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Politics: Liberalism Is as Liberals Do – Wall Street Journal

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‘The Verdict of the People’ (1855) by George Caleb Bingham.


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Bridgeman Images

I assume the title of

Deirdre N. McCloskey’s

“Why Liberalism Works: How True Liberal Values Produce a Freer, More Equal, Prosperous World for All” (Yale, 384 pages, $28) is meant as a riposte to the most talked-about political book of last year:

Patrick J. Deneen’s

“Why Liberalism Failed.” But whereas Mr. Deneen employs a tight definition of liberalism—a political philosophy conceiving “humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life”—Ms. McCloskey has in mind some loosey-goosey form of what most Americans would call libertarianism, with a bit of generalized humanitarianism thrown in. Liberalism is “anti-statist,” she writes, “opposing the impulse of people to push other people around. It’s not ‘I’ve got mine,’ or ‘Let’s be cruel.’ . . . It’s ‘I respect your dignity and am willing to listen, really listen, helping you when you wish, on your own terms.’ ”

That infelicitous definition aside, Ms. McCloskey’s book—a collection of essays mostly on economic topics—has some wonderful passages. Among the finest are several pieces on the French economist

Thomas Piketty’s

best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2013). One of Mr. Piketty’s central arguments is that capitalist economies create socially debilitating levels of inequality—i.e., they make the rich richer and keep the poor where they are—because the rate of interest on capital always exceeds the rate of overall growth. But that point is only valid, Ms. McCloskey contends, so long as we pretend that monetary capital is the only kind of capital and human capital doesn’t exist, that the rich never squander their wealth or lose it to sloth or unwisdom, that the rich always reinvest their return, and that no one in a capitalist society cares about the poor. The numbers, moreover, undermine Mr. Piketty’s claim: If he’s right, inequality in a market economy ought to increase inexorably, always. But in fact it goes up and down.

Again and again Ms. McCloskey documents the dramatic rise in wealth since about 1800 and the concomitant “human flourishing”—a favorite term. “We are gigantically richer in body and spirit than we were two centuries ago,” she writes. “In the next half century . . . we can expect the entire world to match Sweden or France.” Alert readers will have caught the word “spirit.” For all our “flourishing,” is the United States richer “in spirit” than we were even a half century ago? Ms. McCloskey’s impressive statistics don’t answer that question.

Whereas Mr. Deneen laments liberalism’s slow degeneration and Ms. McCloskey admonishes our political class to stop trying to ruin it with their clever schemes,

James Traub

believes liberalism faces a “dire threat from illiberalism.” No prizes for guessing the source of this threat. “What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea” (Basic, 311 pages, $30) begins and ends with

Donald Trump.

The title’s past tense is snappy, but Mr. Traub answers it straightforwardly on the book’s first page. Since the New Deal, he observes, both Republicans and Democrats were essentially liberal in their outlook. Both parties “professed a broad faith in free markets, a modest commitment to deploying the state to protect vulnerable citizens and promote public goods, and a bedrock respect for individual rights.” Leaving aside President Trump’s rhetorical incontinence, are we seriously to believe that the present administration poses a credible threat to this outlook?

Histories of liberalism, written as they usually are by self-professed liberals, tend to define liberalism, tacitly, as Everything the Author Believes to Be Good. Mr. Traub takes us from the Federalist Papers to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to

Teddy Roosevelt

to the Civil Rights movement to

Barack Obama,

and we’re expected to believe this is all “liberalism.” Some conservatives make it in, too—

Jack Kemp

and this newspaper’s

Robert Bartley,

among others, are recalled as “heirs to a liberal tradition” who “gave new meaning and new life to the conservative idea.”

By the time we reach the recent past, however, the narrative descends into the kind of easy Manichean punditry you might hear any night of the week on MSNBC. Mr. Trump won, Mr. Traub tells us, because

“Rush Limbaugh

and

Sarah Palin

and a steady diet of Fox News had long since taught Republican voters to demonize Democrats.” Maybe liberalism is, after all, whatever a liberal author likes and not what he doesn’t like.

After reading R.R. Reno’s “Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West” (Regnery Gateway, 182 pages, $28.99), I’m inclined to think Mr. Traub’s most revealing lines come at the end of a chapter on liberal antitotalitarianism: “Liberals defended a commitment to truth and reason in the face of the big lie, and to incrementalism in the face of visionary madness,” Mr. Traub writes. “It is true that the threat they faced has long since faded; ours is of a different nature. But we have learned, as they knew, that the liberal virtues of reason, pragmatism, and tolerance are always in jeopardy—not from outside forces, but from ourselves.” Mr. Reno has written his book precisely because this is how today’s liberals and, he believes, many conservatives still think: Totalitarianism is always upon us, and what we must do is embrace “pragmatism” instead.

Midcentury intellectuals such as

Karl Popper

and

Friedrich Hayek

countered the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism by insisting that the Western democratic polity concern itself only with questions of individual and economic liberty and not with cosmic questions of national destiny—with “incrementalism” and not with “visionary madness,” as Mr. Traub has it. The problem, for Mr. Reno, is that American intellectuals still take this attitude, even to the point of absurdly suggesting, as Mr. Traub does obliquely, that the present administration in Washington poses some form of a totalitarian threat.

The struggle against totalitarian ideologies was real—half a century ago. Now, “defeating them has become a destructive preoccupation,” Mr. Reno says. “Today, the greatest threat to the political health of the West is not fascism or a resurgent Ku Klux Klan but a decline in solidarity and the breakdown of the trust between leaders and the led.”

According to what Mr. Reno calls the “postwar consensus,” the only way to combat the “metaphysical” visions that brought Europe to destruction between 1914 and 1945 was to “go small”: to embrace critique rather than transcendence, meaning rather than truth, peace rather than unity. This has led to a worldview of “pure negation”: antifascism, antiracism, antihomophobia, resistance. These “anti imperatives” are the “weak gods.” But human societies will not be satisfied with negation forever; the “sacralizing impulse in public life is fundamental.” Eventually the strong gods return. The task is to ensure they are life-affirming and not degrading, ennobling and not violent.

“Return of the Strong Gods,” an expansion of a 2017 essay that appeared in the journal First Things, which Mr. Reno edits, is a thoughtful contribution to American political debate. It is incisively written and full of mordant observations. Mr. Reno explains, better than any book I can remember, the present-day progressive’s paranoid fear of fascism and neurotic determination to ferret out racism where none exists.

I would register one criticism. Mr. Reno contends that the post-1945 struggle between right and left in America has often amounted to little more than a “sibling rivalry” because both adopted the negating assumptions of the postwar consensus. The right wants deregulation of the economy, the left deregulation of the culture. That’s fair, and he may legitimately complain that segments of the American right fixate on economic gains at the expense of metaphysical concerns, but he is wrong to imply that arguments for the free market have only materialist ends in view. The prosperity produced by free markets may debase and coarsen in the absence of higher values; but it’s also true that free markets encourage work and industry, whereas command economies, though they gesture at patriotism, promote sloth, resentment and dependency. Mr. Reno writes vaguely of “economic solidarity,” but as a practical matter I’m not sure what members of today’s federal apparatus can be trusted to put his noble aims into practice. The wiser course, spiritually and materially, is still to deregulate. If the strong gods are back, they will need hard workers.

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Kamala Harris: A California Political Odyssey

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SACRAMENTO, California — Understanding Vice President Kamala Harris’s political journey requires tracing her roots back to California. This backstory gains renewed significance amid the Democratic Party’s election-year turmoil, with increasing calls for President Joe Biden to step aside and discussions about Harris’s potential to secure the party’s backing and defeat Donald Trump in a presidential race.

Pressure on Biden intensified this week when California Rep. Adam Schiff, a close ally of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, publicly suggested it was time for Biden to “pass the torch.”

The Rise of Kamala Harris

California is where Harris’s political journey began, leading to her historic election as the first Black, Asian American, and female vice president. It’s also where she developed her political acumen and first encountered the critiques that continue to follow her.

“There’s the Kamala Harris people think they know and now there’s the one they will get to know in an entirely different way,” said Brian Brokaw, a former adviser to Harris based in Sacramento.

For those who have followed Harris’s career from her early days as San Francisco district attorney to her tenure as state attorney general, here are seven key insights that highlight her trajectory and her impact on the national stage.

1. Early Career Boost from a San Francisco Kingmaker

Harris’s political rise paralleled that of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a prominent Biden surrogate and potential future presidential contender. Both Harris and Newsom received early career support from Willie Brown, a former California Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor. Brown, who dated Harris in the mid-1990s, appointed her and Newsom to key city boards, giving them footholds in San Francisco politics.

Harris and Newsom also tapped into the same networks of Bay Area wealth and enlisted the same consulting firm for their statewide campaigns. However, Newsom has maintained closer ties to area power players like Pelosi and the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

2. The Death Penalty Stance That Shaped Her Career

Harris’s decision not to seek the death penalty for the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004, just months into her tenure as district attorney, was a defining moment. While consistent with her campaign stance against capital punishment, the timing of her announcement was politically risky and drew significant backlash, including a public rebuke from Feinstein at Espinoza’s funeral.

This episode has been a recurring issue in Harris’s political career, resurfacing during her 2020 presidential bid and likely to be used against her in future campaigns.

3. A Different Legislative Approach

Unlike Biden, who is known for his legislative deal-making, Harris has shown less enthusiasm for engaging in legislative battles. During her tenure as California attorney general, she avoided the Capitol debates on police accountability measures, focusing instead on policies she could implement independently, such as mandating body cameras for special agents and creating an online criminal justice portal.

However, she has championed specific legislative priorities, such as anti-truancy measures and efforts to combat maternal mortality, especially among Black women.

4. Limited Experience Running Against Republicans

Harris’s electoral challenges have rarely come from Republicans, particularly in federal races. Her most significant contest was her first race for California attorney general in 2010, a close battle against moderate Republican Steve Cooley, which she won after a last-minute surge.

Her subsequent races, including her 2016 Senate campaign, were against fellow Democrats, giving her limited experience in the kind of partisan battles that characterize today’s political landscape.

5. Tackling Student Debt

As California attorney general, Harris took on for-profit colleges like Corinthian Colleges, accusing them of misleading students and saddling them with unsustainable debt. This work laid the foundation for the Biden administration’s student loan relief efforts, with Harris playing a key role in announcing significant debt cancellations for former Corinthian students.

6. Suing Fossil Fuel Companies

Harris frequently sued fossil fuel companies during her tenure as attorney general, securing significant settlements and launching investigations into their practices. Her stance against fracking, which drew criticism from then-President Trump during the 2020 campaign, highlighted her environmental priorities but also created a conflict with Biden’s more moderate approach to energy policy.

7. A Bicoastal Vice President

Though she began her political career in the Bay Area, Harris has since become a resident of Los Angeles’s affluent Brentwood neighborhood. She regularly returns to California, balancing her duties as vice president with visits to her home state, where she maintains strong connections to Democratic donors and supporters.

Looking Ahead

As the political landscape shifts, Harris’s California roots and her experiences will continue to shape her approach and influence her political future. Whether she steps up to lead the Democratic Party in a presidential race or continues to support Biden’s administration, Harris’s journey from San Francisco to the White House remains a critical narrative in understanding her role on the national stage

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Is Ivanka Trump plotting a return to politics

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If you’re a woman freaking out about the imminent possibility of another Trump term, don’t despair quite yet. Yes, Project 2025 is hoping to turn the US into a Christian nationalist country. Yes, JD Vance, Donald Trump’s running partner, has been primed for the job by Peter Thiel, a man who has mused that women having the vote is problematic. Yes, experts are raising the alarm that “a Trump-Vance administration will be the most dangerous administration for abortion and reproductive freedom in this country’s history.” But it’s not all doom and gloom: there may well be a beacon of light and female liberation coming into the White House as well. Signs suggest Ivanka Trump is considering a return to politics. Ladies and gentlewomen, the patron saint of female empowerment may selflessly serve us once again!

To be clear: the younger Trump hasn’t explicitly said that she’s interested in another go at being Daddy’s special adviser. In fact, she’s spent the last few years getting as far away from politics as possible. A renaissance woman, Trump has sold everything from handbags to shoes to real estate – but her most valuable product has always been herself. The former first daughter has always been very careful about protecting her personal brand. And, for a while, that meant staying well clear of her father.

With Donald Trump now formally the nominee, it can be hard to remember just how bad things looked for the former president a couple of years ago. After an underwhelming performance by GOP candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, a lot of Trump’s former acolytes started turning on him. High-profile Republicans complained that Trump was a drag on the party. Even the New York Post, once Trump’s personal Pravda, thought he was a joke: “TRUMPTY DUMPTY”, a post-midterm front page crowed. And then, of course, there were Trump’s mountains of legal problems. A lot of people wrote Trump off.

Ivanka was noticeably not by her father’s side during his hours of need. The moment that Donald got kicked out of the White House, Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, followed him to Florida but kept a safe distance from the political goings on at Mar-a-Lago. Can’t have an insurrection ruining one’s image, after all.

A company called College Hunks Hauling Junk helped them clear out their DC mansion and the pair decamped to Miami’s “Billionaire Bunker”. They didn’t go empty-handed, of course. The couple reported between $172m and $640m in outside income while working in the White House and Saudi Arabia gave Kushner’s private equity firm $2bn to invest. Enough to keep them busy for a while.

For a long time, Javanka stayed fairly under the radar. Ivanka Trump would pop up in headlines now and again in Fun-loving Mother and Caring Philanthropist mode. Behold, a flattering headline about Ivanka helping deploy medical supplies and meals to Ukraine! Look: here’s an Instagram slideshow of the whole family skiing! Now here’s a fun picture of the Javanka family at the flashy Ambani wedding!

A cynic might say these carefully curated images were designed to humanize Trump and erase her messy political past. Aiding this was a consistent drip-drip of mysterious sources telling the press that Javanka had no desire whatsoever to return to politics. Even this year, when Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee, media “sources” kept insisting that the former first daughter wanted nothing to do with the White House. “She is very happy, living her best life,” a source told People in March. “She left politics totally in the rearview mirror and so this time around, even if her dad is the leading Republican candidate, she basically doesn’t care. She told him when he said he was going to run again that she didn’t want to be involved.”

Mary Trump, the woman who has made a career out of being Donald Trump’s disgruntled niece after a legal battle over her inheritance, has been blunt about why Ivanka seems to have retreated from politics. “I think Ivanka made very clear that she doesn’t get enough out of [her relationship with her father] any more,” Mary Trump told CNN at the end of May. “She’s barely been heard from for months; she could not be bothered to show up at [her father’s] trial [over falsifying business records].”

As the election inches closer, however, Ivanka seems to have reassessed the value of her relationship with her father. In early May, the media outlet Puck reported that she was “warming to the idea of trying to be helpful again … She’s not like ‘Hell no’ any more”. A similar report from Business Insider soon followed: according to a “friend of Ivanka”, the entrepreneur wasn’t ruling politics out. A spokesperson for the couple told Puck that this was all nonsense but rumours of a political comeback kept mounting.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Ivanka jumped back into the spotlight with an appearance on Lex Fridman’s highly influential podcast. (Fridman has more than 4 million subscribers on YouTube.) In this she opened up about how working at the White House was “the most extraordinary growth experience of my life” and how privileged she was to have been asked by her father to help so many people. During the conversation, she also carefully recapped some of (what’s she’s claimed as) her key achievements in the White House, such as boosting the child tax credit. It wasn’t so much an interview as it was a hype project by a friend. It felt lot like it was teasing Trump’s return to political life should her dad be re-elected.

So, after years in the Floridian wilderness, has the Maga Princess officially returned to the family fold? It’s a tad too early to tell but it increasingly looks that way. As one would expect, Trump has spent the last few days close to her father after the attempt on his life: she’s very much thrown herself into the role of doting daughter again.

And while Ivanka has been absent from the Republican national convention so far, she and Jared are expected to be at Donald’s side on Thursday when he formally accepts the party’s nomination. And if that happens and images of Ivanka standing next to her father hit the headlines, it won’t just be a celebratory photoshoot – it’ll be a preview of Trump’s second term.

 

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Are assassination attempts getting more common?

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“There’s no place in America for this kind of violence,” President Joe Biden said on Saturday, following the shooting at a Donald Trump rally in Pennsylvania that left the former president hurt and killed an audience member.

But the fact is, this type of violence has a long history in American politics: Four US presidents have been killed in office and virtually all of them, in the modern era, have been targeted by assassination plots of varying levels of seriousness.

Along with the general atmosphere of political turmoil of recent years — Trump himself, Covid, police violence and the resulting protests, January 6 — attacks targeting public officials of both parties in the US also seem to be becoming more common.

Recent examples include the 2017 shooting by a left-wing extremist at a Republican Congressional baseball practice that critically injured Rep. Steve Scalise; the Donald Trump supporter who sent mail bombs to more than a dozen prominent Democrats in 2018; a right-wing militia’s plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020; the abortion rights supporter who attempted to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at this home in 2022; and the QAnon adherent who attacked Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while attempting to target her, in 2022.

That violence is having a clear impact on how American politics is conducted. Spending on security by House and Senate campaigns increased by 500 percent between 2020 and 2022, according to the Washington Post.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon: There’s been a global wave of recent assassinations as well. The UK has seen two members of parliament killed in recent years: Jo Cox, a Labour MP murdered by a right-wing extremist days before the Brexit vote in 2016, and David Amess, a Conservative MP fatally stabbed by an Islamic State supporter in 2021. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro survived a stabbing during his campaign for president in 2018. In 2021, Haitian Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by mercenaries.

Last year saw the killing of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In January of this year, South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung survived being stabbed in the neck, while Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and nearly killed in May. In Mexico, where political violence is rampant on a scale far beyond most other countries, at least 36 candidates seeking offices throughout the country were killed ahead of the country’s recent elections, according to the New York Times.

Then there are the numerous alleged plots targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The growing threat of assassination

Despite all that, it’s difficult to say for sure if political killings are on the rise. There’s a data problem: Assassinations are still relatively rare compared to other forms of political violence — violent protests, terrorist bombings — and attempts that succeed in killing their target, or even come close enough to succeeding, are even rarer.

But there is some data to suggest they’re getting more common. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, which includes incidents of political violence from 1970 to 2020, the number of assassination incidents around the world fell dramatically from more than a thousand per year in the early 1990s to less than 100 per year in 1999, then started to creep up again, jumping to more than 900 in 2015. This trend has roughly corresponded with a global uptick in international armed conflict, which also dipped through the 1990s before rising more recently.

Threatened acts of violence have increased even faster. In the United States, the Capitol Police reported 9,625 threats against members of Congress in 2021, compared to just 3,939 in 2017.

What could be driving this trend? Political violence researcher Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that political violence, including assassinations, becomes more common in countries where there are highly competitive elections that could shift the balance of power, where partisan politics becomes a dominant social identity, and where there are weak institutional constraints on violence. All of those reasons fit the US now, which is why Kleinfeld suggests the country is particularly vulnerable to a surge in political violence.

Kleinfeld also notes that a difference between today’s political violence and previous periods where it was common — such as the 1970s, the high point of terrorist violence within the US with more than 1,470 attacks compared to 214 in the decade following 9/11 — is that today’s perpetrators are more likely to not belong to any formal organization, but rather to self-radicalize via online engagement.

The Georgetown University terrorism researchers Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware argued in an article published two years ago that political assassination is becoming more common around the world in part to the emergence of so-called “accelerationism” — the deliberate effort to foment political chaos or societal collapse in order to accelerate political transformation — as a more prominent strategy for extremists. They write, “For extremists seeking to sow chaos and speed up some cataclysmic societal collapse, high-profile politicians provide an attractive target” because they personify the political order these extremists are trying to tear down.

Previous waves of political violence happened in eras when security was more lax and politicians more accessible. Think of John F. Kennedy’s open motorcade in Dallas, which no president would think of doing today. But Hoffman and Ware also note that even as politicians and governments invest more in security, new technologies are making assassination attempts easier. Consider the homemade gun used to kill Abe, which the assassin put together with parts and instructions he found online, or the attempted assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro using explosive drones in 2018.

In an email to Vox, Hoffman said that the attempt on Trump “does fit into the trend … where attacks on elected officials are becoming more commonplace and, dare one say, even accepted as a norm in our politically polarized/divided country.”

What comes next

Political violence is a phenomenon that tends to feed on itself. Attacks create justifications for more attacks, leading to long periods of violence, such as Italy’s infamous “years of lead,” from the late ’60s through the ’80s, when assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings by right-wing and left-wing extremist groups were disturbingly common.

Another very inconvenient fact about political assassinations is that when successful, they often accomplish their political goals, if not always in ways the assassin might intend: The murder of Abraham Lincoln and his replacement by pro-states rights Southerner Andrew Johnson utterly changed the course of post-Civil War Reconstruction. The right-wing Israeli who killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, in the wake of the historic Oslo Accords, dealt a serious, perhaps fatal, blow to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The killing of Abe led to a dramatic political reckoning in Japan with the assassin’s primary target: the controversial Unification Church.

We still don’t know the specific motivations of the shooter who attempted to kill Trump, or what impact the event will have on the upcoming election or American politics generally. But it’s safe to say the impact, whatever the gunman’s intentions, would have been far greater if he had adjusted his aim by just a few inches.

When the stakes of political contests start to seem existential, and political violence of all kinds more permissible, an increase in assassination attempts — in the US and abroad — seems almost inevitable.

 

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