Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election 2016 / Question 5 / White Dudes

A White Dude.

Mr. Smith (not me) asks, "This may be the last election where white males have power they can leverage as a major demo.  What happens to the demographic from here on out? Do they remain a block or are they broken up?"

This is an interesting question.   To answer it we first have to remind ourselves of a simple truth - there is no question that, for the vast majority of our nation's history white males, particularly protestant or identified as protestant, have held all or most of the political power.  This isn't a matter of contention - it isn't meant to start a debate.  I could go through the history of the United States for you, but for our purposes, let's just remember a few key points - first, for the first time in our history we're on the dawn of a moment when there are more people who are citizens of the United States and not white than there are people who are citizens and white.  Slavery was legal from 1776 until 1865, political discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity until a century later - we're still dealing with the consequences of that.   Women couldn't universally vote in the United States until the 1920s.  At no point in our history have either women or ethnic minorities been represented in Congress at levels consistent with their proportion of the total population - when it comes to the Presidency the situation is even more dramatic; one Catholic president, one black president, no female presidents.  Add to that income inequality, unequal access to high-quality education, unequal pay for similar work, unfair hiring and loan practices and a host of other structural problems and one thing is true.

White, protestant dudes rule our nation.

Well, they have ruled our nation.  But there are trends that indicate that is changing - women are pursing higher education at a rate higher than men.  The population of the US that is not white will outstrip the white population within a few years.  Four states - Hawai'i, New Mexico, Texas, and California already have higher non-white populations than white populations.  The population of Americans of the Islamic faith is now comparable to the population of those of the Jewish faith.

And here is the thing.  Not only are ethnic minorities voting at higher rates than before, but the suspension of institutional racism has gradually led to steadily more and more empowered men and women who were of categories and classes that previously were political non-persons.

And another thing - Americans who are gay, lesbian, transexual, bisexual, or hold other gender and sexual identities are no longer hiding their identities - they feel politically empowered and are organized and using that power.

This all leads to, well, a lot of fear among those who traditionally held most or all the power in communities across America.  Things are changing and they will continue to change and this has led to a substantial expansion in the number of people feeling imperiled, frightened that their way of life is coming to an end - think of it as a sort of siege mentality and things seem to come clear fairly quickly - the result, as is often the case, a resurgence of support for policies which aim to restrict change and immigration and to preserve existing economic patterns.

Fair enough, but it isn't just about race or ethnicity or gender or religion.  There are other things at work - two notably.   One is the death not of American industry, but of American industry as a major employer of unskilled or semi-skilled labor.   Increasingly mechanization, roboticization and of course the emergence of truly globalized trade have led to these jobs either going overseas or, as is often the case, simply disappearing.  This shouldn't surprise us too much - each stage of industrialization leads to a change in what jobs exist and what jobs provide wages and benefits worth pursuing.  But it is a shock, and a painful one, and one which Americans have long tried to deny was happening rather than undertaking adequate policies to adjust and adapt to the change.  

The effect is further amplified because we are weaker, relatively, than we have been since the end of the Second World War.  That doesn't mean we're weak - we're still the most powerful nation on earth by a leap and a mile.  But we are weaker in that our control over the global economy is far less than it has been in recent decades, relatively - down from around 78% of the total global GDP to about 14% today.  It isn't that our economy has shrunk (it hasn't) or that our infrastructure has disappeared (it hasn't).  No, we're the victims of our own success - we taught the world to be democratic and capitalist and the world has thrived by living up to our standards.  The effect?  We now have to lead the free world, rather than rule it.

Finally, we have been so successful at attenuating and eliminating major wars, the wars between nation-states, creating and policing the Pax Americana, that now most international violence is atypical - not the kind nation-states conduct, but guerrilla conflicts and terrorist attacks.  As a result, we're more likely to get beat up in wars we enter today - not because we're bad at war, but because the wars we enter today are wars of a type that nation-states by definition cannot be good at.  Alas Vietnam!  Alas Iraq!  Alas Afghanistan!

In the end there are two generations of Americans, the War Generation and the Baby Boomers, who remember our relative power and, if they're white, protestant, straight and male, a sense that the world was their oyster.  All this further amplifies the intensity of the siege mentality and amplifies the appeal of Trump whose rhetoric is replete with the notion of making America great again and building a wall, both literally and metaphorically with nationalist protectionism.  

So, here is the thing.  It isn't that white, protestant, male, straight voters, or any combination thereof, are irrelevant.  On the contrary.  It is simply that their relative power is declining.  They're still able to do what they want, are free to be who they are, take part in the collective bargaining that is politics.   This is how American conservatism will reassert itself - when it realizes that fiscal conservatism, religious traditionalism, and concerns about the economic future need not be dichotomous with our heritage as an immigrant, egalitarian nation - at least that is what I see in my Appalachian conservative students, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or sexual identity.  

Election 2016 / Question 4 / Predicting the Future with Reckless Abandon

An American Chimera [Hypothetical]

What will America, and the world, look like tomorrow?  This is the crux of things, isn't it?

I know people care about this because I keep getting asked about it - so I have come up with four wreckless, devil-may-care predictions about the future of the United States.  Enjoy, or lament, as you see fit.

[Note: All of these scenarios are based upon the assumption that the world would effectively have to end for the Republicans to lose control of the House of Representatives.   Imagining a scenario in the next two years in which the Democrats control that house is just - yeah.  No.]

[Note 2: I have decided, in the interest of keeping things comparable, to divide each scenario into five minor vignettes themed according to subject matter]

[Note 3: There is the possibility of a deadlock in the Senate, meaning the Democratic and Republican parties gain equal representation - this counts, essentially, as either a Republican or Democratic Senate, however, since the Vice-President then gains the tie-breaking vote - assuming, of course, that the Vice-President and the Senate members of his party are in some degree of accord.]

Scenario 1: Double-Whammy Democrat, Republican House

The Democratic party takes control of the Executive Branch and the Senate, giving them the ability to appoint judiciary members and bureaucrats with comparative ease - it may be painful sometimes, given that Republican officials may filibuster and fight cloture, but one has to imagine that these fights will be limited in number and one has to assume that if the Republicans seem particularly at odds there is a solid chance that the Rules Committee will undertake some series reforms at the beginning of the session [which itself could be a not insignificant outcome - one that the Republicans will want to avoid and therefore constituting a meaningful push for them to move towards compromise].


Expect a significantly more progressive Supreme Court - three of the currently serving justices are over the age of 77 - that means that if they retire, which most political watchers assume will happen if Clinton is elected, then Clinton will stack the court with four justices, defining a generation of judicial decisions.


Don't expect too much to change here - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The economy has slowly been recovering over the last few years and investors are likely to see a Clinton/Democrat double-whammy as the kind of outcome that makes things more predictable, which is exactly what the markets, domestic and international, like.  If this happens expect a surge in the major stock markets, American and otherwise.


Expect Clinton to continue pushing clean energy reforms and to do what she can to undercut American fossil fuel infrastructure expansion - or at least expect her to seem to be doing that.  Certainly energy independence or near-independence has had the effect, for Obama, of giving him more free reign to reform.  Expect that to continue to be a goal, and for investment in alternative resources to increase.


Clinton is more hawkish than Obama and more internationalist than Trump, but a Democratic Senate might restrain her attempts to do more.  Expect her to demand "renegotiation" of international trade deals that result in nearly no change and rapid Senate approvals.

Social Policy 

Clinton will nominate pro-choice judicial nominees, will support reforms and improvements to Federal welfare systems, and will continue to push for gay, lesbian, transexual, and bisexual rights, though Obama has done far more lifting than she is likely to have to do, so to speak.

Scenario 2: Triple-Whammy Republican

In this scenario Trump wins the presidency and the Republican party takes the Senate - so the Republicans hold everything, right?  Well, maybe.  The problem is that Trump is a maverick, a wild card, a nonconformist.  He is nearly as at odds with the more traditional members of his own party as he is with the members of the Democratic party and so it is difficult to imagine he is going to have a smooth tenure in pressing his legislative agenda (which, of course, remains somewhat ambiguous).


Looking at Trump's list of appointees, we see a list of constitutionalists - folks his campaign specifically compare to Scalia, who also will likely toe the line (at least prior to sitting) on issues of social significance. It seems likely most would get through fairly easily.


Trump is seen as a dangerous bet internationally and calls for a more isolationist line and protectionist policy than his peers in Congress.   Look for him to suspend deals and have some difficulty getting new deals negotiated or passed, leading to declining international trade and the breakdown of many of our more fragile bilateral alliances.


Trump is fairly luddite-ish - expect government investment in education and research to putter, while environmental legislation and treaties are gutted, all with the approval of Congress.

Social Policy 

Expect little to change except for Trump's nominations to the Supreme Court and the effects emergent therefrom.

Scenario 3: Democratic Presidency, Republican Senate, Republican House

This is the, "everything stays unpleasant for awhile" scenario {also known as the "invest in bourbon" scenario}  - imagine a Senate that lives up to the pledge of some of its members to prevent the appointment of the any Clinton judicial nominees, and imagine if that contention also spreads to other fields - international relations, bureaucratic leadership appointments, etc. - I heard someone describe this as the unpleasantness of this election, should it result in a scenario like this, as rendering his election "a comma, not a period."   Yoinks.


Expect few if any Clinton nominees to reach office, at least during this Congress - the Supreme Court may shrink to its smallest size in well over a century.


Uncertainty will certainly increase, and public, nasty battles over budgets ensue.   Expect this to effect international trade and investment and to, at least early in the Congress, slow growth.


Clinton will keep in place Obama's policies on environmental and energy law, by and large, but will be unable to implement much else.


Clinton will emphasize military reform, seek to have the State Department bolstered, and will generally maintain good relations with most nations - though relations with Russia and its allies will likely suffer and American efforts to counter-balance China are likely to surge, both with Republican support.   Women's issues and international public health may become more significant, though largely through means already available to the President.

Social Policy

Expect Clinton to continue along tracks already laid by Obama.   Appointments will be progressive on women's and gender issues - expect this to make little leeway in light of Republican discontent with nominees.

Scenario 4: Republican Presidency, Democratic Senate, Republican House

In this scenario, which seems unlikely to me (given the straight-ticket voting phenomenon), the very real possibility of a Democratic Senate at war with Trump, metaphorically of course, is significant - expect logjams at literally every turn and a Senate whose Democratic leadership touts itself as the levee against a flood, for better or worse.


Expect some pushback but most nominees will make it through; that said look for folk on the Supreme Court to die, rather than retire, before their seats become open.


Largely the same conundrums as under the all Republican scenario.


Look for the Senate to try to restrain reforms from the Republicans, Trump-supporters or more broadly; their success will be limited to efforts to peel back laws, not insignificant, but functionally problematic.

Social Policy 

Expect the Democratic Senate aim at doing everything it can to deadlock rollback efforts - whether they will be successful is unclear.

Election 2016 / Question 3 / A Tale of Two Parties (and Third Parties)

Guess which baby is Republican, which is a Democrat, and which baby is a Libertarian! [Hint, the Libertarian is the one who won't get any Electoral College votes this year]

I got a heckuva' lot of questions this fall about the magic and the mysticism of third parties in the United States.  People are fired up about third parties this year and they want to know some really important things:

Why weren't third parties more prominent this year, especially given how unpopular the candidates are? 
What would it take for a viable third party to form? 
Why do people never bitch about the need for a third party until the waning days of an election? 
Are third parties even viable in the American political system? 

All wonderful questions, all inter-related, and thus I'm going to tackle them in one post, step-by-step. Put on your safety belts - it is going to be a bumpy ride.


To understand the American party system one first has to understand the institutional arrangements that constitute the American electoral system.  You see, the United States government, in all Federal and most state and local institutions, conducts elections using the first-past-the-post model.  This means that the United States uses a simple plurality measure - whoever gets the most votes in a given electoral contest wins - like a horse race, in which it doesn't matter if the horse that crosses the line first does so by a nose, a length, or a lap, the outcome for both the winner (and the losers) is the same.
This has a chilling effect on the number of viable parties - since there are no benefits (in other words, representation in office) for coming in second, third, fourth, etc., there is a strong impulse for parties to form into coalitions of broad interests - what we call umbrella parties, that contain a substantial variety of different ideological and factional groups which, under different electoral rules, might form their own parties.  These umbrella parties have a compelling reason to seek as broad a coalition as is possible - anything less than the largest coalition means electoral failure.  This is, of course, reinforced by voters who, themselves, are rational folks, and who realize that voting for a party that cannot win is, by definition, a losing proposition - encouraging them to vote for their least-worst option among the two biggest (and generally only) umbrella parties in their government, thereby reinforcing the umbrella tendency from the other side of the ballot box.

The founders, by the by, knew this would happen - they knew that the effect would be to generate parties which were not single faction parties but large enough conglomerations that they would become moderate and clumsy - in other words not ideologically inclined to radical change, nor efficient enough to engage in rapid tyrannical consolidation of power.

The American umbrella, bipartisan system is further reinforced by our Electoral College.   Most states (all except Maine and Nebraska) award all their electoral votes to whichever candidate captures the plurality of the vote in their state - this makes it easier to guarantee a national winner is elected with majority of electoral votes and it has the same moderating, inefficiency generating effect of a standard first-past-the-post system, though amplified and reiterated.

This is all further amplified by the gradual passing of laws, both at the Federal and state levels, in which election funding and ballot presence is a foregone conclusion for parties that had a previous large presence in elections (inevitably, then, the umbrella parties) but not in the instance of parties with little or no presence in earlier elections - an effect that is, therefore, reflexive and self-sustaining.
Put simply, our political system is designed, both at the Constitutional level (with the best intentions) and in the electoral laws (with the best intentions for the Democratic and Republican parties) to retain and reinforce the two-party system.


This isn't of course the whole picture, of course.   For instance, most third-parties are, by definition ideologically narrow - the don't appeal to a large sector of the American public or a large collection of factions.  The Greens appeal to the scientifically minded, the socially libertarian but the economically environmentalist - they are willing to accept costs and risks to our economy that ultimately result in what they believe will be a more sustainable economy.  Socialists, on the other hand, seek continuous economic growth but in a manner that specifically favors the improvement of worker quality of life and the more egalitarian disbursement of economic benefits.  Christian socialists (and other fill-in-the-blank socialists) seek the same, but within the context of a theological construct.  Libertarians are socially libertarian, but also economically libertarian.  Progressives agree with the Greens and Socialists and Libertarians on particular elements but disagree on others.  Christian traditionalists (and other fill-in-the-blank fundamentalists) seek to use the institutions of the state to reinforce particular social values, insisting that this is conservative even though it is the antithesis of libertarianism.

I could go on and on, listing each of these movements or parties, but it should be clear - they all have their appeal, but their ability to put together a coalition, an umbrella, is stymied by their inability to compromise on their ideological values.

Of course there are members of these factions who are willing to so compromise.   You already know who they are - because they are members of the Republican or Democratic parties.


There are a couple other factors at work here as well - one is that, yes, there is a media bias against the minor parties, but this is more a result of the media responding to the ideological (and consumerist demands) of their viewing public than it is some sort of conspiracy.  You see, the media covers the major parties because those are the parties the people, their audience, think are relevant and interesting.   The media, in a free society, gives the consumer what they want, by and large.  This does, however, have a reflexive, reinforcing effect that isn't to be dismissed.

Also, the major parties are not run by perfectly altruistic angels - rather, they're run by, and include in their ranks, competitive men and women who, put simply, want to win elections.  That means that they damn well plan to win any given election or, in lieu, to make sure new, more nimble competitors don't enter the fray.   Why does the major media not let the minor parties into the debates?  Largely for one reason - the major parties threaten not to participate unless minor parties are excluded.   Would they withdraw from debates if the media called bull$#%&?  I'm not sure, honestly.  I'm just not sure.  Either way, this is actually point of contention between media and the parties, not a point of cabalistic cooperation, as some folk have inferred this election cycle.


So, why do normal folks not complain and moan and grouse over the absence of viable third-parties in the years when there isn't a national election?  Well, because people are notoriously short-cited, and Americans, with our tendency to despise electoral politics, consciously seek to avoid thinking about any issue that would morally oblige us to take political action more often and more intensely than we'd like.   That means in the build up to and election we are vocal in our support of third-parties that we will not actually vote for, and we bemoan their failures for a few weeks after the election, but soon we forget the absence of third parties since, to remember them and feel their absence palpably is to oblige ourselves to actually doing something.  Which is, as we all know, horrible.


The final question then is this - how, then, do we develop one or more viable third-parties in the United States?  Hmm.

Well, the only sure way is through electoral reform - to redesign the American system to encourage voter confidence in the utility of voting for third, fourth, and even fifth place winning candidates.  The means of doing this is by adopting a system of proportional representation one in which seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a given party gets.  This of course means that one is voting for a party or ideology, rather than a person, meaning that Americans would have to be far more ideologically invested than they are now, when personality matters as much or more than a candidate's ideological purity or platform loyalty.  Even this would likely not translate to effect the presidential system too radically unless it was coupled with a reform of the presidential election system, in particular the abolition of the electoral college and the adoption of a majority-required system in which, if no candidate received a majority, a run-off election between the top two vote-getters is held shortly after, meaning the first election allows voters to vote for their first-choice and the second resolves the question by having voters select their least-worst candidate.

On the other hand, America may simply evolve, without institutional reform, a sense that third-parties are relevant.  It isn't likely in any given year, but it seems possible - heck, it has happened in Britain, where their first-past-the-post system still yields a parliament with 11 parties represented - two major parties (the Conservative and Labour parties) as well as nine minor parties (the Scottish National, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Unionist, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, Social Democratic and Labour, Ulster Unionist, UK Independence, and Green parties), not to mention five independent parliamentarians.  The how is difficult to explain - institutionally speaking, well, it shouldn't have happened.  But it did.  And thus, the long version made short, we have to concede that the reason third-parties have appeared and been fruitful in the UK lay in one simple truth - British voters believed third-party candidates could win, and voted for their preferred parties in such numbers that they did win, confirming that belief and reflexively reinforcing the emergence of these parties that, everything else being equal, shouldn't be there.

+ + + + + + + + + + 

And now everything is totally cleared up.  Cough.

Election 2016 / Question 2 / Electoral Colleges and Social Geography

The Electoral College Meets in Their Dorm to Cast Ballots in the Nixon/Kennedy Contest
Ms Still asks, "Is the electoral college still a good idea for the US today?"  

Ah a good question - and one I've gotten before (well, essentially) - but I have a few more things to say about it - check out this older article of mine - a little piece entitled with the very classy, "What the Hell is the Electoral College?" I'll wait here for you.   Don't worry.  I'm patient.  

Right - so everything in there still seems spot on, but I would like to add a note - specifically refer to the fact that the Electoral College, emphasizing and strengthening the power of rural voters as it does, has the effect putting ethnonational, religious, and racial minorities at a voting disadvantage.   The social geography of the United States puts minorities overwhelmingly in states with relatively high populations, meaning that minorities are consistently more likely to be disadvantaged by the College system.   This is a real problem - one I didn't emphasize enough in my earlier article, and one that is really clarified in John Templon's article, "How the Electoral College Favors White Voters," which I found via an article by Carl Bialik over at the FiveThirtyEight Election Live Blog (thanks for your work, gents!).

So, between all this data, the question really remains a complicated one - rural voters would be disadvantaged by a simple popular vote, minority voters by the Electoral College.   I'm not sure that there is a simple answer to this, though radically expanding the House of Representatives, and therefor the total number of Electors, might help with the problem, since most of that expansion would favor large urban areas without throwing out the rural vote enhancing utility of the College.   No matter the rules of the game, however, there is always a shift in advantage to or from different groups anytime we change the rules of any game. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election 2016 / Question 1 / Of Crime and Presidents

The House of Representatives Impeachment Automaton X-432b
So, Mr. Edwards asks, "What happens to the president-elect if convicted of a crime before taking the oath of office?  After?"  Great question, because it cuts to a constant theme of this presidential election - most Americans think one or the other candidate, or both, is prone to criminal behavior.  
Sigh.  This election is making me old. 

Okay, let's say a president-elect, that is to say a president already voted into office by the Electoral College, is believed by a sufficient number of people to be guilty of some crime or another - they're going to have to be impeached.  To clarify why let me respond by quoting the Constitution.  First, Article I, Section 2: 
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Second, Article I, Section 3: 
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
Third, the final clause of Article II, Section 2: 
The President . . . shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
Fourth, Article II, Section 4: 
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
And finally, Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 3: 
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
That is the sum and total found in the Constitution on the subject of impeachment.  It isn't much but it lays out the gist of things.  

First, while he or she holds office a president, or presumably president-elect, must be impeached and the impeachment confirmed with a 2/3rds majority in the Senate.  He or she is not eligible for trial in the judicial branch, according to all the normal laws and methods of the US government, until they leave their position as an officer of the United States.  Upon impeachment, however, the president can be tired for, well, anything they may be formally charged with - including but not limited such crimes as may be deemed appropriate for impeachment, including treason, bribery, high crimes, and high misdemeanors.  

Put simply, in order to buffer the mechanisms of government from a criminal proceeding against a sitting officer, the Constitution requires that political leaders deem the threat of the officer's misconduct be so great that they are willing to stake their reputations on that officer's removal and, of course, must be able to achieve a high level of bipartisanship (again, check that supermajority requirement out).  Then, should impeachment be carried out, the newly private citizen simply is tried according to the common law and procedure of the Union.  

Easy, peasy, lemon-squeezey.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Panoply of Sources: Election Research and Returns

A Scientifically Accurate Portrayal of the American Political Circus

The American election is just around the corner - only a little more than 24 hours away.  As we approach the event itself, it is worth acquainting ourselves with the facts, issues, candidates and platforms from the perspective of as many quality resources as possible - note what I just said there: quality.  Not all resources are equal - some are biased to the point of distortion of the truth, some are so self-possessed by their creators' personal, ideological, or economic aims that they select only those parts of the truth that advantage their preferred outcome, and of course some are intellectual junk food, poorly researched, poorly written, poorly cited, or a combination of these.  This is part of the problem with our condition today - we're flooded with information and infotainment and asked to consume and evaluate it in a limited time, and further, when most people are not experts in politics, economics, or sociology.  

Enter this post - put simply, I have collected a selection of resources to help - ideologically diverse and competent reporting and analysis, on the one hand, formal platforms of parties and candidates on the other, and finally key government and NGO sources of information.   These sources, taken together, should help anyone interested in researching the specifics of the upcoming contest, not to mention anyone interested in following the polls and counts as the elections are held and returns come in.  

And FYI, these are the principle resources I'll be using on Election Day myself - so consider them as having my eyebrow-waggle of approval.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + 

Platforms, Parties, and Candidates


USAID ElectionGuide / United States of America

Non-Governmental and Watchdog Organizations

Administration and Cost of Elections Encyclopaedia, "United States of America" 

Academic and Scientific Sources

Cornell University's Roper Center for Public Opinion Research / US Elections

Journalistic Sources

Al Jazeera / US Elections 2016

The Atlantic / Politics & Policy

BBC News / US Election 2016

Christian Science Monitor / USA / Politics

Democracy Now! / 2016 Election

Financial Times / US Election 2016

Guardian / Election 2016

Independent / US Election 2016

Los Angeles Times / Politics 

Nation / Election 2016

New York Times  / Politics

NPR / Politics

PBS Newshour / Politics

ProPublica / Electionland

US News & World Report / 2016 Presidential Election

Wall Street Journal / Politics 

Washington Post / Politics

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Cherry Bounce Show

This is an awesome poster.  You should print a copy and hang it somewhere cool.

Folks, it has been awhile since I wrote substantively on here.  I want to explain why.

See, there is this museum, the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Virginia.   I help them whenever I can with, well, anything I can, and last fall they offered me the opportunity of a lifetime - the chance to curate an art show combining my two great loves - politics and art.  I called it:

The Cherry Bounce Show

Yeah.  Hip name.

Regardless, dig this FAQ from the show's website - it'll lay it all out - I'll see you at the end thereof....

This FAQ was put together by guest curator Eric Drummond Smith.  Anything erroneous, ill-conceived, or scandalous is entirely his fault and reflects his errors, not the opinions or intentions of the William King Museum of Art.


In the American Republic few things are more universal than our collective interest in and disdain for democratic politics.  Whether we're imagining our ancestors reading broadside newspaper articles to one another on the steps of their local post offices or our peers today engaging collective, almost stream of conscience debates through the various mediums of the internet age, we are an intensively political people, not merely among our elites and ivory-tower intellectuals, but almost universally.  Our culture is that of democratic-republicanism, with its equal shares of beauty and muck.  
When something is this deeply embedded into a people's culture it will pervade its arts almost universally.  My ancestors in Europe built cathedrals and wrote music and decorated mosaics that touched upon religious themes - Americans do this too, of course, but in equal (or greater) measure we build monuments and write tomes and compose operas on questions political.  
Of course each of the many nations that make up the greater American nation does this in their own way and my folk, the Appalachians, no less than the others.  That is part of the motivation for this show - to illustrate how Appalachians - modern Appalachians - express their political nature artistically.  
We're doing this in a simple way - I have gathered together great works of political art from the history of American democracy - 1788 to 2012 - and I'm asking artists to react to them.  End.  That's it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I have no idea what they're going to paint, draw, sculpt, print, or record.  But it is going to be wonderful.  


You're asking yourself now, why name a show about political art Cherry Bounce?  If you'll humor me, I'd like to explain through a bit of a narrative.
Once upon a time, when America was younger and democracy was still truly intoxicating, Americans loved elections.  Sure, they were nasty and vicious and half the time corrupt.  But they were ours, our government, our unique way of living - and by god, we loved them, even if we decried the individuals running sometimes.  There are still hints of that in our culture, but nothing like the old days.  In the old days Election Day was our greatest national celebration - before there were national holidays there was Election Day, the day we voted and drank and threw parties and ate too much and danced and stood rapt as votes were counted and argued and fought and basically were enraptured at our own independence - both as a nation and as so many states, and indeed, as millions of individuals.  
Over time we've lost much of this joy.  The happiness of the election is a memory more than it is a reality - we lament the dawn of election season, huge numbers of our people refuse to participate, and few of us invest the time to be truly educated about issues political, economic, or social.  We work too much.  We play too hard.  We forget we are citizens, that the absurdity that is our government is, indeed, ours, and if we learn to love it again, there is a real chance that the Union will respond in kind.  
We're cynics for a reason of course - the sins of our government and the elites who run it, not to mention the willfully ignorant who often give those elites their jobs, are many.  I could list our national sins but we all know them - we, as a people, have amazing ideals.  We simply haven't always lived up to them.  If we learn to treasure those ideals, and to love our government, though in a critical way - 400 million parents, trying to correct a collective brat, perhaps? - we are more likely to do so.  The heroes of our nation weren't people who didn't believe in it, but were people who believed in it so much that they thought, no, knew, it could be better than it was - and so they led us, fought for us, treasured politics for us.  
That is what Election Day should be - unparalleled joy at our ability to care and actually do something, to be fully human, to have a role in shaping our own political destiny, a day to joyfully be American not merely as an observer but as a participant.  
So, why Cherry Bounce?  Because I'm Appalachian, and this is a show of Appalachian artists and once upon a time, when Americans still loved elections, when they celebrated them, Appalachian folk would play music and drink and laugh and sing and dance and eat.  We would exude joy, save some of our finest recipes for this incredibly special times.  One of those was a special kind of whiskey called cherry bounce - a glorious, delicious cordial of moonshine and sugar and cherries that takes ages and patience to make well, but when done constitutes a smooth and wonderful punch that helped hillbilly folk dance and laugh and debate easier, even when their candidates and parties lost the race.  Cherry bounce was the drink of elections in many parts of the mountains, a whiskey for special occasions for a people who once nearly rebelled against the Union over their right to make and sell whiskey in the nation's dawn.  
That is what I want this show to be: a fine liquor, something that adds joy to a proceeding that is serious but also beautiful, something to get my fellow folk talking, debating, reading again, to make elections an object of communion, the thing to talk about at the table, not the thing to avoid.  
I think it will work. 


Eric Drummond Smith, the guest curator, is an Appalachian - born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia, he spent summers in Bland County, Virginia.  He's an assistant professor of political science at the University of Virginia's College at Wise where he focuses on international and comparative politics, and he is an alumnus of three greater Appalachian institutions of higher learning - nearby Emory & Henry College, his baccalaureate institution, where he triple-majored in political science, art, and geography; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in the Virginian Blue Ridge Mountains, his masters institution, where he read for East Asian studies, focusing on Chinese politics, history, philosophy, and art; and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, between the Cumberlands and the Smokies, his doctoral institution, where he read for political science, testing in the fields of international relations and comparative politics and specializing in the origins of conflict.  He is also a working artist, generally describing himself as a pop expressionist-surrealist, though he clearly has an affinity with the lowbrow movement. He also loves paleontology, wears glasses, is a survivor of aplastic anemia, and wears sweater vests with unusual frequency.  If you're interested in learning more about him, or checking out some of his work, you can visit his websites - Ask a Political Scientist and The Big Ugly Hullabaloo.  To contact him try his email - eds9g (at) uvawise.edu
Callie Hietala, the curator, is an Appalachian - born and raised in Marion, Virginia and working as the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the William King Museum of Art.  She received her baccalaureate education in classical studies and English at the venerable College of William & Mary of Williamsburg, Virginia where, of course, several of the presidents featured in this show are her peer alumni. She also spent some time at Christ's College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, the alma mater of John Milton, Charles Darwin, John Oliver, and Sacha Baron Cohen. She wears glasses, serves as the Assistant Haintmistress for the Town of Abingdon, judges FLL LEGO robotics competitions, participates in Civil War reenactments, throws excellent Oscar parties, and has an unnatural affinity for Alexander Hamilton as portrayed in rap.  You can reach her by email at chietala (at) wkmuseum.org


Step One: The story begins with a meeting at the William King Museum of Art - a number of artists, patrons of the art, and employees of the Museum getting together to discuss future shows.  The topic of the 2016 presidential elections came up and I, being a political scientist and artist, suggested that the museum host a show of political art.  There was a flurry of discussion and I found, at the end, that I'd been made guest curator and told to come up with some ideas to bring back to the the folk at the museum for what that show might look like.    One idea stuck - the idea for the Cherry Bounce show.   
Step Two: The next step was to develop a list of artists to invite.  I reviewed hundreds of artists from Greater Appalachia (as I described it to folk at the museum, "Wheeling to Chattanooga, the Blue Ridge to the Blue Grass and the Cumberlands"), looking over the work of featured artists in galleries, professors of art at hundreds of colleges and universities in the region, and guilds and collectives galore.  I wasn't just looking for good artists - I was looking for Outsider Art, Expressionists, and every other type of modern art - I wanted to bring together a show of emotionally powerful art that reflected Appalachia not merely as a place in and of itself, but as a place that was part of the broader human art culture.   
Step Three: We, Callie and myself, wrote a letter.  It was a good letter, I think, one that outlined everything we wanted to do.  Then we sent it out over the ether - emails galore.  
Step Four: We got responses to our letter and some non-responses.  Thinking about my own experience with email I realized that undoubtedly some of the mass emails had been shunted over into junk folders, so I reached out to our non-respondants  - emails, Facebook messages, phone calls - and got some more "I'm in" acknowledgements.  And some "no thank-yous" as well.  But I'm less interested in them. 
Step Five: I spent around a week researching political art and advertising associated with elections and putting together a massive collection thereof.  Originally my thought had been to stick to campaign posters but, alas, this would have been a significantly limiting factor - come to find out, American campaigns largely lacked postering until the mid-1800s.  This necessitated an expansion into, well, virtually the whole realm of visual mediums.  
Step Six: Callie and I spent a very, very long time pairing artists with particular elections and, as such, with particular campaign art (or, if you prefer, propaganda).  It was exhausting and wonderful - and a change in plans.  Originally I'd planned on randomly selecting elections and pairing them with artists, but after some discussion we decided against that - there was just too much potential in certain matches to be denied.  
Step Seven: I made this website.  I did this before we sent out our assignments to the artists because I wanted them to have an immediate, visceral connection with the pieces they'd be reacting to or reinterpreting. I also wanted them to have easy access to brief overviews of the history of the elections they're responding to right at hand - which of course will also serve to enhance the show's utility as an educational tool.  Don't consider it done yet, regardless - it will continue to be a work in progress throughout the show, though, so keep visiting.  
Step Eight: TBA
The William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Virginia. For more information on the WKMA, how to get there, and so on please click here
+ + + + + + + + + +

Yeah.  Kinda awesome.  you're right.

So this is why I have been otherwise disposed - that website, that show, making a painting, publicly speaking, doing interviews, giving talks and panels - it has been a heckuva' lot and, honestly, it isn't over. Far from it.  For instance, on Wednesday, we're having a returns watching party - bands, scholars, journalists, bloggers, food, drinks (for everyone and for grown-ups), the whole nine yards, at the William King Museum.  If you're around, you should be there - it is going to wonderful, a chance for us to celebrate being American, being part of a democracy, an imperfect and ugly democracy, but a democracy nonetheless, and ours.   So plan to be there and, if you can't, plan to stop in and see the show - it is up through mid January and the art is amazing. . . you'll be glad you did.

For more information check out the Cherry Bounce Show website, or its social media outlets at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.   Neato.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Please Remember West Virginia

Public tragedies are entirely too common these days, but some get more attention than others. Please remember West Virginia, one of the most economically challenged parts of our nation, is undergoing calamity - 4 out of 5 counties are disaster areas, 24 dead so far, the enormous financial costs not only associated with the floods themselves but the loss of tourism revenue during the peak season (including the cancellation of the Greenbrier Tourney and associated activities at the same time that Greenbrier County is one of the hardest hit places). West Virginia needs us. Please consider donating your time or a little money if you're able.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Personal Note on Super Tuesday: No More Know-Nothings

Note: This is a statement of opinion informed by fact - it contains my political stance and should be taken as such, and as an exceptional statement rather than my normal information-only work.  Thank you for your toleration. 

Well, it is Super Tuesday and there are a lot of interesting questions coming my way.  Okay, one interesting question.  Over and over.

Can Trump actually get the Republican nomination?

Well, I’m shocked to say, yeah, he can.  It blows my mind.  I would never have predicted he’d even still be in the race at this point.  He has no political experience, has more bankruptcies under his belt than Detroit, says anything that is on his mind the moment it is on its mind (I don’t believe he believes in writing speeches), and really likes to gild things.  He bombastic, hawkish, anti-intellectual, an American white-guy pseudo-conservative Hugo Chavez who thinks the Cold War is still on.  He is a living rebirth of the old Nativist Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.  And the sonufabitch may get a nomination for the presidential run from one of the two major parties.

The party of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George Herbert Walker Bush – three of the great presidents, in my eyes: intellectuals, subtle, decent, and egalitarian – Trump is a possible nominee by the party that claims them.  I cannot understand this.

Well, I can.

See there are a lot of people who sense that their way of life is changing and they are scared.

America, they feel, isn’t as wealthy as once was, they feel – this isn’t true, but there is greater income inequality than in decades and decades.  There are people to get mad at, who warrant our collective anger, but more than that there are institutions and systems that need reform, serious, well thought out, careful reform that preserves and expands the middle-class and focuses on the need to, insofar as possible, end corporate welfare.  Our budget is out of control, our debt enormous, but there are ways to fix this – cut military spending, increase taxes, and develop strategies to pay for the Baby Boomers in their retirement.  Anything else won’t do a damn thing.

America, they feel, isn’t as powerful or influential as it once was internationally – this isn’t true either – we are still easily the most powerful nation on earth, our military absorbing half – yes, half – of the global military budget.  Our international prestige has suffered some in recent years, but that is largely because America increasingly started openly flaunting the international laws and norms it fought to create and inculcate in the world, and because we have increasingly shifted away from leading and towards commanding.  The world still, by and large, loves Americans, but they increasingly don’t understand why we do what we do, the fights we pick, the reasons we give for ignoring some problems (such as climate change) and creating others (like the second war in Iraq).

American isn’t as safe, they assert – this isn’t true either – we simply report crime, terrorism, and war constantly and on a 24-hour news cycle that frightens us without giving us a sense of scale.  There has never been a better time to be alive, ever, if you your goal is to be safe from violent crime or war.

America will lose everything, they insist, if our economy becomes post-heavy industrial.  This is wrong – in no small part because most of America already is post-industrial, and the parts of the Union that are doing the worst are those parts whose leaders demand we stick to economic models a century old, including swaths of the Rust Belt, the Deep South, and my beloved Appalachia.

America is becoming “different” they whisper – too many not-Europeans, not-male, not-Protestants, not-heterosexuals.  Well, yeah.  We’re an immigrant nation, and immigrants come from places doing less well than us.  If they accept our political values it doesn’t matter if they’re from the moon.  We’re finally emerging from hundreds of years of racism, thousands of years sexism, and our damn country was, to a substantial degree, founded on the principle of your social values are your damn business – we call it freedom.  Also, screw walls that won’t work.  Why not try immigration reform that makes it elegant and inexpensive to become a legal worker with a track to citizenship, putting immigrants on the books and paying taxes?

I could go on, but I hope what I am trying to illustrate is clear.  Most Americans who support Trump are scared, but often their fears are misdirected and, equally, often they hope for a messiah-figure, a panacea of yelling.  This is a mistake.  It is unwise, it is lazy, it is bigoted, and it is wrong both practically and ethically.

If you’re reading this and you’re Trump supporter, you may be dismissing me as a hater or an ideologue.  I am not.  I’m an independent, a moderate, and principally concern with practical aspects of politics.  The presidents I most admire in the post-World War II world are Truman, Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton – all flawed men, but all damned successful and effective presidents. I hope you do not dismiss this missive on assumptions about my beliefs that are not true.  But, as you vote today, or in the future, please, let your mind be your principle guide, not your fears.  And please, don’t vote for the Know-Nothings.

God Save the Union.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Deus ex Virginia: A Tale of Cabbages, Kings, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Indispensable Mr. Washington

I recently came across this essay, written as a contribution to a series of talks organized by my peers up on the mountain in the Department of History and Philosophy of the University of Virginia's College at Wise in the ancient age of 2012 - I enjoyed writing it and I'm not sure if I've ever shared it in any other venue.  Read it and enjoy in good health!

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1899?) "African American school children
facing the Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington at the U.S. Capitol"
via Wikimedia Commons


History is littered with the corpses of tyrants who were once heroes, men who led forces in the defense of their ideals only to turn upon their own people and, on pretense of salvation or compensation, enslave them.  These bastards, I fear, are legion.  Everyone can recount the names of the most famous – Caesar, Bolivar, Napoleon, not to mention a host of other petty thugs and parasites, wrapped in flags and fancy words.  This is, however, one reason that the United States is an interesting place, a political system born out of violence, its population entirely enamored with its military savior, in which said leader not only did not seize upon the reins of state and dictatorship hungrily, but in point of fact was a critical force, perhaps the critical force, in preventing tyranny from being thrust upon him.  

This essay is the tale of that very leader the man who would not be king.  It is a story about how he became our President, of how he endowed that title with meaning, of how he turned down absolute power and in so doing saved the Republic, and of how he died of a broken heart, as most good men do.  It is also a story of Greek plays, political intrigue, class warfare, medieval imperial and religious institutions, and a key. 

Act I. The Newburgh Conspiracy

Democracy is not normal.  Never believe that it is – virtually all political systems in human history have been autocratic, dominated by one or a very few people. Democracies are fragile, easily upset and rarely enduring.  There is a lesson in this fact for we Americans – we are not normal, and we should never be under the illusion that our experience is typical.  Though, it can be said, it very nearly was. 

On October 19th, 1781 General Cornwallis surrendered to a joint Franco-American military force commanded by the good Mr. George Washington.  With his concession major fighting ended on the North American continent, though the war proper would continue until the spring of 1782.  By November of that year preliminary articles of peace had been signed, and finally, on September 3rd of 1783 the British and Americans would sign their portion of the Peace of Paris. 

During this period of neither war nor peace the Union very nearly collapsed.  Congress, a weak and ineffective organ under the Articles of Confederation, could only beg monies from the states who, unshockingly, were hesitant to either increase their taxes to cover the difference or to decrease their share of the tax income they already collected.  As such, Congress had virtually no income relative to its debts and expenditures, and it was unable to pay retiring officers and soldiers either their back pay or pensions.  Dissatisfaction built upon itself until ultimately a cabal of officers began to consider taking things into their own hands.  The result was the emergence of an officer’s cabal, the Newburgh conspiracy.

There is a great deal of debate as to the actual intentions of the Newburgh conspiracy – certainly it did demand that Congress immediately provide restitution to both officers and enlisted men or else be left undefended and to its own devices, effectively depriving it of any claim to sovereign rule and derailing the Union in its infancy.  There were also clearly those, both within and without the conspiracy that felt that the Union was fundamentally unstable.  Congress was inept, it was argued, and the Union could not hope to remain united under it.  If the Union fell, they reasoned, then war amongst the former colonies, against European powers seeking to reestablish domination over North America, and against deeply antagonist native American peoples would almost immediately commence.  The republican experiment’s failure would, they feared, lead to the failure of the American experiment as a whole.  As a result the possibility of an out and out coup d’état was very real, with the end of the coup ultimately being the installation of a military government led by a dictator or a European-style monarchy ruled by a king (if this seems unlikely, consider the histories of our various neighbors in the Southern Hemisphere).  In both cases, one man’s efforts would have made such a coup both inevitable and successful – the hero of the revolution, Mr. Washington.  Yet the conspirators knew Washington sympathized with both his men and the young Congress, and fearing he would moderate them planned on bypassing him insofar as possible – after all, Washington had already (in 1782) rebuffed a suggestion by several of his officers that he establish himself as king of the United States.

Provincially, Washington learned of the Newburgh conspiracy before it had taken significant actions.  On March 12th of 1783 the conspirators had called for a meeting of the army’s officers to discuss their demands and plans.  Washington responded by cancelling the meeting and calling his own three days later. 

The crowd was angry and hostile, from all reports, and Washington was beaten and tired.  When be prepared to speak, he drew his glasses from his pocket, unfolded them, and said only, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."  He began to read, and the Republic was, by the end of his letter, saved. 

Act II. The General Retires

On November 25th the final British forces east of the Appalachian Mountains would sail from New York harbor.  Their withdrawal was overseen by General Washington who, over a period of weeks oversaw the steady reoccupation of the city.  Almost immediately he made plans to return to Virginia, his wife, and Mount Vernon – he hoped to be retired and comfortable well in time for Christmas. 

Washington was very nearly late.  Heralded as he was as the savior of the Republic, his presence was demanded for speeches, ceremonies and dinners all along the long path from New York to northern Virginia.  One of these stops, however, was of fundamental importance to both the good General and the Union as a whole – Annapolis, Maryland. 

Annapolis at the time was serving as the capital of the United States, and Washington walked into a well-choreographed series of ceremonies (whether he wished for them or not).   

Finally, on the 23rd of December Washington was received by Congress and read a speech both brief enough and of adequate sentiment that, with your permission, I’ll quote it in its entirety here. 

“Mr. President," it began:
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.

Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the oppertunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.

The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous Contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War.


At this point, reported witnesses, the good General began to shake and grip the papers of his speech tightly.

It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.

Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire form the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.


Washington resigned his commission, handing it to the president of Congress, received a speech delivered by Thomas Mifflin but largely written by Jefferson, and then, after the members of Congress had ceremoniously doffed their hats, Washington retired both from the army of these United States and, he hoped, from public life in general.  By Christmas Eve Washington was across the Potomac and home, a mere civilian enjoying the holiday with his wife, family, and friends. 


Act III. The Second American Revolution


"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes - ships - and sealing-wax - Of cabbages - and kings -  And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872)


It is probably not an overstatement to assert that the first constitution of the United States of America was an abject and utter failure.  The Federal government had little power and was essentially born bankrupt, the various states plunged up to their elbows in every imaginable type of excess, and the Union found itself in a general condition of insolvency and insecurity.  The problems of the Union arose from three key characteristics of the government established in the Articles of Confederation.  First off, virtually every decision of significance required either a supermajority or unanimity.  Secondly, the Federal government had few if any real tools for compelling coercing the states into obeying national policies or cooperating with one another, thus allowing economic, social, and political factionalism to skyrocket.   Finally, the Federal government had virtually no power to independently tax and was, as such, obliged to beg the various states for whatever scraps of income they might begrudgingly provide them with.  Add to this the complete lack of an effective executive, the virtual nonexistence of a navy or army able to project power beyond American borders, and the rapid emergence of protectionist and pyramid schemes in the various states and the Union seemed, once more, damned in its youth. 

Washington was in retirement but he was hardly ignorant of the condition of his young nation.  He was an avid correspondent, exchanging letters constantly with statesmen, scholars, and thinkers of his time.  Washington was also a voracious reader, not merely of books – though his library was in excess of 1000 volumes at the time of his death – but of magazines and newspapers as well, subscribed to from throughout the United States and Britain.  Indeed, his letters from the years immediately preceding the Constitutional Congress reflected his concern that the United States was already amidst a dangerous crisis and that, without active efforts to reform the American polity it would surely decline into misery and conflict.  Indeed, brief perusal of his letters from the mid-1780s reveal his ongoing horror that, as the crisis deepened, public tolerance for the adoption of a constitutional monarchy  was growing, rather than fading (in particular see his letter to John Jay on the 15th of August 1786).

By the time of the Annapolis Convention in 1786 that group of powerful thinkers and statesmen we so often call today the Founding Fathers had collectively decided that some effort must be undertaken to rescue the Union from its rapid deterioration.  The decision was made to call a convention of delegates, representing each of the states, together in Philadelphia to discuss the implementation of some radical reforms of the American constitution, though from the beginning the degree and nature of reform was in debate.  The first delegates met on the 14th of May of 1787, but a quorum of seven states was only reached on the 25th, and states continued to saunter into Philadelphia until late July when New Hampshire’s finally arrived.  Certainly there was no guarantee of success – 74 of the 55 appointed delegates never arrived, and Rhodes Island refused to even send any.

In fact, Washington nearly didn’t attend the convention himself.  His brother had recently died, he was recovering from a number of illnesses, and he was hesitant to participate in any convention which did not include all of the great minds of the early Republic.  It was only after months of coaxing by Madison, who felt that the good Mr. Washington’s presence would legitimate the event in the eyes of both participants and observers, that he finally gave in.  Upon formally convening Washington found himself unanimously elected as chair of the proceedings, an office he neither enjoyed nor desired, particularly because he felt that it made him unable support the strengthening of the Federal government, which he felt was essential to the survival of the Republic, in a forthright way.

The Constitutional convention is essential to this story because it created the institution of the American presidency as we now know it, including the system by which our elected monarch takes office.  Originally, under the Articles of Confederation the United States had no independent executive officer or officers.  Certainly there was a president, but this individual was selected by the unicameral confederal Congress as the head of parliamentary procedure for that body during its debates, discussions, and votes – he exercised no independent political authority.  Indeed, this is how the American executive came to take on the odd name of “president” – the term, in its original form, refers not to an individual holding power in his or her own right, such as principe or prince, king, imperator or emperor, dictator, and monarch (to name only a few), but rather to one who presides over a meeting – a keeper of order.  This, indeed, is typically regarded as one of the fatal flaws of the Articles.  The Congress was ill-equipped to fulfill its legislative duties, much less engage in the kind of bureaucratic and military oversight which allows a polity to function in an efficient and timely way. 

It was not that the writers of the Articles were naïve, mind you.  They simply regarded the monarchic principle as one to be avoided – they understood monarchic systems as concentrating entirely too much power into the hands of a single person who need only guarantee the loyalty of the military to transform a polity of laws into a tyranny.  Yet the experience of the Revolution and the post-bellum years had left most of the founders convinced a monarch of some type was necessary.  The most radical proposal was probably that of Alexander Hamilton who, among other things, proposed a powerful monarch serving for life or “time of good behavior,” put in place by a college of electors, specifically and consciously modeled on the British monarchical system. 

Ultimately, however, the tide of opinion among the founders turned in the direction of a periodically elected monarch, one who would serve comparatively short terms before having to stand for reelection.  The question then became one of how would the monarch be chosen.  Here, it seems, there are two models which have dominated most of history – the democratic electoral model and the parliamentary model. With regards to the former, the people, which is to say that part of the people regarded as citizens, would directly elect the president by some variety of majority vote.  The parliamentary model, however, would duplicate the method by which the prime minister of the United Kingdom received his office, allowing one or both houses of the legislature to participate in the selection of a president from their own ranks.  Each of these plans, however, carried their own seeds of destruction.

The democratic electoral model potentially invested enormous trust in the poor- and middle-classes.  The founders were not insulting of these classes, who worked hard, were ethical, and perhaps smelled of cabbage, but they did fear the age old phenomenon of “bread and games” – that is to say the tendency of the masses to give up their liberties and political rights in exchange for promises of security, entertainment, and wealth.  On the other hand, the founders feared the possibility that a cabal might form in the legislature that selected only puppet executives, giving them effective control over the apparatus of state and, again, leading the republic down the short road to tyranny. 

The solution, it seems, was to draw upon an institution that many Americans whose origins most Americans today, and I expect at the time, were largely if not entirely unfamiliar with – the electoral college. 

Two of the most important political systems in the history of the Western world were (and in one case, is) presided over by monarchs elected by colleges of aristocrats. One of these is the Papacy, or the Bishopric of Rome, in which the College of Cardinals meet in conclave and elect a Pope to serve as the Roman Catholic Church’s monarch in matters temporal and spiritual; upon his death or retirement, the College reconvenes and a new Pontiff is elected.   The other of these is the Holy Roman Empire in which the Emperor, or King of Rome, was elected by seven Kurfürsten, or Electors, all of whom were temporal or church aristocrats or monarchs.   Neither of these institutions could be described as new in any sense – the method of papal election was solidified by Gregory X in 1247’s Ubi periculum bull, while the method of imperial election was issued by the Reichstag of the Empire in 1356 in the form of Charles IV’s Golden Bull.  Yet their use as a model for the Americans, who feared centralized authority of both the monarchical and aristocratic types, is nonetheless surprising. 

Yet when the Committee of 11, the convention’s working committee, proposed the Electoral College as an alternative to the more popular Virginia Plan-based parliamentary mode, the proposal was accepted on the basis that not only did it prevent the development of a legislative cabal, but it further guaranteed the relevance of the states and regions, and their independence with regards to influencing the presidential election – the southern states generally preferring to leave the decision to the state legislators, the northern states tending towards popular elections determining the electors.  In other words, the institution of the presidency was designed, quite consciously, to be powerful enough to actually do things yet still eternally dependent on the will of both the masses and the elites within the context of each region and states’ biases.  The system was complex and difficult to understand and it was built on a total lack of trust among the founding fathers with regards to themselves, their respective state governments, and the people as a whole.  Save one man, it would seem.  The good Mr. Washington. 

On the 17th of September in the year 1787 the convention passed the Constitution as we have it today, sans amendments.  Over the course of 1788, after one of the most philosophically informed (and occasionally brutal) bouts of national politics, the Constitution was gradually passed by each of the thirteen states, in no small part because of the machinations of James Madison and concessions to the Anti-Federalist factions which led to the adoption of the ten amendments constituting the Bill of Rights by 1791. 
The United States now had a Federal Government.  It remained only to populate it with demi-gods or, in lieu of them, Virginians.


Act IV. The Election of 1789


There was never any question of who it had to be.  The new, indirectly elected monarch of the United States, invested with infinitely more power than the founders had ever envisioned providing any political leader with at the dawn of the Revolution, had to be someone who could be trusted.  He had to be trusted as a statesman, as a leader, and as an individual.  He must be someone who transcended the factions of religion and region, someone who was seen as both militarily competent and utterly dedicated to the civilian rule, someone who would evoke fear in neither aristocrats nor the ordinary folk.  This first president would indeed preside over his nation, his every action becoming precedent to be carefully mimicked for centuries to come, his decisions establishing, more than any other official of the Union in history, the political cultural and norms of the Republic. 
There was no doubt Washington would be elected, but the landscape of the election was, especially to modern eyes, odd.  The legislature of New York deadlocked over their allotment of electors – not over the supporters of Washington in his bid for the presidency, but over electors who would vote that most ignoble of offices, the vice-president.  Neither North Carolina nor Rhodes Island had ratified the constitution and, as such, they were ineligible even to participate.  Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and South Carolina’s electors were chosen exclusively by their legislatures – an indirect election of the indirect electors to the presidency.  The other states either directly elected their electors (a tongue twister) or allotted them, through elections via electoral districts.  In all states participating the first vote by their electors, that which determined the President, chose Washington – still the only Electorally unanimous president, and likely to be the last.

There is some debate over whether the good Mr. Washington wanted the office.  Consider the first paragraph of his inaugural address:


Among the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies. In this conflict of emotions all I dare aver, is, that it has been my faithful study to collect my duty from a just appreciation of every circumstance by which it might be affected. All I dare hope, is, that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens, and have thence too little consulted my incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me, my error will be palliated by the motives which misled me, and its consequences be judged by my country with some share of the partiality in which they originated.


Indeed, if Washington was honest, as I suspect he largely was, he was at best ambivalent about the honor accorded him in by the office of the presidency – he knew very well that the success or failure of the Republic, rightly or wrongly, accurately or inaccurately, would largely be laid upon his lap and his reputation, so far unsullied, could only receive injury from participating in what he calls “civil administration.”  I imagine that Washington’s situation was not unlike that of Midas or Solomon, those great leaders-cum-parables who got what they long wished for, only to realize that the object of their desire entailed costs unimagined.



Socrates: It will, I imagine, seem ridiculous that things are made manifest through imitation in letters and syllables; nevertheless it cannot be otherwise. For there is no better theory upon which we can base the truth of the earliest names, unless you think we had better follow the example of the tragic poets, who, when they are in a dilemma, have recourse to the introduction of gods [from] machines. So we may get out of trouble by saying that the gods gave the earliest names, and therefore they are right.”


Plato, Dialogue of Cratylus, 425d (4th Century BCE, translation Harold N. Fowler, 1921) 


Historians and social scientists are men and women in search of regularities and patterns.  Particular events take on importance in no small part because they are reflections of general principles – absent general principles, events are mere trivia. 

But occasionally events do not seem to hinge upon general principles.  Once in a very long while the thundering stampede of history, so often following the same path, curves away because of one event or one person.   The ancient Greeks and Romans referred to these sorts of events as instances of “god from the machine,” a reference to the propensity for Greek religious dramas to have their plots resolved in ways that seem counter the apparent path of events as a product of the unforeseen (at least by the plays’ characters) intervention of supernatural beings.  This hero should have died, save for the intervention of this goddess lowered from the ceiling; this ruler would have led a happy people had he not raised the ire of that god who himself is raised from a trap door; and so forth.  Change anything else, the story merely goes along as it would have.  But the intervention of the divine changes everything. 

The real world is like this, it seems.  Imagine a world where George Washington died in a firefight during the French and Indian War – the United States likely loses the War of Independence, or at least is in a far worse position when the time for negotiations finally arrives.  Imagine a world where Washington dies during the American Revolution, or retires before full British withdrawal, and the emergence of 13 petty tyrannies perpetually at odds or a national pattern of military dictatorships resembling those of Latin America in the 19th and 20th Century.  Imagine a world where George Washington had preferred the Greeks to the Romans in his reading, a world where he modeled himself after Plato’s philosopher-king instead of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the farmer who would not be king, a world where he became dictator or king, or merely His Royal Highness, President of the United States.  Imagine a world where George Washington, wracked with grief at his brother’s death and physically exhausted by his efforts during the revolution, refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, leaving it devoid of legitimacy and his command of the delegations.  Imagine a world where the first election was never accepted by any of the factions out of their mutual distrust, or a world where factions were quashed before they philosophically matured.  Imagine a world where Washington ran for a third term, or perhaps more, and designated his heir in the manner of the “good” Roman emperors.

In any of these scenarios, and many besides, all is lost.  Everything that makes the United States good, a model, a beacon of any importance and any note beyond the rust and grime of power, all of it is lost before it begins.  No one person was ever so important to the United States, and no election so critical as that which brought him into office. 


Deus ex Virginia.


Act V. The President Retires

“Where may the wearied eye repose; When gazing on the Great; Where neither guilty glory glows, Nor despicable state? Yes—one—the first—the last—the best— The Cincinnatus of the West, Whom envy dared not hate, Bequeath'd the name of Washington, To make man blush there was but one!”


George Gordon, Lord Byron

From Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte

Washington was sworn into office on the 30th of April in 1789 on Wall Street in New York City, on the balcony of Federal Hall. He would serve two terms as president (the second even more grudgingly than the first) and would refuse to stand for a third term, and in so doing Washington would set yet another precedent.  As Washington says in his Farewell Address:


The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.


When Washington retired he despised the office of the presidency.  Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson and Monroe, had steadily aligned against him and begun slander campaigns directed at Washington and members of the Federalist faction.  Washington was also troubled that he had been obliged to militarily put down insurrections on the frontier and that relations with France had steadily deteriorated due both to the more powerful nation’s desire to use the Union as a puppet and the radicalization of French liberal philosophy during the French revolution.   Washington feared that American government was on the verge of both usurpation by foreign influences and degeneration into ethical morbidity.  The old man was tired, physically pained by years of military service and emotionally wrought by the pains of political service and the dissolution of old friendships.  Indeed, in a letter of 1796 from Washington to Jefferson it is possible to glean a real sense of the former’s sense of betrayal:


Perceiving, and probably, hearing, that no abuse in the Gazettes would induce me to take notice of anonymous publications, against me; those who were disposed to do me such friendly Offices, have embraced without restraint every opportunity to weaken the confidence of the People; and, by having the whole game in their hands, they have scrupled not to publish things that do not, as well as those which do exist; and to mutilate the latter, so as to make them subserve the purposes which they have in view.

As you have mentioned the subject yourself, it would not be frank, candid, or friendly to conceal, that your conduct has been represented as derogatory from that opinion I had conceived you entertained of me. That to your particular friends and connextions you have described, and they have denounced me, as a person under a dangerous influence; and that, if I would listen more to some other opinions, all would be well. My answer invariably has been, that I had never discovered any thing in the conduct of Mr. Jefferson to raise suspicions, in my mind, of his insincerity; that if he would retrace my public conduct while he was in the Administration, abundant proofs would occur to him, that truth and right decisions, were the sole objects of my pursuit; that there were as many instances within his own knowledge of my having decided against, as in favor of the opinions of the person evidently alluded to; and moreover, that I was no believer in the infallibility of the politics, or measures of any man living. In short, that I was no party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.

To this I may add, and very truly, that, until within the last year or two ago, I had no conception that Parties would, or even could go, the length I have been witness to; nor did I believe until lately, that it was within the bonds of probability; hardly within those of possibility, that, while I was using my utmost exertions to establish a national character of our own, independent, as far as our obligations, and justice would permit, of every nation of the earth; and wished, by steering a steady course, to preserve this Country from the horrors of a desolating war, that I should be accused of being the enemy of one Nation, and subject to the influence of another; and to prove it, that every act of my administration would be tortured, and the grossest, and most insidious mis-representations of them be made (by giving one side only of a subject, and that too in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket). But enough of this; I have already gone farther in the expression of my feelings, than I intended.


And so Washington left office in 1797, returned to Mount Vernon and attempted to hide from public life, an effort at which (with the exception of taking on formal military title again in order to help Adams prepare for the possibility of a French invasion, a position at which he, perhaps for the only time in his life, expressed his disdain for Anti-Federalists openly and, rather imperiously, demanded, but ultimately did not receive, the right to appoint senior officers) he largely succeeded. 

Washington’s retirement, in and of itself, was unremarkable.  Each day he would tour his farm by horseback, returning home for dinner.  At dinner he was normally beset by guests (most of whom, he would bemoan in letters, he did not know), would go out for a constitutional, and then would take tea.

After tea he would busy himself about the house until dusk, and once the candles were lit he would retire to his study, sitting at his writing desk, to read and engage in correspondence until, tired, he would go to bed.  In 1799 Washington would write two wills, one of which Martha burnt at his request on the day of his death, the other of which in tremendous detail outlined his bequests, including his request that his slaves be freed  and supported with proceeds of his estate.

In December of that year, Washington would develop a sore throat after riding in poor weather.  After bleeding and medicines he became convinced of his rapid decline.  He explicitly requested that he buried in a simple manner, with no ceremony or speeches, political, religious, or otherwise – a request that was respected largely in its neglect.  He sat for a few hours, before dying, by the fireplace privately with Martha before returning to bed, where his final words were simply, “Tis well.”  Within days his correspondence was censored – much of his private correspondence was burned by his relatives, including most of his letters to and from his wife. 

In an oration before Congress the day after Christmas Washington’s old friend Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, III eulogized Washington famously.  He said:


First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.


Jefferson would concur, many years later, repenting of his earlier slights in a letter of 1814:


On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.

I thank you for your time and attention.