The great obsession with the fate of liberal democracy, once ubiquitous under Trump, has somewhat disappeared from the discourse lately. With Donny from Queens side-lined, one major source of irrationality, authoritarianism and a completely post-modern understanding of reality has gone as well. There’s an understandable wave of relief that this deranged maniac is no longer roiling the waters of our tenuous civic peace. But this relief is also a form of denial, it seems to me. The unraveling of liberal democracy didn’t begin with Trump, even though he made it much worse, and it has become clearer than ever that it has not ended with him either.
In fact, I’d argue, that the months since Trump was removed have shown the tenacity of our underlying crisis of liberalism, as we resume our descent into zero-sum tribal conflict and competing fusillades of lies. On most measures designed to determine the robustness of a liberal order, the United States is now heading to a post-liberal state of affairs. The last election did not resolve the legitimation crisis. Apart from removing Trump, it resolved almost nothing.
Take the key question of whether one of our major political parties is prepared to accept the legitimacy of elections it loses. This is not a minor problem in a democracy. It is arguably the most critical foundation of all. And since the election, the GOP has deepened its attachment to the Big Lie of 2020, and doubled down on it. No serious figure with any hope for the future in the GOP — let alone a critical mass — has directly challenged the notion that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen.
And this is more than posturing, or sour grapes, as sometimes happens. We know this because the sole focus of the GOP since last November has been voter fraud. State after state has been tightening restrictions to trim the electorate. Not all of this is malign — as you can see in the Georgia case, which is more complex and less outrageous than the MSM/Democrats want you to believe. But it would be terribly naive not to see this as a clear attempt to minimize the clout of minority voters, whom the GOP (despite the trend of 2020) assumes will always vote Democrat. Meanwhile, the cult of Trump remains — and no one rivals him.
Worse, there are plenty of signs that the GOP is also laying the foundations for a much more serious anti-democratic maneuver next time. Check out this typically sharp piece by Jonathan Last. What he shows is that the bulk of the post-election GOP autopsy has not been about policy changes to adapt to a changing electorate, or how to capitalize and enhance Trump’s gains among minority voters, or even how to strategize to maximize Republican advantage in the Electoral College. Part of the strategy has been about how to replicate Trump’s attempt to reverse the legitimate results of 2020 by transparently anti-democratic means.
Check out this HB 2720 bill in Arizona. Money quote: “The Legislature retains its legislative authority regarding the office of presidential elector and by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration may revoke the Secretary of State’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.” It’s a sign that GOP-controlled state legislatures have an option to invalidate election results in the future if a Democrat is elected president, likely prompting a constitutional crisis. All this is a case study in how republics collapse: the factions stop fighting over issues, and start trying to use the system to press procedural advantages. Over time, each side seeks to exclude permanently the opposing party from office. This is text-book collapse of democracy. It’s Roman republic stuff.
A similar procedural dynamic has taken hold among Democrats. Yesterday, some legislators unveiled their plan to add four seats to the court so they can immediately control it. It’s the most ambitious court-packing scheme since FDR, and comes at a time when the Dems also narrowly control both Houses of Congress and the presidency. It’s not Pelosi’s desire or interest at this point, but it shows where we’re headed. The Dems say, of course, that they’re just responding to McConnell’s breach of decorum and decency when he refused to allow a hearing for Obama’s last nominee, Merrick Garland, and for his rushing through the Kavanaugh and Coney-Barrett nominations. And yes, they are. And the Dems are right. But can’t we see how this escalating tit-for-tat can destroy liberal democratic norms and procedures by ratchet effect?
Many Dems also want to abolish the filibuster to push through big legislation quickly in the Senate, via Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote. They have decided not to try for any serious bipartisanship on the stimulus, and to pursue some big policy changes through reconciliation. Not just that, they also want to add states to the Union, thereby guaranteeing a durable Democratic majority in the Electoral College and Senate for the foreseeable future. I understand the frustration at how our system provides a structural advantage for low-density states — but I see that as a feature of American constitutional balance, rather than an anti-democratic bug. But put aside short-term justifications for any one of these measures, and take all these maneuvers together, and you can see how any temporarily losing ruling party in an eroding democracy tries to shift constitutional norms to entrench power as permanently as possible — and not simply by winning elections in the existing system.
Maybe it’s all those books I absorbed on the collapse of the Roman republic, or the coincidence that I’m finally watching the astonishingly good German Netflix series, Babylon Berlin, set in the late 1920s. But these partisan maneuvers are red lights — a sign that even the attempt for parties to craft compromise, or willingness to share power in the future, is becoming an anachronism. And the gathering illiberalism in the broader culture adds an ominous backdrop to it all.
Critical liberal values — like a distinction between public and private life, or presumed innocence, or due process — have never been as vulnerable in my lifetime. People in public life are no longer subjected to brutal but civil questioning. Their motives and worth as human beings are routinely deemed foul, their homes are no longer safe from protests or violence, they are doxxed, demonized, or fired, and they often need security for their families. Social media actively deepens illiberalism and anger — a hideously destructive combination. And the mainstream media itself, having abandoned even an attempt at objectivity, no longer publishes inconvenient facts, or airs controversial debates, but constructs narratives for the moral improvement of the masses. Organizations once seen as vanguards for liberal values have openly switched sides. The ACLU is now about suppressing speech, not protecting it, and advancing “social justice” rather than civil liberties. If you stand up to a mob and call for due process, you can be fired on the spot.
And the social and cultural forces behind liberal democracy’s unraveling are gaining strength. Open defiance of the rule of law is now celebrated in some liberal cities, like Minneapolis and Portland, rendering them even more toxic to outsiders. And the rhetoric on the right is curdling still. Completely understandable resistance to breakneck demographic change is now being coopted by the rhetoric of “replacement theory”, and deployed for white racial identitarianism of the right.
None of this makes rational sense: a huge increase in illegal immigrants now is not going to win elections for Democrats. None of them has a vote, and many legal immigrants are the most opposed to illegal immigration. But it makes deep psychological sense to a paranoid right, and beyond. As the left decides that the source of true evil in America is “whiteness”, and that this country remains a manifestation of white supremacy, and Sesame Street instructs children that their race is the most important thing about them, our two tribes begin to mesh racial and political identity so that tribalism will always flood our brains, and render liberal politics impossible. I have two sets of faces in my mind as I write this: this year’s batch of young New York Times’ Fellows; and Trump’s set of 2018 interns. This is our country now: two nations, divisible, and visibly different.
I hoped Biden could somehow shift the mood. And in many respects he has. He has publicly displayed the same moderate, compassionate, normie persona that won the last election; he has borrowed trillions to goose the economy and hand out to those most devastated by the pandemic; he has mastered the public relations of vaccines; he has kept the focus on the economy and the pandemic. And the boom — until it crashes into a mountain of debt or inflation — cannot hurt. Lots of money for everyone can smoothe over deep divides for a while.
But tribalism intensified in the last boom, before the pandemic, and Biden’s administration, for all his vaunted moderation, is further to the cultural left than any US administration in history. Every single branch of government has been committed to “equity”, i.e. favoring some racial groups over others in government policy. And he has instantly pursued an immigration policy that could have been designed to inflame the right, by granting a mass amnesty for everyone already here and a de facto open borders policy that aims to bring millions of unskilled migrants, including record numbers of children, into the country as rapidly as possible. It’s as if Biden looked at Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit a million Syrian migrants, which helped tip an entire continent toward the far right, and thought: let’s try that here. What could go wrong?
Are there any signs of liberal revival? Few that I can see. Liberal refugees from illiberal media outlets are finding new audiences on Substack and elsewhere, piercing a little the suffocating orthodoxy of critical theory in the major newsrooms. Every now and again, the MSM surprises: a handful of journalists at the NYT and WaPo still produce great work. But liberal or moderate conservatism is as dead as the metaphorical parrot, liberal leaders of every major institution have capitulated to every illiberal left demand, and the woke have a chokehold on every cultural institution in America, especially universities. The only outlet for opposition is in fast-radicalizing right-wing institutions, the Trump GOP, and the largely nutball far-right media.
We will stagger on, as Rome and Weimar did. In democracies which are slowly being undone, things carry on, until they suddenly don’t. And between the successor illiberal ideologies of the white nationalist right and the anti-whiteness globalist left, I really, really don’t want to pick.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue includes: a bunch of sharp reader dissents over my truce proposal in the trans wars and my replies to those dissents; a fantastic long conversation with a trans man and a detrans woman who dissent from the dogma of the trans activist community; a post about how Trump missed a key opportunity with Covid; more notable quotes from the week, more recommended reading; more window views; a Cool Ad of big birds on skis; a Mental Health Break from the movies; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge from a tropical scene. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a re-subscriber:
Glad to have the Dish back from its long blogging hiatus. Twitter coarsened a lot of your nuanced complications and resistance to broad-stroke narratives. I was worried we’d lost you and your sane, honest looks at the parts of politics and culture that are never as simple as everyone wants them to be. I was wrong! Here you are, with your trans essay, articulating a discussion that more and more far left people I know are having. It was like you were transcribing the best, most articulate parts of dozens of conversations I’ve had with friends in the past year: self-identified queers, trans, communist, proud “radical liberals” who find themselves unable to even express confusion, let alone doubt.
That essay got me to re-subscribe. I’m relieved to be back with the Dish, looking forward to your thoughts in the new format, which seems far less frenetic than the old blog.
Thanks as always,
Your loyal(ish) reader
New On The Dishcast: Buck Angel & Helena Kerschner
Buck Angel was a pioneering porn star — the only trans man to ever win Transsexual Performer of the Year at the AVN Awards — and today he’s a sex educator, motivational speaker, and entrepreneur. Helena Kerschner is a 22-year-old woman who lived as a man on hormone therapy for several years before detransitioning. Buck’s transition saved his life, while Helena’s transition was a bit of a calamity, but they share a fierce independence from the dogma of the trans activist community and speak forcefully and elegantly against it.
To hear four excerpts from my conversation with Buck and Helena — on the cult-like behavior of many trans activists; on the risks of puberty blockers; on the profound effects of testosterone; on how that hormone caused Buck, a former lesbian, to become attracted to men for the first time — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to many moving stories we received from trans readers and the parents of trans kids.
My conversation with Buck and Helena is part of an ongoing Dishcast series on the lives of transgender people and the debates surrounding one of the most polarizing subjects of today, especially when it comes to kids transitioning. Our previous episodes welcomed two happily transitioned and brilliant women, Dana Beyer and Mara Keisling, with followup debate led by readers here and here. More to come. I have tried to get today’s more typical trans activists on the show, but they won’t respond to my emails. If you know a trans person both committed to the full-on trans position and willing to enter dialogue with a critic, please get in touch: email@example.com. And keep the dissents coming as always.
Dissents Of The Week
A trans reader insists that, contrary to my suggestion, “16 is not the right age to make teens wait to take hormones”:
No one talks about the unwanted and often permanent physical changes that occur from NOT undergoing transition. A young trans girl who is refused hormonal treatment will grow an Adam’s apple, get a lower voice, might get irreversible baldness and other unwanted changes to her body. Furthermore, I know as a trans person that gender dysphoria can be excruciating, torturous and soul-crushing. Hormones have a drastic and immediate impact on this suffering.
Reader my response to that dissent, along with three others, in the full edition of the Dish. Meanwhile, a reader vents:
What the fuck is going on with your Twitter feed? I’ve subscribed to you for years because you seemed to be interested in a considered, reasonable (not just rational) approach to important political and social questions. Based on your Twitter feed, you appear to be nothing more than another shrill reactionary — left, right, doesn’t matter — searching for clicks, eyeballs or whatever shit makes money in the weird media world we are living in. Your Twitter bio simply says “Here for the articles” — you sure about that?
For example, you tweeted a link to an Ann Coulter article claiming George Floyd died of a drug overdose. Ann Coulter, are you serious??
Then you tweeted “The CDC needs to be defunded,” coming from a guy who constantly berates the idea of “defund the police”? The CDC has messed up during the pandemic, no doubt, but it needs to be fixed, not defunded. I thought you were a conservative who wants to reform institutions, not gut or abolish them.
What’s wrong with our world? Tweets like yours are what’s wrong. Every one just reacting, repeating what their cousin’s hairdresser’s sister read on Facebook, rather than slowing down, checking original sources, applying common sense and assessing critically the motivations of the people trying to sell a particular story or point of view. Slow the fuck down and stop tweeting. Or is some Substack marketing asshole telling you to get out there and piss people off in order to generate traffic to your site or whatever you call it now? Keep it up and you’ll be one more annoying media source I can discard from my life.
Shit. Why did I start looking at Twitter again?
Okay, okay. On the first case, Coulter was reporting that Floyd had three times the usually fatal dose of fentanyl in his system. I didn’t know that, and didn’t draw any conclusion. I subsequently tweeted a report that dismissed fentanyl as a cause of death. On the second CDC tweet, yes, that was overkill. Better to say its dreadful record in the pandemic should force a real review of why, in the one crisis it was designed to exist for, it fucked up its own Covid test, barred others from offering one, and now is depressing faith in vaccines.
More generally, Twitter is emotive. And I emote on it. The tweets which most piss me off are from woke lefties. So you can get a very distorted idea of my broader politics from the cumulative effect of these bursts of emotion. Maybe we should do a poll of Dishheads and Dish subscribers to see if they’d prefer I just use Twitter to publicize The Weekly Dish, and say silent on everything else.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.
In the ‘Stacks
This weekly feature of recommended reading from other Substack writers is usually in the paid version of the Dish, but this week we decided to share it with all our readers, to give new ones a glimpse. And no, this feature isn’t sponsored content. We just want to bring back a little bit of the linking culture of the old blogosphere and add a little more value to a Dish subscription. Here are this week’s picks:
Nancy Rommelmann, who’s been reporting from Minneapolis, lets a cop borrow her substack to try to explain how the hell someone could mistaken a gun for a taser. A key takeaway: “more training in ‘hard’ tactical skills … results in LOWER levels of use-of-force.”
Suzanne Moore, “proudly republican”, muses over the news of Prince Philip. “His death is sad because all deaths are sad. No more, no less.”
Looking around at everything from keto to Burning Man to “white privilege”, Antonio Garcia-Martinez posits the Law of Conservation of Religion: “Religion is never created nor destroyed, in any society, merely transformed from one form to another.”
Steppe inside Razib Khan’s great obsession.
Eric McIntyre compares two short essays about the fireplace — Orwell defends it, Sam Harris criticizes it — to highlight the tension between traditionalist conservatism and Enlightenment rationalism.
Izabella Tabarovsky takes you back to the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union.
Welcome, Charlie Warzel! (Another NYT defector.) Welcome, Heather Havrilesky! (The advice columnist — who long ago teamed up with Dish cartoonist Terry Colon — just left New York magazine.) Welcome, Arc Digital! (The scrappy heterodox site is also home to Cathy Young.) Another newbie to Substack writes:
I’m a reporter in LA who recently started The Debaser, which tries to subversively cover LA like a black comedy. I’ve written about what it’s like hanging out with celebrity lawyer Tom Girardi, who’s accused of stealing money from clients, and how stories critical of him have gotten killed by my former newspaper editors. I think my Substack is a good example of how the old journalism model doesn’t work and why writers are turning to alternative platforms.
If you know of a great substack that’s off the beaten path, or enjoy a particular post you think would fit the Dish sensibility, please let us know: email@example.com.
See you next Friday.