Monday, January 27, 2020

Caucusing in Iowa

I have only been to Iowa once. About 15 or so years ago, I spent several days in Davenport, one of the "Quad Cities" on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River opposite Illinois. Needless to say, however, I have never personally experienced the famous Iowa Caucus, which, since the 1970s, has functioned as the de facto beginning of the presidential primary voting process. Of course, the caucus system is far from flawless. It is obviously less representative than a primary. To which may be added the commonly expressed criticism that Iowa is itself a somewhat unrepresentative state. That said, while I have never participated in an Iowa Caucus,  I would surely have liked to! 

Whatever its faults, the caucus (now just one week away) is an illustrative example of citizen participatory politics. People actually have to show up and listen to one another! (Obviously the caucus system dates back to a time - not that long ago - when conversation was more common, not having yet been destroyed by the ubiquitous cell phone.)

The caucus is sometimes described as "a gathering of neighbors." Iowans gather at a designated location in their local precinct - a school, some other public building (e.g. a library), a church, or even a private home. Caucus goers indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area; and, for some 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidate. Then the supporters for each candidate are counted. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of a designated percentage of participants. So, after this, supporters of non-viable candidates have another 30 minutes to choose another candidate to support. Then a final count is taken, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers the ones reported to the media, which then draws its customarily weighty conclusions from them. 
There are two things that I think are particularly wonderful about these caucuses and that i wish were replicated elsewhere. The first is the level of direct personal participation, which involves not just voting but persuading others and/or being persuaded by others.The second is that (unlike most American voting processes) a voter's second choice may matter and may end up being decisive - an altogether more reasonable way than our usual "first-past-the-post" voting methods.
Like all forms of direct democracy, the caucus calls for a degree of personal participatory commitment in excess of what our typical primary and general elections require, as a well as a disposition toward politics as deliberation and debate in which one participates, as opposed to politics as entertainment which one consumes. Such caucuses may never catch on  more widely and will likely forever remain unrepresentative of the wider electorate. But (along with the personal, "retail politics" campaigning they inspire) they are a valuable and distinctive component of our overall election experience, the loss of which would impoverish the process even further - even more than it has already been impoverished.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Sunday of the Word of God

For centuries in the Roman Rite, liturgical feasts of double rank or higher routinely took precedence over the Office and Mass of an occurring ordinary Sunday, so much so that in some places green vestments seldom ever even made an appearance. The 20th-century liturgical movement reprobated this practice; and, beginning with Pope Saint Pius X's reforms, the celebration of a feast in preference to an occurring Sunday was gradually reduced to the relatively few such occasions in the current calendar. So now thematic Sundays, superimposed on the liturgical formularies of the Sunday without actually altering them, have become increasingly common. For example, the Sunday unofficially called "Good Shepherd Sunday" has for over half a century now been the "World Day of Prayer for Vocations."

Now, by the Motu Proprio Aperuit illis, issued last September on the feast of Saint Jerome, Pope Francis has designated the 3rd Sunday per annum (this year, January 26) as "The Sunday of the Word of God." (This year marks the 1600th anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome, the ascetic Scripture scholar who translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate and is one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church.) Aperuit Illis  takes its name from the Gospel quote with which it begins, "He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45).Its immediate practical object was the establishment of "The Sunday of the Word of God," to highlight the centrality of the Sacred Scriptures to our Christian identity - specifically the three-fold relationship among "the Risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred scripture." This observance, the Pope suggests, will also "be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity." The Pope proposes that on that Sunday the proclamation of the Word be highlighted, the honor due to it be emphasized, and "that in the Eucharistic celebration the sacred text be enthroned, in order to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God's word." 

"Devoting a specific Sunday of the liturgical year to the word of God," the Pope claims, "can enable the Church to experience anew how the risen Lord opens up for us the treasury of his word and enables us to proclaim its unfathomable riches before the world." This newest papal initiative seems especially timely. The Bible, the Pope points out "belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words." It "is the book of the Lord's people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity."

In The Church and the Age (1887), Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the Founder of the Paulist Fathers, wrote: “The reading of the Bible is the most salutary of all reading. We say to Catholic readers, read the Bible! Read it with prayer, that you may be enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit to understand what you read. Read it with gratitude to God’s Church, which has preserved it and placed it in your hands to be read and to be followed.”

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Trial

As Alexis De Tocqueville famously observed in his 19th-century classic Democracy in America, "There is hardly any political question in the United States that sooner or later does not turn into a judicial question." That American peculiarity is now very much on display in the ongoing impeachment trial of the president. That strangely solemn and stately proceeding is now at last underway, and it already has warranted comments about how exhausting it is - a commentary on contemporary attention-spans as much as on the absurd schedule adopted by the Majority Leader and his party. 

The House Managers, led by the eminent Adam Schiff, are providing the country with an eloquent exposition of presidential corruption. The contrast between the Managers' performance thus far and the comparatively unserious performance of the President's lawyers' speaks volumes - even while highlighting the fundamental disorder at the heart of our contemporary political malaise, of which this trial is neither a cause nor a solution. 

As Gail Collins observed in The New York Times“Schiff elevated the saga with a lot of American history. He mentioned the founding fathers 28 times in the first 15 minutes. … For much of our modern history Republicans have tended to be the ones continually quoting the founding fathers, usually in regard to the dangers of an over-powerful federal government. Now the tables have turned.”

Meanwhile, each side seems especially preoccupied with complaining about the process. Process is important. Proper procedures are essential to good order, civility, fairness, and democratic governance. But debates about process should support the stage not dominate it. The seemingly endless argument about hearing witnesses and access to documents is especially attractive to both politicians and the media commentariat, because it is so understandable and so obviously touches on the fairness of the proceeding. The result, however, as, Osita Nwanevu noted in The New Republic, "The trial, so far, is largely about the trial itself."

Of course, inasmuch as the trial is not really about removing the president from office (an outcome no one seriously expects as an even remote possibility), there is a sense in which this trial is inevitably about the trial - or rather about what the trial reveals (or, at least, confirms).

Obviously the president is on trial - only the third president in history to experience this indignity. So what the trial reveals (or confirms) about presidential corruption is important - if not for the intended purpose of an impeachment trial, then for the judgment of the voters later this year and, maybe more importantly, for the judgment of history.

However it is not the president alone who is on trial. It is the 21st-century United States, what we have become as a society and whether we still have a capacity for constitutional self-government, that is on trial at least as much - and ultimately more importantly.


Monday, January 20, 2020

The NY Times Endorses

With the Iowa Caucus now just two weeks away, The New York Times' editorial board has announced its endorsement, and in a break with convention has endorsed two competing candidates. According to its endorsement, the editorial board argues that there are at present "three sharply divergent visions of the future" for voters to choose from. 

On one side is President Trump's "white nativism at home and America First unilateralism abroad, brazen corruption, escalating culture wars, a judiciary stacked with ideologues and the veneration of a mythological past where the hierarchy in American society was defined and unchallenged."

On the other side, however, there are two competing opposition visions, that "differ most significantly" not in "the what but the how, in whether they believe the country's  institutions and norms are up to the challenge of the moment." . Hence the Times' somewhat surprising decision to endorse one representative of each - "the most effective advocates for each approach" - Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

The Times deems both what it calls the "radical" and the "realist" models worthy of serious consideration. "If there were ever a time to be open to new ideas, it is now. If there were ever a time to seek stability, now is it."

I think the Times gets it right that there are two different visions currently competing to repeal and replace Trump. The problem is, of course, that we know that already, and part of the Democrats' (and the country's) problem is discerning which would be more effective. By endorsing one from each, the Times probably has not helped the debate move beyond that recognition to make the necessary choice. This is the current conundrum, which one suspects Iowa caucus-goers will still be struggling with right up to the last minute.

The Times endorsements appear problematic also because of whom they chose to represent each faction. The Times recognizes the pivotal part played by Bernie Sanders in articulating the radical case and how effectively that case matches the present moment, even while expressing concerns about "rigidity and overreach."  The Times rightly recognizes Sanders' uncompromising rigidity and sees "little advantage to exchanging one over-promising divisive figure  in Washington for another." Almost by default, therefore, the endorsement falls to Warren, Sanders' only serious competitor in the radical lane. 

Fair enough, but the case for Warren as the party's nominee and possible next president is much harder to make than the case for Warren as the more desirable "standard-bearer for the Democratic left." 

Turning to the party's more moderate candidates, there have obviously been many more candidates to choose from, many of whom have failed to ignite interest on the part of this year's potential voters.. A few have, but the Times seems surprisingly dismissive, for example, of Pete Buttigieg, whose youth and performance so far warrant from the Times a condescending "look forward to him working his way up." Andrew Yang is a less plausible candidate than Mayor Pete, but he still deserves better than the "hope he decides to get involved in New York politics." The treatment of Michael Bloomberg (whom the Times twice endorsed for NY Mayor) is more even-handed, if dismissive in the end. More problematic is the dismissal of Joe Biden, who is, after all, still the closest candidate (prior to any actual voting) to an apparent front-runner. Biden's age is a legitimate concern, but like Mayor Pete's position at the other end of the age spectrum, the Times seems to make more of it than necessary. More to the point is the observation that "merely restoring the status quo will not get America where it needs to go as a society," which is, I suspect, Biden's greatest weakness - but more as a possible president, than as a candidate.

All of which leads the Times to settle on Amy Klobuchar. My impression is that she has been under-appreciated by those polled thus far and probably deserves more consideration from the real voters when they start voting. The fact remains, however, that she has so far failed to move her candidacy forward. Iowa may change that, of course. But, if not, it is hard to see her unseating Joe Biden as the spokesman for the more electable wing of the party.

The dilemma - two weeks before Iowa and perhaps continuing all the way to Milwaukee - is that a Bidenesque "return to normalcy" is too limited a response to the crisis that caused Trump to be elected in the first place, but that the those who most vocally articulate the need for something more radical than a mere "return to normalcy" may be more flawed - both as possible presidents and as candidates - than their supporters are willing to recognize. If Biden had not insisted on running, the more moderate, electable lane might have been clearer and those competing in that lane might have been able to make more of an impression.  But that is not the way this contentious campaign has played out. 

Again Iowa could surprise us. Iowa could really shake things up. But, if not, then the actual options for Democratic primary voters will appear all that much more limited and The Times' set of endorsements less helpful than  hoped.

Saturday, January 18, 2020


In modern monarchies, the principal expectation of princes and princesses, it has been said, is that they look good and behave well. The latter can be a challenge - especially since it is a life-long expectation which, under modern conditions, must be lived out under intense media scrutiny and without the supportive social consensus which behaving well once enjoyed. 

The older system, in which a Royal Highness was expected (virtually required) to marry another Royal Highness (or, more daringly, at least a Serene Highness) had the obvious advantage that royal spouses knew from the start what was expected of them and so were as prepared as one could be expected to be to fulfill those expectations. That system is effectively gone; and princes and princesses are now expected to make more modern, more romantic marriages with all sorts of otherwise non-royal persons (provided, of course, the government gives its consent). 

In the case of Britain's House of Windsor, the late Queen Mother Elizabeth was a non-royal person who proved to be a great asset to the family and (after unexpectedly becoming Queen) to her country. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, made a more conventional marriage to a royal prince to whom she was already related. After her, however, British royal marriages have followed the modern taste, with manifestly mixed results. Fortunately, the next two Queens-in-waiting - Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge - seem to have gotten the role right. Others, however, have been less successful, as recent history has highlighted. 

Like Diana, the late Princess of Wales, and Sara, the Duchess of York (to cite the most obvious recent examples), Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, at least initially endeared herself to the public and the press. But, as these and other examples sadly illustrate, behaving well is a lifelong challenge which not everyone is always up to, especially given the capriciousness of contemporary media scrutiny, which is as eager to cast down and destroy those it initially lifts up and inflates. 

There are two intertwined tragedies in this sad story. The first is personal. It is hard (not impossible but increasingly difficult) for a modern person, socialized in expectations of personal autonomy, to embrace and adapt to a vocation of lifelong duty to one's country (or any other comparably higher value). Everyone needs some space to be him/herself - the very thing that our intrusive modern media (and the celebrity culture it has created) make so problematic. 

The public tragedy, however, is that the very thing that our contemporary culture makes so difficult has never been more needed. Not that long ago, those who embraced a vocation of dutiful service and commitment were doing something that the rest of society still understood and somewhat respected. Now, however, the total descent of our society into a slough of individual autonomy, personal self-realization, and moral libertarianism has made such old-fashioned notions as duty, service, and commitment increasingly incomprehensible. Yet, of course, it is, if anything, precisely that regrettable reality which makes the contrary vocational witness so necessary. Never have the witness of duty, service, and commitment been more needed than now when almost everything about our society and the values our society promotes have become contrary to that witness and in need of correction by it.