Federalism (pro-repeal of the XVII Amendment):  http://www.restorefederalism.org/

“Repeal the 17th:  Problems to Address” by constitutional scholar Rob Natelson:  http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/2013/08/26/repeal-the-17th-problems-to-address/

“Repeal the 17th Amendment?” by Gene Healy of the Cato Institute (great piece that is sympathetic to the idea, but recognizes the political problems involved):  http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/repeal-17th-amendment

“States’ Wrongs” (mentioned above) by David Schleicher of Slate (anti-repeal, with some interesting historical background and a lot of elitist sneering at movement conservatives):  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/02/conservatives_17th_amendment_repeal_effort_why_their_plan_will_backfire.html

Lincoln’s Favorability

One of Scott Rasmussen’s recent Number of the Day entries for Ballotpedia deals with the Abraham Lincoln’s current high favorability ratings:  90% of Americans have a favorable view of the Great Emancipator.  88% have a favorable view of our first president, George Washington.

That was certainly not the case when Lincoln was president.  He was an unlikely figure when he first took office, and many in his own party—the young Republican Party—doubted his ability to see the United States through the American Civil War.

It’s easy to forget—or even to imagine—that Lincoln believed he would not win re-election in 1864.  Thus, he picked Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union, pro-slavery Democrat from Tennessee, as his running mate.  (Of course, Lincoln never dreamed his symbolic gesture of political goodwill and unity would lead to an unqualified boor becoming president.)  Regardless, the fall of Atlanta and subsequent Union victories boosted Lincoln at the polls, securing his reelection (he was touched to find that soldiers overwhelming supported their Commander-in-Chief).

Blogger SheafferHistorianAZ at Practically Historical posted a piece recently entitled, “Finest Two Minutes,” about Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address.  That speech is, indeed, one of the most moving and powerful political speeches in the English language, and it’s less than 300 words.

What caught my eye was this quotation:

The Chicago Times recorded, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

It’s instructive to remember that, while history views Lincoln fondly (SheafferHistorianAZ rates him as a “Great”-level president), he was not universally beloved at his time, and only won in 1860 because the race was split four ways:  there were two Democratic candidates (Northern and Southern), the Republican (Lincoln), and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party.  Lincoln did not even appear on the ballot in many Southern States.  Lincoln had to earn his greatness, and much of it came with posterity.

Similarly, President Reagan was not universally beloved in his own party when he was elected in 1980.  The parallels to our current president, Donald Trump, and his own struggles with his adopted party are striking.

The lesson seems to be to aim for greatness, regardless of contemporary naysayers.  Few Americans remember George McClellan, but everyone remembers the Great Emancipator.

Nehemiah and National Renewal

This past Wednesday, I was asked to fill in for the pastor at the small church I attend.  Being such a small church—our average Sunday morning attendance is about forty—the pastor works another job, and he had a rare business trip.  I suppose he figured he could do worse than asking a high school history teacher to fill in for him.

Fortunately, the lesson was fairly straightforward:  he sent me a handout on Nehemiah 1:1-11, and the focus of the lesson was on the idea of spiritual renewal.

For the biblically illiterate—a shocking number of Americans today, I’m finding (I once had a class full of philosophy students who had never heard the story of the Tower of Babel, which is pretty much Sunday School 101)—the story of Nehemiah is simple:  after an extended period of exile in Babylon, the Israelites were sent back, under the auspices of the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, to Jerusalem.  Cyrus sponsored the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, but the city itself, as well as its walls, remained in a state of disrepair.

There were two waves of Israelite resettlement over the span of a century, but many Israelites remained in Babylon or other parts of the Persian Empire, such as the imperial capital.  Nehemiah was one of those, and would be part of a third wave of resettlement.  He served as cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, the Persian emperor at the time.  The position of cup-bearer was an important and trusted one:  he handled the emperor’s food and drink, ensuring it was not poisoned.

Beyond serving as the royal taste tester, the office carried with it important administrative duties, and gave incredible access to the emperor.  In short, it was a position of great influence, power, and prestige, which positioned Nehemiah nicely for what was to come.

Nehemiah spoke to a fellow Israelite who was visiting the imperial capital, and was distraught to hear of the poor condition of the city and its walls.  He fell to his knees, weeping and crying out to the Lord.  Nehemiah 1 details his prayer to God, calling out in adoration; confessing his and his people’s sins; thanking God for His mercy and gifts; and supplicating God for His Will to be accomplished through Nehemiah.

Specifically, Nehemiah asked God to be used to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem.  As cup-bearer, Nehemiah was able to present his petition to the emperor, who agreed to send Nehemiah to oversee the construction project.  In addition, Artaxerxes provided lumber from the royal forest, as well as funds to bankroll the endeavor.  He also sent letters with Nehemiah detailing his endorsement of the project.

Nehemiah’s work was not finished there, and it was anything but easy.  Initially, surrounding tribes criticized and mocked Nehemiah, questioning his loyalty to Artaxerxes, and saying that rebuilding the walls was a silly waste of time and effort.

However, once the wall reached half its height, his critics began plotting violence.  The plot to attack the workers reached Nehemiah, so he divided the work crews into those building the wall, and those defending their fellow workers from attack.

Having failed to stage an attack on the workers, Nehemiah’s enemies realized that the man himself was the target—cut off the head, kill the snake.  Again, God revealed this plot against Nehemiah, and he was able to avoid assassination.

Finally, the wall was rebuilt in an astonishing fifty-two days, an incredible feat of organization, ingenuity, and faithfulness.  The naysayers were humiliated, and Nehemiah instituted a period of national and spiritual renewal among the Israelites.  His reforms purified the nation spiritually and even ethnically, as old debts were forgiven and marriages to pagan women were dissolved.

It’s a powerful story—indeed, a powerful bit of history—about trusting in God in the face of extremely difficult odds.  But Nehemiah is also a story about national renewal, and the spiritual revival that came with it.

The wall around Jerusalem served a practical purpose—defending the city and its inhabitants from attack (even though the city was under the protection of the Persian Empire, the ancient Near East was, then as now, notoriously tribal, and the collapse of an empire would lead to dozens of ethnic conflicts)—but it was also a symbol of the Israelite nation.

Indeed, the author of the handout I used Wednesday evening writes that the “enemies of Israel could say, ‘What kind of God do you serve?  Look at the mess of your Holy City?’ It was a terrible witness and was cause for reproach from non-believers.”  The poor condition of the Jerusalem and its fortifications reflected the spiritual decay and corruption of the Israelites—they had intermarried with pagan women, adopting their false gods; they were living in rubble; and their reduced condition suggested that their God—the One True God—was not Who He made Himself out to Be.

It’s a bit on the nose, but I can’t help but recognize the parallels between the United States today and Jerusalem then—and between President Trump and Nehemiah (although I think Trump is closer to Cyrus the Great in terms of his spirituality and outlook).

I’m not suggesting Nehemiah was clubbing with Eastern European supermodels.  But like Trump, he faced overwhelming resistance from other nations to his wall project.  The rest of the ancient Near East feared a strong, renewed Israel.  Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, and the reconstruction of the wall, led to a period of national revival, as the people regained their identity, expelled the corrosive foreign influence in their midst, and renewed their commitment to God.

America is, spiritually and culturally, in similarly dire straits today.  President Trump has presented himself as a modern-day Nehemiah, come to control our borders, enforce our immigration laws, and restore America’s greatness on the world stage.  While he has made great strides in these areas, he meets resistance, duplicity, and mockery at every turn.

The story of Nehemiah tells us, however, that the struggle is worth the slings and arrows our enemies, both foreign and domestic, will lob at us.  To President Trump, I would urge the following:  stay the course, ignore the haters, take it to God, and BUILD THE WALL!

TBT: Family Matters Follow-Up Part II: The Welfare State and the Crisis of the Family

TBT for this week: https://theportlypolitico.blogspot.com/2016/08/family-matters-follow-up-part-ii.html

Last week’s #TBT featured a follow-up to one of the most read pieces on my old site, “Family Matters.”  That piece generated so many questions and comments on Facebook back in 2016 that I wrote two lengthy follow-up posts.  This post deals with the deleterious impact of the welfare state upon the family, looking first at the effect of the Great Society on the black family.  It then examines how those negative consequences spread beyond racial barriers to destroy traditional and nuclear family formation across races.

Now, over half of children born to women under 30 are born out of wedlock, regardless of race.  Economics doesn’t explain that story entirely, but misguided government policy, which placed perverse incentives on single motherhood, have driven what is ultimately a cultural and spiritual decline.

The details are in the post below, so without further ado, here is 10 August 2016’s “Family Matters Follow-Up Part II: The Welfare State and the Crisis of the Family“:

My series of posts on the decline of the traditional family unit in the United States and the West has generated a great deal of discussion (and, occasionally, some bitter recriminations).  Thus, after the overwhelming feedback and requests for clarification I received to “Family Matters,” I decided to expand upon some portions of that piece (click here to read “Follow-Up Part I” about divorce and sex education).

One of the claims of “Family Matters” concerned the “havoc” President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society/War on Poverty wreaked on the black American families.  In the original post, I failed to link to any data or articles to substantiate this claim, but I’ve since updated the post with links to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous “Moynihan Report” (actual title:  The Negro Family:  The Case for National Action) and a piece from 2015 that summarizes some of the main points of the report.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan–who would go on to serve as US Ambassador to India and the United Nations, then as a Democratic Senator for New York–enjoys a rare respect as a liberal among conservatives.  Though he was a leftist on many issues, he was first and foremost a scholar with a commitment to following the data wherever it took him.

The so-called “Moynihan Report”–which he wrote while working as a bureaucrat in the Department of Labor in 1965–demonstrated that many of the problems of the black community were caused only in part by discrimination, but much more so by a decline in marriage and stable family formation.  While racial discrimination was (and–I would like to think to a lesser extent–still is) a major problem in the 1960s, it alone could not explain adequately the plight of many black Americans.

Instead, what Moynihan discovered was that well-intentioned government programs inadvertently subsidized single motherhood, and were destroying the black family.  Indeed, the “national action” for which Moynihan called was that which would reinforce “the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”  This national goal would be “difficult,” but “it almost certainly offers the only possibility of resolving in our time what is, after all, the nation’s oldest, and most instransigent, and now its most dangerous social problem.”  (Moynihan, The Negro Family)

I once heard a conservative black gentleman from Darlington, South Carolina, summarize Moynihan’s argument thus:  at a time when black men faced legitimate discrimination in the workforce, and could lose their jobs on the flimsiest of pretexts, the federal government came along offering generous support to single mothers.  By 1975–ten years after Moynihan’s prophetic report–a head of household would have to earn $88,000 (in 2015 dollars; about $22,000 in 1975) to out-earn the benefit from the federal government.  (Jack Coleman, “Juan Williams:  Daniel Patrick Moynihan ‘Had it Right’ About Breakdown of the Black Family”)  As Jason Riley, author of Please Stop Helping Us:  How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed wrote in a 2015 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “In effect, the government paid mothers to keep fathers out of the home–and paid them well.”

Not surprisingly, many women took note of this benefit.  Some of them–and, yes, I know what you’re about to read will be hard to believe, but it actually happened–calculated that they were better off divorcing their husbands or having a child out of wedlock, especially given the real, costly discrimination their husbands faced.  Government do-gooding, coupled with a legacy of racial discrimination, caused many young black children to grow up without fathers.

Initially, that might not have been a huge problem… but it metastasized.  Young boys grew up without father figures to shape them, and came to expect that leaving a woman, or having children with multiple women, was natural.  Young girls grew up thinking they had no reasonable expectation of their man sticking around.  With each generation, the problem grew worse and worse, until now roughly 72-73% of black children born in America are born to a single parent.

“[S]imply replacing one parent with a paycheck does not fulfill a child’s many needs.”

Single parenthood is sometimes the only option, but it’s a tough row to hoe.  Not only does it place financial burdens on the parent; it also removes from her or him the ability to parent a child adequately.  To quote economist Walter Williams at length:

“Whether a student is black, white, orange or polka-dot and whether he’s poor or rich, there are some minimum requirements that must be met in order for him to do well in school. Someone must make the student do his homework. Someone must see to it that he gets eight to nine hours of sleep. Someone has to fix him a wholesome breakfast and ensure that he gets to school on time and respects and obeys teachers.

“Here’s my question: Which one of those basic requirements can be accomplished through a presidential executive order, a congressional mandate or the edict of a mayor, a superintendent of schools or a teacher? If those basic requirements aren’t met, whatever else that is done in the name of education is for naught.” (emphasis added; Walter Williams, “Can Racial Discrimination Explain Much?”)

In other words, simply replacing one parent with a paycheck does not fulfill a child’s many needs.  Children born out-of-wedlock and raised by a single parent are more likely “to experience a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems,” according to Dr. Paul Amato in “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation.”   That creates ripple effects for generations to come, and the cycle is difficult to break.

***

The problem was prevalent even before Moynihan wrote his report (which, not surprisingly, caused many of his fellow-liberals to accuse him of “racism” and bigotry–common tactics when faced with an unpleasant truth).  Ronald Reagan, while campaigning for Arizona Senator and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, told the story in his magisterial “A Time for Choosing” speech of a mother who divorced her husband to get a check from the government, and how she learned to do it after talking to two other women who’d also gamed the system.

We’ve now had fifty-one years of the Great Society, and while some of its programs helped alleviate malnutrition and other problems that are, thankfully, dwindling issues, its good intentions created a host of other problems.  In 1965, one could still plausibly claim that government do-gooders merely didn’t know any better.  Now, the argument seems to be, “Well, we’re trying to do the right thing, so that’s all that should matter.”  That’s prime paving stone for the road to hell.

“The decline of the family is a problem all Americans will have to address.”

Moynihan argued that black Americans in particular were experiencing the decline of family formation most heavily because of the “tangle of pathologies” stemming from centuries of slavery and a century of legal, social, and economic segregation, and that this legacy dovetailed disastrously with the perverse incentive toward divorce and single motherhood.  As he predicted, this tangle morphed into a multi-generational cycle that has ground many black Americans further into poverty.

In 2016, the negative consequences have not only magnified the problem among black Americans; it’s spread throughout American society.  There’s been a crisis among black families for fifty years; we ignored it at our peril.

The experience of black American families since the 1960s is a sad story, though there are many brave black mothers and fathers who raise their children with love and support.  They are struggling to break a dangerous cycle, one that swirls in a murky stew of cultural, social, and economic pressures against the two-parent family and traditional marriage.

Racism appears to have enhanced the deleterious effects of the welfare state in the case of black families, but now those negative consequences are increasingly color-blind.  The decline of the family is a problem all Americans will have to address.

(For additional reading, check out the works of Walter Williams, a brilliant economist and political conservative who, as it happens, is black.  Start here for an appetizer:  http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/can-racial-discrimination-explain-much/article/2556814; after that, get Race and Economics:  How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?)

Happy Presidents’ Day

Happy Presidents’ Day, TPP Readers!  To honor Presidents’ Day, here is a reading list.  Enjoy with your morning coffee on a day off (or, for those of you that have to work, enjoy while engaging in rampant time-theft as you sit unnecessarily at your desk for eight hours):

I particularly like the story of the Texas Seed Bill.  Farmers in Texas were struggling through a difficult drought, and requested money from Congress to buy new seeds.  When the bill hit President Cleveland’s desk, he vetoed it, arguing that the federal government was not in the business of helping out folks with their financial problems, no matter how deserving they might be.

That was political suicide for the Democrat, who already had friction with the party’s base of Western and Southern farmers over his endorsement of the gold standard (farmers wanted “free silver” or bimetallism to inflate the currency by adding silver to it).  But, there was a silver lining:  once the Texas farmers realized they weren’t going to get the money, they worked among themselves to raise ten times the requested amount.

Once again, Americans solved their own problems.  That’s an important lesson to remember this Presidents’ Day.