Category: Interview

Interview with Noah Rothman

By: Alex Hu

Recently, Buckley Fellow, Alex Hu, had the chance to interview conservative journalist, Noah Rothman, about his new book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.

AH: What do you see as social justice and how are the principles of social justice different from the social justice movement that you describe in your book?

NR: The definition of social justice is pretty fluid. It depends on who you talk to, which is why it has become such a malleable philosophy prone to hijacking by disreputable individuals. Social justice as a foundational philosophical notion has pretty robust foundations and noble origins. It comes out of the Catholic Church and John Rawls put a lot of meat on these bones during the 1960s and early 1970s as a way of righting historical wrongs, which is probably why most Americans think of social justice as an anodyne concept, an unobjectionable way of thinking about fairness and equality in society.

In practice, however, in the hands of its activist class, it has become something much different. It is the antithesis of the kind of objective justice we seek at the courtroom, It advocates by necessity discriminatory institutions in order to achieve equality and as such it has created in the minds of its activists a series of pernicious notions that rob them of agency, that force them to think about themselves having to navigate an un-navigable matrix of persecution, and to think of their own allies not as allies but as varying degrees of oppressor. It is a pernicious ideology in its current form. It robs individuals, again, of agency, and makes them fearful of American meritocracy and forces them to surrender their power over to beneficent forces who hold their hands and advocate for their lives. They’re trying to sell you something; in some cases quite literally in the form of the new phenomena of “woke brands.”

AH: Do you see social justice as a strictly left-wing cause? As a self-identified conservative, do you think that dialogue between left and right about this matter is possible?

NR: Well dialogue is certainly possible – I’m actively engaged in it. I’ve been very fortunate insofar as I’ve been taking this message to people who are predisposed not only to disagree with me, but hostile towards the notion that social justice is even something you can question. It has almost theological traits and I treat it in many ways as a religious concept. That’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination – these are vestigial religious concepts. But social justice is no longer a purely left-wing concept. The social justice left and the social justice right mirror each other in a lot of ways. The paralyzing victimization narrative – the notion that you need to erect racially conscious institutions to affect negative social pressure downwards – social leveling – is the sort of thing shared by fringes both on the race conscious right and the social justice left.  Both are going at each other in the streets.

AH: How do you think social justice activism will evolve in the future?

NR: Left unchecked, my belief is that the prescriptions social justice advocates want for American institutions are unrealizable. And when you create these moral imperatives that American institutions are not responsive towards one of two things happens to you: one is that you disengage, you withdraw, you become very depressed and say my political activism isn’t worth it and you withdraw from the political process; the second is more dangerous and that’s to radicalize – to resolve to attack the foundations of these institutions; they are so immoral and unresponsive that they cannot be allowed to stand. And that is my view of why we see so much more street violence over the course of the last 10 years, more than we’ve seen in a generation in this country.

AH:I’m curious about what you  think about the ongoing case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, since it seems like affirmative action and modern identity politics often go hand in hand.

NR: So a bit of a digression – two things that I get a lot of pushback for from this book. The first and most prominent is that you simply can’t opine on these issues with the requisite authority, by which they mean your accidents of birth prevent you from having an informed opinion about bigotry in America (it’s revealing if you think that someone with a blindingly Jewish last name as mine has never experienced bigotry in America). It’s a form of ad hominem so I kind of reject it – I don’t give it any credence so I can kind of push past and get to the actual ideas. The second is always – well, what about affirmative action? Isn’t that necessary? And I don’t take any particular view in principle because in a philosophical sense you’re talking about individuals with individual mitigated circumstances and applying as much discretion as you can to provide those individuals with the opportunities that you believe that they as individuals have not had access to.

That’s not what we see in this case against discriminatory processes in Harvard and elsewhere. When you see people defend that in, for example, the New York Times opinion page, they appeal to stereotypes. They say that, well – Asian American applicants tend to come from immigrants which is a plus, but they also come from stable homes and have a better than average work ethic, they’re essentially looking at these people not as people and not as individuals, but as classes, as members of tribes, to be treated as collectives and not as individuals. That is the discriminatory mindset that increasingly typifies the social justice movement. And not just that, but no longer are we talking about individuals who need to be lifted up.

The objective here is negative discrimination. They look at these whole tribes and classes and prescribe downward social pressure. That’s a pernicious way to look at life, not only because it is antithetical to the American ideal of meritocratic institutions and ideas, but because it is more than American governmental institutions can deliver. Our institutions are openly hostile to the idea as they have to be to meet the ideals of the founding. So you’ve erected some imperatives that are not going to be met. In my view that leads you to radicalism – as well as prejudice.

AH: But during one of your segments on Morning Joe, critics of your book seemed to argue that identity politics is actually a pragmatic strategy. They say – OK , you recognize institutional discrimination exists, but how else can we mobilize people to confront this problem if we don’t appeal to identity?

NR: Everyone thinks their identity politics is the right identity politics but the other guy’s is dangerous. The book is not an identity politics book although I’m generally hostile towards it. To suggest that you can operate or create a paradigmatic approach to navigating society that rejects identity politics is like fighting against the tide. This is a sort of thing that is tribal in nature and that’s so common to the human condition it’s probably an evolutionary trait. It’s not something we’re ever going to get rid of.

But it is one thing to say you should be racially and culturally aware and pursue self-actualization and communicate with individuals that don’t look like you. It’s another thing to dedicate institutions to seeing people not as people but as meting out justice and outcomes based on accidents of birth. And that’s increasingly what the social justice movement on the left and the right advocates. Again, it’s impossible and profoundly deleterious to the social fabric.

I think that people like Tiffany Cross – my interlocutor there who I spent some time with outside the camera  (we’ve since developed something of a friendly relationship)  that I don’t think see much of a difference between having social institutions that are dedicated to this sort of thing and simply being racially and culturally aware. Those are profound distinctions that we need to reacquaint ourselves with. Their design is to remake American institutions in the image of a point of view that rejects color-blindness, not just in your life, which I think is also a little dangerous. But I understand the critique there is that you can’t be colorblind in your life – to be colorblind there is to reject the experience of others and therefore to operate in the bliss of ignorance. I get that, but American institutions cannot judge individuals on the basis of other individuals or else they become fundamentally unjust.

AH:  Do you think that there is a problem within Rawls’ original formulation of social justice?

NR: Yes, most certainly. Hayek’s critique was the most succinct. He said that once you create institutions meting out justice, seeking outcomes based on treating individuals unequally, then these institutions fail on their own terms. Rawls himself abandoned the concept of the “veil of ignorance” from which an enlightened distributor would have to distribute justice while thinking about it as a finite commodity. Whenever the dictates of social justice demand it – if there was a particular outcome that they thought was necessary, then out goes the veil of ignorance. It was an arbitrary philosophy and capricious in its application. And I think that’s a feature, not a bug, that somebody operating from such a philosophy by definition has to abandon this veil of ignorance in order to achieve social justice in the real world.

AH: I think a lot of modern social justice activists might say the ideas of those “dead white men” are no longer relevant since the times have changed so much. What do you think about that line of reasoning?

NR: I don’t think we’ve improved on fundamental English common law concepts like the presumption of innocence. This is the sort of thing that they seek to abandon as they try to reboot justice. First of all, it is a noxious sort of hubris to think that you are capable of redefining these foundational concepts of Enlightenment thought when you’re not even familiar with them. And now you’re thinking you can remake society in your own image? History is littered with the bodies of people who think they can remake society in a better way than it has been as a result of centuries of experimentation that has led to this Republican form.

When we reboot justice along the lines of what social justice activists want, we get an undesirable status quo that resulted in the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. That letter prescribed for colleges certain ways they could in which they could adjudicate sexual assault crimes on campus because at root, the social justice philosophy that resulted in that letter held that American justice system is ill-equipped to adjudicate sexual assault crimes. The evidentiary standards for conviction in a courtroom are too high – the demand that a victim confront their accuser too traumatic. So they had to pair this back, perform these trials in campus tribunals, and when those “verdicts” were investigated in a real courtroom, they found that very often accused and accuser alike had been deprived of their first, fifth, and sixth amendment rights. Millions of dollars were paid out to people abused in those star chambers. That’s not justice. I don’t know what you would call it, but it looks a lot more like revenge to me.

AH: One final question – do you think that in some sense globalization is contributing to a central sense of anxiety that’s leading to these social justice causes? I often hear that people fear threatened by the rising cosmopolitan tendency to wipe out diversity and connections within local communities – maybe they might be trying to compensate for that in identifying with larger movements?

NR: That’s an interesting thought. I can’t say I’ve put much thought into it. That’s the first time anybody has put that question to me that way. What I can say is that the old left framed identity politics in terms of class-consciousness – class politics, and I don’t relate to that in my book because that’s not really how identity politics is defined or pursued by social justice activists today. Identity for them is accidents of birth – demographic traits, sexual orientation, gender, race, and what have you – and even religion to a minor extent. Socioeconomic status takes sort of a back seat only insofar as individuals who are already perceived to have “privileged” traits are judged on the basis intersectional theory – being white, male, and heterosexual. You often hear socioeconomic status described as a form of privilege, but it’s generally not in the old sense of class allegiance.

AH: Mr. Rothman, thank you so much! We all look forward to reading your new book.

Alex is a rising sophomore in Timothy Dwight College, and can be reached at alex.hu@yale.edu

A Conversation with Jonah Goldberg

By: Hannah Dickson

Hannah Dickson:At the end of your book there is a quote describing how you believe we have reached the end of history—the top of a summit—and how the only the only direction we can go to prevent socialism or nationalism is back down. What are the ways that society can stay on the summit and persevere to avoid these suicidal tendencies?

Jonah Goldberg: As I said in the book, Fugiyama gets a lot of grief for saying it’s the end of history, but if we go by what he actually meant he was talking about the end of history in terms of fearing out the proper role and function of the state. I’m a big Hayek guy and my view is that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and because it does not, at least as designed, recognizes identity essentially. Whether that’s identity through bloodlines, gender, skin color; it is supposed to be a macrocosm of neutral rules that are equally applicable to everybody. It is completely unnatural to the history of humanity. So, part of my view is because it is unnatural human nature keeps trying to find paths back in—like the jungle growing back. Part of the trick is to recognize that it is one of these demons that take different forms. It could be identity politics. It could be the aristocracy. It could be populism. It could be all of these different things. But, basically what it’s trying to do is bring us back to a tribal way of living and that’s part of it.

The other part of it, which is why the working title for the book for a long time was “The Tribe of Liberty,” is that you have to take into account human nature when you teach people this stuff. If you teach this stuff purely as a set of mathematical principles that are sort of almost deducted from a Cartesian point of view then people aren’t going to have an emotional commitment to it. They aren’t going to have the passion, so part of it is that you have to teach patriotism in a nonpartisan way that makes us have a tribal attachment to these weird customs that were sort of invented by the English that make us think that this unnatural way of living is in fact natural.

HD:You say that one problem with capitalism is that we don’t see the benefits of it. Can you speak more to this?

JG: One of the problems with capitalism—there are many problems with capitalism, one of them is that it’s also unnatural—it is the most successful cooperative enterprise in improving that state of humanity that has ever been invented. It only has one drawback: it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel cooperative. It feels deracinating and alienating, because in a certain sense it is. But it gets stranger because we are cooperating together peacefully. It is this miraculous thing in the history of humanity because normally the correct response to a stranger is killing them and taking their stuff. The problem is, it can be very corrosive to storehouses of social capital: organized religion, the family, tradition and customs. So if we don’t tend to those things we can spend down that social capital and then we no longer create the citizens that make for good capitalists.

HD: In a capitalist society we need political discourse, some opposition, in order to have a market of ideas. Therefore, where is there a balance between the spectrum of political discourse and the tribalism that is tearing America apart?

JG: One of the things that I think is imperative is pushing as much politics down to the lowest level possible. Our political competition happens in that zone of life in which you actually know the names of people you’re arguing with, where you recognize them. There’s this thing called Dunbar’s Number where we are only supposed to know 150 to 200 people. As human beings, the rest become abstractions. The more you push these things down to the lowest level possible, the more your bleed out that sense of unseen powerful forces are running my life. Instead, the powers that be are Phil and Andy and Susan and whoever. You see them in your communities and that creates a certain amount of humility. You still have culture war fights but the winners have to look the losers in the eye. I think that’s an important part of it.

Beyond that, maybe because its just fresh in my head, I just did this piece for National Review about the moral equivalent of war and I was rereading Randolph Warren’s book about war being the health of the state. He maintains the distinction that [Bill] Buckley and a lot of people would also maintain that there is a real difference between the government and the state. The government is that clunky vessel or tool, a mechanism that we use to make decisions and argue about policy in life. The government is open to criticism. Politicians are open to criticism. Just because you disagree with me on something politically doesn’t mean you’re necessarily a bad person, it just mean we have disagreements. The state is this thing, which is sort of a big them in my rhetoric from the last fifteen years, that is particularly at the hands of progressives, a substitute for God. In the sense that the state does the things that God would do if God existed. The problem with that is that’s totalizing.  When you start arguing about what the state should do it automatically puts people on the wrong side of good and evil kind of questions. You have these problems in all sorts of areas in our life. Because global institutions are worn down and social capital is being spent down people are retreating from their local communities and going online for virtual communities, which are garbage. Instead of looking to do politics where they live, they’re looking at politics at a national level. When they look at politics at a national level it is impossible not to turn people you disagree with into abstractions that you think are evil.

HD: Specifically for college students or young adults, maybe even some future politicians, what would you want us to take out of your book in terms of how we approach society knowing these things about its ultimate fate?

JG: Yeah, I mean there are a bunch of different things. One of the reasons I’m here because of the Buckley Program. I was fortunate enough to know Bill Buckley. People ask me what Bill was like and one of the things I always say is that he was the best mannered person I have ever known. Good manners are those things that we do and say that make people feel respected. We have kind of lost that understanding of what manners are. While I think there is a lot of garbage in political correctness, there’s a lot of what you might call ‘priest craft’ in political correctness, when the priesthood changes the meaning of the word just to make you feel bigoted and in the defense when you don’t need to be. It is an aspect of political correctness that ignoring, then, to come up with good manners and to show people respect. Too many young conservatives think that because being an asshole is politically incorrect, therefore it’s okay to be an asshole. Bill Buckley was biting, he was assertive, he was forceful, he was tough, but he was never an ass. That is something that is lost, not just among the college students but also among a lot of grown up conservatives too including some of my more famous colleagues on the right. And I’ll be honest it was a lesson that I needed to learn myself. More broadly, I think that just simply understanding. The book has a pretty pessimistic title but it ends on a note, which is sort of more upbeat, which is about gratitude. As my friend Yuval Levin likes to say, conservatism when you boil it down is simply gratitude. It is this idea that says these are the things that I think are not only lovely but lovable and I want to pass them on to the next generation because I love them. That’s how gratitude leads to conservatism. We don’t teach gratitude, we teach resentment and entitlement. You get a very different society when you choose those. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of that is taught even here.

HD: With our society impaired by identity politics and tribalism, what do you think makes a good political leader?

That’s an interesting question. I would say that first off, there are precious few politicians that I have respect for these days. I could probably name them on one hand. Part of the problem is that the incentive structure we have set up does not reward people for being good leaders; it rewards people for being followers. The way that Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham have been behaving of late really breaks my heart. We live in a populist moment. Populism, whether it’s on the left or the right, has very little tolerance for arguments. Instead, everybody has to get with the program. I’m very much a Calvin Coolidge guy. My view is that the cult of unity is one of the most dangerous things in human history.  The hero in the Anglo-American political system isn’t the mob; it’s the guy who stands up to the mob.

The problem with the incentive structure we have right now, the guy who stands up to the mob loses his job. It takes some triangulating and it takes some bobbing and weaving, and that sort of gets to one of the rules at National Review. Bill Rusher who was the publisher of National Review for a very long time, his advice to young people who were starting at NR was that politicians would always disappoint you. It was because politicians are necessarily bad people, it is just that the lane that they’re in requires them to do things that will always disappoint some 23-year-old firebrand who wants to work at National Review. Or, as it says in the Bible, “put not your faith in princes.” For young people in particular, one of the things that gives me a little bit of hope is that young people tend to care more about the principles than the party. They care more about the arguments than the personalities. It shows up in polling data. Ben Shapiro actually had a really good piece on this on The Standard last summer. If you’re over 65 and you’re a self-identifies conservative not only do you want Trump to run again, you basically want him to be president for life. If you’re 18-24 or even under 35 and you’re a self-described conservative you overwhelming want to see Trump primaried. Part of Ben’s explanation, which I think is right, is that young people actually live in a more diverse polyglot world where they have to talk to people who disagree with them. For old people, they have already done the self-sorting. They are already watching Fox News all day long.

For young people they have to go eat in the cafeteria and if they say that they are conservative the immediate question is: how can you call yourself conservative? What about Donald Trump this? What about Donald Trump that? I think one of the healthy things for young conservatives is that they understand that there’s a moral and philosophical component that is distinct from just all the wins and all the “liberal tears are delicious” garbage. Owning that is a good thing. It is a healthy thing. Goethe says, “be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” If you’re in your twenties and you can’t be bold in what you believe and if you start thinking you have to compromise all your principles then you’re not going to have any principles left by the time you’re my age.

Hannah Dickson is a junior in Davenport College. She can be reached at hannah.dickson@yale.edu.

An Interview with Judge Ken Starr

By: Jacob M. McNeill

Jacob M. McNeill: “Give me a brief overview of your life experience and career. I’m wondering what your college experience was like. What sort of courses did you take? What got you interested in the law and politics/government?”

Ken Starr: “I was drawn to capitol hill. I was a transfer student to George Washington University. I majored in political science and history. As both Akhil Amar and Winston Churchill say, ‘study history, study history, study history.’ I came to a fork in the road and had to choose between graduate school or law school. I took the graduate school path and went to Brown University to pursue a PhD in political science. I was guided to Brown, and while I loved Brown and much of the graduate school experience, political science at that time, in the late 1960s, was starting to focus on being quantitative. The acting chair of the department had a sign posted on his office door [that said] ‘If you can’t quantify it, it’s not worth talking about.’ Graduate students were required to take constitutional law, and that really sparked my interest in constitutional law. That was a signal that law school might be the more appropriate destination.

The acting chair of my department was a consultant for the state department and his specialty was Sub-Saharan Africa. I told him I really needed a summer job. He said, “you would be perfect for the following program” and so I became a consultant contract program officer to the state department. So, I developed programs, and then traveled with nominees from our embassies in various sub-Saharan African countries. I had the time of my life, got engaged to that young lady right over there (points to his wife). I proposed and she strangely enough accepted. But at that point I had felt that I was destined for law school all things considered. So I go to the highest renowned law school that gave me the most money, and that turned out to be the Duke Law School. Everything was very much about human beings. And it was about how humans are governed. Law school was very demanding but I did well and was encouraged to do clerkships and that sort of thing.

Jacob M. McNeill: “You clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger. How was that experience? Were there times when you disagreed with him or founds his legal reasoning or decisions objectionable? How does a clerk handle that situation?”

Ken Starr: “I viewed my role as having to assist the Chief Justice. I did not have sufficient confidence in my own judgement to override his. It was my job to assist him and I did that. I do not recall any terribly sharp disagreements during my two years of service with him. He seemed to me to be very respectful of history and tradition and I had already moved into the camp of being Holmesian [Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes] in that sense: the life of law has not been logic, it’s been experience. We want the law to be logical, but law emerges out of the experience of the people, and he was very much of that school. In any event, I think my high-water mark was actually sitting down with him toward the end of the first year when he said, “I would like you to clerk a second year.” So I knew at that point I was being of help to him. I felt, to be honest, this is not false modesty, that there is so much to learn in any clerkship, that by the time you learn it you’re out the door.

Here’s an anecdote the readers of your blog may like. I’m serving in the Reagan administration as Chief of Staff to the Attorney General. I’m making a presentation as a DOJ representative to the Virginia State Bar. Lewis Powell was a lion of that bar. He was a member of the Supreme Court. He’s in the audience. I’m making a presentation about DOJ policy he didn’t need to be there for, but he was very kind to stay. He comes up to me after and says, “would you be willing to join Mrs. Powell and I for lunch?” It turned out that the one question he had, was whether my second year of clerking for Chief Justice Burger had impaired or hampered my progress towards partnership in a firm. I said, “my best reflection is I was actually helped by the second year because I was continually exercising judgement, even though it wasn’t the real judgement, but I had to say to the Chief Justice, “here’s how I analyze the case and here’s how I encourage you to vote.” Well, I was exercising a sort of apprentice judicial judgement. In many ways, it really helped me, even though I didn’t have some of the tools of the trade that my collogues who started in firms right away had. But one quickly finds out how to develop the tools of the trade.”HHe comes uop

“I think in this country we should have more of a tradition of resignations on grounds of principle, not law clerks, but we’re seeing that unfold in the UK. the United States, we have relatively few high-level examples of people resigning as a matter of principle. My view is you should if you cannot serve whatever the administration is in conscience and carry out the policy, then you should resign.”

Jacob M. McNeill: “In terms of your time as Special Counsel during the Clinton administration, with all the twists and turn that the investigation took, reflecting on it, are you surprised the route your career took? Are you surprised that all that happened?”

Ken Starr: “Yes and yes.”

Jacob M. McNeill: “Would you do anything differently?”

Ken Starr: “Many tactical things. The one big thing would have been more resistant to add-ons to the investigation especially taking on very time-consuming additional assignments. This is pretty ancient history, but the travel office firings, for example. These were add-ons through the Attorney General. Above all, it would have been helpful if during the Monica Lewinsky events Janet Reno [the then Attorney General] had another Independent Counsel ready to go and pass that investigation onto a new Independent Counsel.”

Jacob M. McNeill: “I want to talk about Brett Kavanaugh.”

Ken Starr: “Great!”

Jacob M. McNeill: Obviously, he was in the spotlight recently. What are your thoughts on how his nomination and confirmation hearings played out?”

Ken Starr: “I don’t think it was good for the Senate, I don’t think it was good for the Supreme Court, and I don’t think it was good for the country. I think things should have been brought out sooner rather than later. I don’t mean to criticize the world’s greatest deliberative body [the United States Senate], but people who are trained in the law should be very sensitive to the process. Felix Frankfurter said, ‘the history of liberty is largely the history of procedure.’ The Senate has procedures and they should have been more closely followed. I decried the disruption that unfolded: the heckler’s veto. But now having said that, that’s part of the democratic process and you can choose to do that, it’s just not helpful. I do think there needs to be procedural fairness to the person making the complaint. She should be treated fairly and compassionately. She should be listened to with respect. I also think the nominee is entitled to procedural fairness as well. Now having said that, I know Brett Kavanaugh.  I love Brett Kavanaugh. I have worked with him in different settings and have known him to be a person of integrity and decency, and so I believe Brett Kavanaugh. I have never said a harsh word against Dr. Ford. I am not questioning in any way her in any way, her motives, but they’re just two different people with conflicting stories. I know one of them very well and have worked with one of them very extensively, and I believe Brett Kavanaugh.”

Jacob M. McNeill: “ What do you think about the general climate in The United States today surrounding sexual misconduct and do you have any concern that people may be presumed guilty before being proven innocent?”

Ken Starr: “I understand that this was not a trial and there is not presumption of life tenure. I think the values of our criminal justice system inform the way we govern the process. We want people to have the right to be heard and treated respectfully. But I do think that overall, all too frequently, there is a rush to judgement, We need to hit the pause button and make sure that we listen to both sides and weigh both sides carefully, especially in a quasi-criminal setting including Title IX on University campuses, I do think that the criminal justice values even though there is no criminal procedure, should have procedural fairness in place when there are serious sanction in place.”

Jacob McNeill ’21 is a Sophomore in Morse College. He can be reached at jacob.mcneil@yale.edu

Interview with Michael Johns, Co-Founder of the U.S. Tea Party Movement

Michael Johns is an American conservative public policy leader and business executive. In 2009, he co-founded the U.S. Tea Party movement and has since served as one of its leading strategists and spokespersons. Michael has served in executive and management capacities with McKesson, Eli Lilly and Company, and Gentiva Health Service. He has served as a White House speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush and a senior advisor to New Jersey Governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and U S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe. He frequently appears on cable networks, such as Fox News, Fox Business News, CNBC, BBC, France 24, in addition to numerous media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and National Review. Michael is a graduate of the University of Miami, where he majored in economics and graduated with honors.

By: Declan Kunkel

When did you get your start in politics? What made you become involved in the Republican Party?

Michael Johns: I think it’s an interesting story. I essentially had two very contrasting experiences growing up, and both got me thinking about government and public policy for the first time but in very different ways. I grew up in a small eastern Pennsylvania town in the Lehigh Valley region of the state called Emmaus in the 1980s. It was a region whose economy was based very extensively on manufacturing. Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel manufacturer in our country at the time, was based there. Mack Trucks had a large presence there. Casilio Concrete and Air Products were based there. It was a region where there were abundant opportunities for people who worked with their hands, what we commonly call “blue collar” workers. At that time, Bethlehem Steel was the place to work. The wages were good, and the perception was the job stability was too since there would always be demand for steel. But competition from China, Japan, and other regions of the world hit the Lehigh Valley in a very detrimental and disproportionate way. I watched friends’ parents lose their jobs. These were people very deeply rooted in the Lehigh Valley. They could not pick up and leave for a job somewhere else. They had kids in schools there. They had aging parents nearby. And after spending a couple decades learning how to smelt steel in blast furnaces, steelmaking was what they knew and loved. A little to the north of where I grew up, in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, it was the same story: I saw hard working Americans who took pride in their work and worked hard but found themselves losing these opportunities because of macro trade and global economic forces that were ultimately totally beyond their control. My paternal grandfather was a small town mayor in the Coal Region in addition to being a coal miner and a World War II Purple Heart recipient.

At that time, I saw a lot of fear. I saw a lot of anger. I saw a lot of frustration. All of it got me thinking for the first time about government and communities for the first time, and my first instinct was very rudimentary: Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this, I asked myself? I quickly saw that very powerful forces were at play: Foreign governments subsidizing industry and operating with cheaper labor and regulatory standards than were required here. And subsidized product dumping designed to put American manufacturers out of business. I don’t think my initial views then were either conservative or liberal at the start. They were just practical and instinctive. It troubled me to see harm done to communities and to see our government so unresponsive to that harm. And so I started to think for the first time about how I could play a constructive role and what I could do. I started to get a passion for some of these issues and dived into learning all I could about them. I read a lot for the first time on my own about politics and public policy, about history and economies, including many of the conservative classics. I found myself talking to others about these topics and challenges in casual ways, and I started to see a lot of commonality of thinking about what was happening and yet just as big of a consensus that government was seemingly unable or unwilling to do much about it.

Then I got to the University of Miami in Florida, and I found a similar set of circumstances with many of my Cuban-American friends whose families had been driven out of Fidel Castro’s Cuba after the 1959 revolution there. They told me about arbitrary jailings and killings, about property being seized by force by Castro’s government, about really brutal abuses of human rights by the Cuban government, about what life was like in a genuine communist tyranny. As I heard these stories, I found myself asking the same question I asked back in the Lehigh Valley: Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? And yet, there were real differences between what I witnessed in the Lehigh Valley and the stories I heard in South Florida. In the first case, I started to realize, it was basically a case of government not protecting and defending the interests of its citizens. In essence, government was not doing enough. Yet, in the case of the persecution of Cubans, it awakened me to the reality that sometimes government can do worse than nothing. Governments can do real life harm. Governments can steal. Governments can kill. Governments can be dangerous and hostile and even at the core of evil. It was at the University of Miami where I became an anti-communist. And in about five minutes after becoming an anti-communist, I concluded that being an anti-communist meant supporting the Reagan administration, which was then entering its second term, and also being a Republican.

All of this led me through a bunch of first steps in the fields of public policy. I was elected president of University of Miami College Republicans. I interned with my Congressman from Pennsylvania, a really great and bright and dedicated public servant named Don Ritter, who was the only scientist in the U.S. Congress at that time and spoke Russian fluently. And I went through a great program in D.C. called the National Journalism Center, which introduces conservatives to the basics of journalism. I got a little taste of Washington, and I decided that I was going to do everything possible, everything within my power, to be a force for good in public policy and that I would likely have more influence there than anywhere else. So I got right to Washington, D.C. after graduating from The U and worked five great years at The Heritage Foundation, where I was an editor and then a foreign policy expert.

What was it like to work in the George H. W. Bush White House?

It was a great honor, of course. I was more a Reagan Republican than I was a Bush Republican, but I was impressed with President Bush’s vast experience. Much of it Americans don’t even know much about, or they’ve forgotten. But let me tell you about this man: He was a World War II hero in the Navy before he attended Yale. He didn’t have to enroll in the Navy but he did out of the same sense of patriotic obligation that I felt and feel. He represented Texas’ Seventh Congressional District in Congress, and did so as a conservative. He ran the Harris County Republican Party. And he went on to assemble the most impressive resume I think I’ve ever seen in this profession: Nixon appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. in New York City. Ford made him our envoy in China. Nixon asked him to run the Republican National Committee in the middle of the Watergate scandal, a period of immense self-reflection and loss of confidence among many Republicans. He, of course, ran the Central Intelligence Agency under Ford at a crucial moment in history as the Cold War was intensifying everywhere, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and as the demand for U.S. intelligence capabilities were exponentially expanding. And while Reagan beat him in the 1980 presidential primary, Reagan saw Bush as crucial to maintaining consensus in the Republican Party and made him his running mate. He was an immensely successful and engaged vice president not just in the U.S. but on the global stage. When Barbara Bush died earlier this year, I started to think for the first time that one day he will be gone too. We will see his hearse and motorcade driving down a Texas highway with red and blue lights flashing, and we’ll say: “There goes one of our greatest.” I support Trump. He opposes Trump. I’m a movement conservative with a practical side. He’s a practical politician with a conservative side. We aren’t identical but there are enough common denominators for me to say I really respect him as much as any living political leader.

But I arrived in the Bush White House at a moment when there was a pretty broad consensus that he was not going to be reelected in 1992. That was pretty shocking to many because his support had been over 90 percent earlier in his term following the liberation of Kuwait. It was difficult to ever imagine him losing. But he was, and there were many factors at play. One of the central ones was his violation of his “no new taxes” pledge. I also found that many of his appointees were actively engaged in alienating the conservative base in the country and convincing him to abandon crucially important conservative positions and promises he had made to the American people. There were many reasons he lost in 1992, one of which is the American people very rarely sustain any one particular party in power for too long, and the Republicans had been in the White House since January 1981. But I saw conservatives feeling demoralized. They were not sufficiently motivated to invest a lot in his candidacy. I think some conservatives even secretly hoped he lost so they could make some broader political point about moderation being politically detrimental, or because they felt more comfortable as an opposition political force than they did as a governing one. I did not want Bush to abandon his conservative promises, but I also admired his instinct to try to function amicably with everyone. That’s my approach too. We often hear many in this profession describe political or public policy differences at war. That’s insane. It’s important to remember: Only war is really war.

I guess the other thing I really love about the opportunity is that there is a neat little community of those of us who have served as White House speechwriters in modern times. Probably not more than 50 or so of us alive, but it’s an impressive group: Chris Matthews, James Fallows, Christopher Buckley, Peggy Noonan, Pat Buchanan, and others. Safire and Schlesinger, two icons, are gone. I admire all of them, not because they mirror my own policy views necessarily but because of their ability to communicate complex public policy themes so well. It’s a group of insanely talented individuals. Every memorable presidential speech or quote you remember since Kennedy was written by one of them. “Ask not what your country can do for you” wasn’t Kennedy. Ted Sorensen wrote that memorable line. But I guess thinking it was Kennedy’s line can be forgiven because I recently had to tell someone it wasn’t a Living Colour lyric, that it actually came from one of the most important and influential presidential speeches ever, Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address.

How can we trace the development of the Tea Party movement? Does it go back to the George H. W. Bush administration?

The Tea Party movement is the largest and most transformational political movement in American history, and I would say the sentiments that led a few of us to start it began percolating around the bank bailout in 2008. A lot of us just looked at that bailout and said, “Wait. Let me understand this. The same banks that engaged in all these unethical and ultimately bad business decisions are actually profiting from those decisions?” We did not bail out their victims. We bailed out the very banks that launched the entire subprime crisis that nearly brought down the entire global economy. With Goldman alone, $12.9 billion in counter-party payments through AIG and $10 billion in TARP relief. I think this was the moment when many of us realized this wasn’t even a partisan battle. It was a battle of Washington and Washington special interests versus the people. And things got even worse and pretty quickly under Obama. Americans saw representative democracy eroding before their eyes. They saw an alien ideology seeking to openly transform a nation they loved. They saw government overstepping its bounds in vast ways.

Then, on February 19, 2009, I was one of a few Americans who had CNBC on in the background, and I saw the Rick Santelli rant. His ability to capture all this frustration in a couple minutes of reporting from the Chicago Board of Trade got me thinking that we needed some vehicle to communicate both the frustrations and aspirations of the American people. I knew there were millions of Americans out there who shared our views and frustrations, and I knew I was not alone in feeling something needed to be done, even if it was only symbolic opposition. So we brought together a conference call of about 20 conservatives the following evening. Some of us knew a few others on the call, but none of us really knew each other too well. None of us had really ever worked together. And we all said, “This is the moment. We need to start something that can offer the American people an opportunity to get engaged.” I still have the invitation to that call, and I think it is ultimately going to belong in a museum somewhere.

Our original intent with the call was to organize a huge number of rallies–basically one in any city with more than 250,000 people or so–on Tax Day, April 15, 2009. I spoke in Boston that afternoon, and then headed down to lower Manhattan to speak at night. There were thousands of people. They just kept pouring out onto the streets. Easily a couple thousand on Boston Common, and then about 14,000 or so in New York City. It was the same thing in cities all across the country–in Chicago, in Nashville, in Houston, in Los Angeles, in Dallas, San Antonio, in Denver, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. You name it. The United States of America was changed that day. I do not think you can overstate the historical significance of the groundwork that was developed on April 15, 2009. I sort of figured and knew that we could get thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people activated. But it ultimately proved to be tens of millions. The people were looking for an avenue to bring some commonsense, foundational principles, and practicality to government. That is what the Tea Party was and is. It does not need to be any more complicated than that to be hugely transformative. And Obama was so defensive, I knew it was just a matter of time until he started denouncing us publicly, which of course he did. And then it was just a matter of time until they took action, which they did in ordering the IRS to target our organizations, for which the IRS has since publicly apologized. There is no way, in my view, that the order for that targeting came directly from the West Wing and probably from Obama himself. The administration was too rigorously managed and there were too many political sensitivities for that to have been some lower level rogue operation.

There has been a lot of scholarship by scholars who say that the Tea Party was a reaction to the Obama Administration and Obama electoral coalition. What caused the Tea Party movement?

Yeah, I joke that if you think the Tea Party movement hasn’t generated economic growth and prosperity, tell all these professors who wrote these Tea Party history books about us to send back their advances. And by the way, I know almost none of the guys who’ve written these books. They’d publish a 250-page book on the Tea Party movement. I’d ask, “Who did you speak with in the Tea Party movement.” “Oh, no one,” they’d reply. Shocker that those books are mostly filled with stale and inaccurate liberal cliches and botched historical interpretations of what has actually gone on these past nine years.

But the answer to your question is that the Tea Party movement’s creation was a classic “supply and demand” story. The American people did not feel comfortable with the direction of the country in 2009. They did not appreciate Obama disparaging America, or traveling the world apologizing on our behalf, or telling entrepreneurs and small businesses “you didn’t build that,” or expanding government at a record pace, including a plan to take over the $9 trillion healthcare industry that touches the lives of every citizen in our nation. Yet, there really was no role available to the average citizen to get engaged in doing anything about these things before the Tea Party movement. You might say, “Well, there’s the Republican Party,” but the Republican Party both then and now is too narrow. And despite liberal allegations to the contrary. the Tea Party movement wasn’t and isn’t a Republican Party vehicle anyway. There were and are many Tea Party Independents and some Democrats. And there were many Americans who had never done anything at all politically, including vote. So I would say the Obama administration was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the reality is the frustrations even predated it. Americans simply were not feeling that anyone in Washington, D.C. had their back, or even grasped their concerns. And honestly, they didn’t. Washington, D.C. is an island onto itself where lobbyists will represent either side of a cause, where Congressmen and Congresswomen dart from fundraiser to fundraiser collecting checks to sell out the voters who sent them there, and where the suffering of Americans right before their eyes gets ignored. Like Reagan used to say, politics is the second oldest profession in the world, but it resembles the oldest profession in the world in hauntingly similar ways.

The Tea Party movement also taught me that we really do have some unifying themes in this country. I always suspected it, but the Tea Party movement has proven that most Americans insist that we adhere to the U.S. Constitution and are troubled that we are weakening in that commitment. Most Americans believe government needs to exist but that it is too large and too self-serving to be blindly trusted. Most Americans feel overtaxed. And we’re literally in a country where local regulators will shut down a kid’s lemonade stand. They feel over-regulated too. Mostly, though, they do not feel represented. They call their Congressional office, or write, and they get voicemail or a meaningless, thoughtless form letter back. Their Congressmen don’t even hold town hall meetings. We have a handful of legislators–and this remains the case today–who huddle with K Street lobbyists behind closed doors and decide what legislation will and will not manifest. I have spoken to most Republican Members of Congress, and this is shocking to many Americans but they feel the same way. Many go to Washington hoping to change the world and quickly end up demoralized, realizing it’s like any other job. Leadership and lobbyists tell them what to say and what to think and how to vote. This was not what our founders intended, and the genius of our Tea Party movement is that we did not look at all this and seek to create a whole new ideology or set of ideas to counter it. We know, as most Americans know, that this nation was founded by some of the bravest and brightest people the world has ever seen. Our country evolves. Things do become more complex. But the reality is that the founding principles of the nation–truths that our founders deemed self-evident–are still self-evident truths today. We believe in these truths and defend them.

In my wildest fantasies, I have sometimes wondered if Jefferson, Washington, Paine, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison and others could reemerge for a few days and speak with us, would they be proud of what our Tea Party movement has done? I’ve thought enough about it and concluded, yea, they probably would. But I think they would have immense disappointment in many of the deviations from our founding principles. Some say, “Well, they would not recognize the United States today.” That is true, of course. But the reality also is that they were aware then that things would change in unpredictable ways. They did not give us the U.S. Constitution and say, “Here. These are the rules. Period.” They gave us the Article V amendment process for a reason. They gave us balance of power. They gave us an independent judiciary and rule of law. In doing all of this, they knew that the ideas and challenges of the nation would evolve but that however it changed government must remain accountable to the people, not vice versa. They also knew quite well that government’s ability to hurt was just as powerful if not more powerful than its ability to help. So that is one commonality throughout the Tea Party movement: A recognition that we are a unique nation founded by extraordinary individuals, and that our founding principles need to be defended and applied. Our nation was founded with a deep and justifiable skepticism of governmental power. Our founders saw those systems in action, fled them, and ultimately launched a war against them.

How did the Tea Party interact with the Romney 2012 Presidential Campaign?

The Tea Party movement was the driving force behind Republicans winning back the House in 2010. Everyone engaged even a little bit in American politics in that election cycle saw that we were the brains, the energy, and the blood behind that historic victory. Some of the most prominent conservative politicians today emerged from that election cycle and ran as “Tea Party Republicans.” We picked up 63 seats and defended many others in the House alone. It was the biggest seat pickup by a single political party since Republicans won 72 seats running against FDR. So, two years later, we entered 2012 with a feeling that anything was possible and that the race was winnable. We never hear this from the mainstream media, but Obama’s popularity was never much greater than Trump’s is today at that time. Obama entered the 2012 presidential race with about a 50 percent approval rate, meaning half the nation did not approve of his direction. And I would say even his 50 percent approval rate was inflated. Many felt uncomfortable telling a mainstream media pollster they did not approve of Obama because they knew the mainstream media did. And that’s the problem with polls. People respond with what they think a pollster wants to hear, not what they actually believe. So a pollster asks, “What radio station do you listen to?” They’ll say, “Oh, I listen to NPR.” They’re really listening to Destiny’s Child and Ariana Grande on Z100. What television shows do you watch? “I watch PBS.” They’re really watching Jersey Shore reruns. So we had a media telling us every day how great Obama was. I knew that Americans would feel reluctant telling a pollster from these same outlets, “I totally disagree with you.” They either didn’t take the call, or they told them what they wanted to hear so they could get off the phone.

But the reality is, even knowing what Romney surely knew about the vast populist reach of the Tea Party movement and the fact that it was the Tea Party movement that forced Nancy Pelosi to hand that gavel to John Boehner in January 2011, Romney’s campaign was run by the usual Republican consultants. And they thought and acted like the traditional and predictable consultants. They did not really reach out to the Tea Party movement like they could have or should have, though Romney did address one Tea Party event in Philadelphia. And the result is that many conservatives did not feel sufficiently inspired by his candidacy to get out and vote. Millions stayed home, and those millions were the difference makers in crucial must-win states. Romney’s candidacy definitely had some moments of greatness–like the first debate in Denver. You could sort of see the arrogance of Obama, and Romney delivered a few major blows. Romney did well in the Hofstra debate in Long Island too. But the real reason Romney lost is he simply did not inspire the voter base like Trump did in 2016. All of that started by not engaging the Tea Party movement from the very beginning. As soon as I saw that we were on the margins of that campaign, I knew–and I think every Tea Party member knew–it was unlikely he could win. And it’s a shame because, as opposed to being the junior Senator from Utah, I think he could be in the second term of his presidency if he had engaged the Tea Party movement in a meaningful way.

Was the 2012 failure a result of Romney’s lack of understanding of the Tea Party and the Republican base, or was it a difference of ideology?

Probably a little of both. I was entirely comfortable with his ideology. Others weren’t, especially of his healthcare plan in Massachusetts. Others were skeptical that he was too establishment. But he was surrounded by people who I’m sure were telling him, “Oh, those guys aren’t going to help you with swing voters, or with the suburbs.” That’s totally untrue. And the reality is that we also had major House and Senate races in 2012 with candidates who did reach out to us and were proudly running as Tea Party Republicans. It was tough for many to justify taking time away from them to support a guy who never really asked for our support. Had Mitt Romney stood up at his Stratham, New Hampshire announcement speech in June 2011 and said he shared the frustrations and aspirations of the Tea Party movement, he would have been our 45th President. All of that said, I did everything I could to help him, and I obviously voted for him.

What are the major victories of the Tea Party movement?

Obama promised a fundamental reformation of the United States of America in his 2008 campaign. But the reality is that he did not change much of anything, and that’s because the Tea Party movement engaged tens of millions of Americans against his policies and then won both the U.S. House in 2010 and the U.S. Senate in 2014 to essentially block his most radicalized legislative ideas. In fact, the Resistance movement today was basically founded by a few liberal Congressional staffers who said: “We were on the inside, and we saw the way the Tea Party movement stopped the entire Obama legislative agenda.” It isn’t even a secret. They published a whole report arguing that and trying to replicate our tactics.

So we held some very disastrous policies at bay. As bad as you think things could have gotten, it would have been even worse absent Tea Party movement opposition. We may never have recovered. Yes, I believe the Tea Party movement can be credited with saving this nation.

But political victories come and go. I think the real victory of the Tea Party movement is creating an avenue for centrist political activism for Americans who share our three founding principles: adherence to the U.S. Constitution, limited government, and lower taxes. Many Americans who share these values were standing demoralized on the sidelines because they had no one they really identified with. It is the Tea Party movement that said, “We know things look bleak. We know we have no political leverage right now in Washington. We know you feel kicked and downtrodden. But things are going to change, and we are going to change them.” And in reshaping dialogue back to our founding principles and educating the American people on those principles and on what powers are and are not afforded the federal government under our Constitution, we got many Americans to recognize that our founding principles are and must always be enduring principles. Of all of the bold things I have done in my life–standing in the middle of the Angolan jungle with anti-communist resistance forces in the middle of a major Cold War civil war, for instance–I don’t think anything compares to my promises to the American people that we would win. I know they needed to know we could win to be inspired and engaged, and I knew without them being inspired and engaged it was hopeless. But I first needed to feel comfortable intellectually that we could win before going out on a limb and promising it. Had we not prevailed, I guarantee I would be reminded every day for the rest of my life how wrong I was. I’d be a running joke on Brian Williams and Lawrence O’Donnell. I knew that too. But I concluded the opposition was vast and that we could turn the entire federal government–and state and local governments too–around. And I promised that, and so did many others.

How does President Donald Trump interface with the Tea Party Campaign? How does the Tea Party interact with Trump? How will the Trump administration effect conservatism in the future?

I endorsed President Trump on the first day of his candidacy, June 16, 2015, because I know he has the sort of fortitude necessary to stand against political pressures and the swamp culture. That takes a special kind of strength, and he was the only candidate I saw who was forcefully addressing our trade crisis, our immigration crisis, our cultural crisis. It is less known but President Trump also spoke at a Tea Party rally in Palm Beach back in 2011. He was and is a supporter of the Tea Party movement, even though some of my colleagues opposed his candidacy. I know for a fact he came out of that Palm Beach Tea Party rally, got in his limo, and said: “Wow. That was great.” In the Tea Party movement, I think the President saw for the first time the promise that a successful populist national political campaign was really possible. Some questioned my conservatism in endorsing and supporting him. Rich Lowry said on Fox News I was handing the White House to Hillary Clinton, for instance. These guys never reemerge to apologize, of course. But I knew I had spent more time in the grassroots than these people. I knew Trump was serious in his love of country and placing us first, and I knew that he has personal traits that are extraordinary and unmatched in modern political life. This is not a perfect man, but this is a man for this moment. And I was convinced enough Americans would see all these things too.

So they were wrong and I was right about him in multiple ways. They said he couldn’t win. Period. No chance. He got 304 electoral votes. And they said he was not a real conservative, but he is the best thing to happen to conservatism since Reagan and maybe ever. His tax and regulatory cuts are aligned with our Tea Party agenda. In Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and many federal judicial appointees, he’s advancing the principles of conservative jurisprudence and original intent that we champion. He is undeniably the most pro-life president since Roe v. Wade. And I think, and most would agree, that it was the Tea Party movement that gave birth to modern conservative populism that allowed Trump to not only run without Republican Party support in the primary but to run pretty openly run against the Party establishment. It was the Tea Party movement that built the foundation for mass rallies as an effective 21st century means of political organization and communication. Without the Tea Party movement, I think Trump would have been forced to run a much different and certainly less populist campaign. I think we paved that road, and thank God we did. So his winning the primary was not a Republican Party victory. It was a victory over the Republican Party whose top leadership did not want him the race and repeatedly urged him to get out and did everything possible to undermine his candidacy up to the Cleveland convention when they finally aligned with him.

How do you think that commentators like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson will change our political culture?

I’m not sure exactly. I think you need to decide who you are ultimately. Both of those guys are more commentators than political leaders if I understand them correctly. If you have the guts to walk into a room of hostile liberals, as I have done and as they have done, and preach truth, I respect you greatly. That takes guts in 2018. But it’s ultimately not enough. We aren’t going to win because we have great authors and college lecturers. We are going to win because we have a winning and understandable message being transmitted through a vast and organized collaborative political movement. If you have the former and not the latter, it’s useless. So I instruct fellow conservatives: Do not assume that we are doing everything correctly, or that your voice is meaningless. Just realize that your voice alone has its limits. Combine with one other person and you double your persuasiveness and reach. Combine it with tens of millions and it will be exponentially so. I see our prospects for success answered in a few very simple questions: Can we all organize together? Can we all work together? Can I count on you? Can you count on me? And I don’t mean, can I count on you to show up and give a lucrative college lecture. I mean can I count on you when the hours are long, when the the opposition is playing hardball, when we are losing, when there is no obvious reward at the end of the rainbow except knowing we did the right thing to live another day? We have a lot of work to do on those fronts. It takes a movement, and that means collaboration. We need to be bending over backwards to work together and help each other.

How can the Tea Party movement interact with the changing demographics? How can the conservative movement stay fresh and accessible as we move forward?

I think our Tea Party movement’s demographics very closely mirror those of the general electorate. African American and Hispanic representation is roughly what it is in the general population, though it should be higher. Women are very well represented and are some of the Tea Party movement’s most effective leaders and members. Our age demographic probably tilts a bit over the median, but that’s not uncommon in political advocacy. I think we need to do more to take our message into urban communities and liberal-leaning suburban communities and say, “You may think you know us based on what Rachel Maddow tells you about us every night, but let me really tell you the truth about what we stand for.” Let me stand here for as long as you like and answer every question you can think of. Just give me a hearing, and you’ll see I definitely keep it real, I listen attentively, and if you have a better idea than mine I will toss my idea and embrace yours. The only parameters are not comprising on our Constitution or on ethics. Those are red lines.

I see successful political organization as a conversation. It’s about speaking principles but also hearing the realities of people and understanding the things they think about when they wake up each morning and the things that might keep them up at night. It’s about responsiveness to the problems confronting Americans while defending the great principles upon which this giant experiment known as the United States of America is built. It’s about ensuring your priorities are my priorities because if they aren’t, what’s the point? That’s the game, and defending this nation and ensuring we leave it better than we found it must always be the goal.

Content originally published in The Politic.

Declan Kunkel is a senior in Morse College. 

Interview with AEI’s Peter Wallison

On October 30, 2018, the Buckley Program hosted a dinner seminar with AEI scholar Peter Wallison. Mr. Wallison served as general counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department, and had a significant role in the development of the Reagan administration’s proposals for the deregulation of the financial services industry. He also served as White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Wallison discussed his latest book, Judicial Fortitude: The Last Chance to Rein In the Administrative State, in which he argues that the administrative agencies of the executive branch have gradually taken over the legislative role of Congress, resulting in what many call the administrative state. 

By: Carson Macik

CM: Thank you Mr. Wallison for sitting down with me today. I’m sure you have many insights to share, and I can’t wait to delve into the issues with you.

PW: It’s my pleasure.

CM: So, after the 2008 financial collapse, many were left wondering what happened. Some even theorize the lack of an explanation gave rise to the economic system of socialism. Of course, you’ve written a book about the issue [Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Financial Crisis and Why it Could Happen Again, 2015], and your work has pushed you into the eye of critical economists like [Paul] Krugman. What did they get wrong about the cause of the 2008 collapse?

PW: They did not understand. They refuse to accept the idea that the government’s housing policy actually caused the 2008 collapse. I can understand why they would believe that after all. They’ve always thought the government did everything right. This book, my book, makes clear that it was the government’s housing policy that caused the huge bubble and then the collapse which ultimately caused the financial crisis.

CM: In my economics class that I took in high school, we learned about the FDIC. It was portrayed very positively, that it was this safety net which saves banks from overstepping their bounds. What are your thoughts on the FDIC?

PW: Well, I do think people want a very safe investment for their savings. I don’t really think we can do without a government-backed deposit system. Once you get a government-backed deposit system, the FDIC or some other agency must regulate the banks, because people deposit their money in the banks believing that they will be able to get out of the banks if a problem arises. They won’t care whether the bank is “safe” or not. The government has to protect itself by regulating [the banks]. I do think the government over-regulates the banks. They [the banks] should be given more authority than they have to venture into new areas, but I can understand why people would be reluctant to do that. Once we establish that you should have safe deposit accounts, we have no choice but to implement a regulatory system for the banks.

CM: In that case, it would seem like some sort of regulation is needed. The administrative and regulatory state, as you’ve written about, has become a pressing issue among conservatives especially since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the escalating rise in government spending, and the ever-constant intervention of bureaucratic agencies into the lives of Americans. What role do you think the Fed, the IRS, and other financial agencies play in maintaining the American way of life? And have any meaningful changes come from this administration addressing that?

PW: Here’s my problem with the administrative state. It has nothing to do with the American way of life. It has a lot more to do with whether we are going to live in a democracy or not. If we actually have a democracy, that means ultimately the American people, through their representatives, have to make the major decisions for what the government does. The administrative state, unfortunately, and all these agencies of the executive branch, are functioning without any approval from Congress. And that is dangerous. If the American people come to believe the government is acting without any support from them or any control by them, they will no longer support the government. We see this happening in Brexit where citizens there, at least the majority, thought the rules coming out of the European Union were falling on them without any control or representation. So, they wanted to eventually withdraw from the European Union. That can happen in the United States: not a withdraw, but a sense that the government is no longer legitimate.

CM: I think that’s becoming more prevalent now, especially with Trump being president. I think many people feared the state more than they feared Trump.

PW: Well, the election of Trump has the implication that a very large portion of our population was tired of all the regulation from Washington. This isn’t just the business community. These are ordinary people who felt disillusioned by the regulations. They said, ‘this has got to stop.’ They felt that Congress wasn’t responsive.

CM: Organizations like the Mises Institute advocate for abolishing the Fed[eral Reserve] and returning to the gold standard. Frederick Hayek, who they quote very often, even went so far as to advocate for the private competition of currencies. Where do you draw the line with government regulation and to what extent do you think these limitations can be implemented in the bureaucratic state?

PW: I’m unsure about the whole issue of currencies and what the Fed does, whether it could be done without government action. I just haven’t studied this, so I’m unwilling to say anything definitive about it. I have many friends who are conservative economists, and yet they won’t go so far as to say the Fed should be replaced or eliminated. So, until I know more about monetary economics, I guess I’ll have to pass.

CM: That’s fair. As I’m sure you’re aware, insurance premiums are skyrocketing and are predicted to hit new records in 2019. Is over-regulation the cause of this price-hike and are there free market solutions this late in the game of government-regulated healthcare?

PW: So, I’ve always had the view that we don’t have enough consumer sovereignty in the healthcare industry. People should be able to make choices based on the cost for various kinds of healthcare services; and to the extent that they do that, to the extent that they have a number of providers, a number of services, and a number of medications, that system will drive down costs. By creating the Medicare system and Obamacare, and regulating insurance providers and imposing costs on service organizations, the government has made it very difficult for that to occur. We have a competitive system for everything, including food. If you take the case of food products, where one supermarket is trying to compete with another supermarket and there are different products within the supermarket competing among each other, you can see how the very efficient, free market system could work in the delivery of healthcare.

The data shows, for example, that automobile prices are stable over time since maybe the mid-1960’s through today. Automobile prices have remained the same in relation to the median income of the American people. It’s almost a flat line. Why is that? It’s because the automobile companies are competing with one another. They keep improving the quality of their services and the goods that they provide, but they also keep the prices down to compete.

The same thing is true in the home-construction business. If you look at the prices of homes, you see the same thing. The prices of homes increase incrementally and then crash suddenly. But, if you look at the cost of building homes, the line is flat. Why is that? Again, the answer is that the cost of building is negotiable on the free-market basis among the contractors on the one hand and the builders on the other, and that keeps the prices stable. When the government steps in, you get these giant bubbles which naturally collapse. If we had a free market in housing, we would have a stable market. And if we had a freer market in healthcare services, we would also have stable and much less expansive governmental role.

CM: That’s interesting how, in principle and in practice, the free market can be applied across many different fields.

PW: Well, if you look at most of the things in the United States, they’re completely open to the free market without government regulation. The government regulates a little bit, but it doesn’t control. It doesn’t have a major role. And when the government is not involved, you get a stable market over time. You don’t have the government causing all those collapses.

CM: The power of the free market is truly incredible. It’s quite astounding. So, you grew up in New York City, hardly a town known for its conservative populace, and then graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law, went on to work in the Reagan administration, and now hold the position of co-director at AEI’s [American Enterprise Institute] program on Financial Policy Studies. That’s quite a distinguished career. What motivated you to reach the place where you are now, and what advice would you give to aspiring conservatives?

PW: Well, of course, I always wanted to be a lawyer. Now you don’t have to be a lawyer to be conservative: you can be an economist, or a business mogul, or anything really. But, my observation is what I said before. That is, if you look at the economy as a whole, if the private sector is left on its own largely, it produces a stable market, low prices, and a lot of innovation. If the government gets involved, it’s a terrible situation. One of the things I did when I was practicing law was representing banks and financial institutions that were heavily regulated. I could see the problems that came out of that. There are reasons why financial and investment firms need regulation, but the real problem is that the government, once it gets involved and begins manipulating things, causes problems. Then the government comes into solve those problems, only making things worse. What’s going to happen in the housing field right now? We are going to have another serious crisis because the problems that caused the crisis of 2008 have not been solved. In fact, they haven’t even been touched. When it occurs, I can guarantee you people won’t say ‘the government should get out.’ People are going to say ‘we need more government control over the housing business,’ and that’s what will have caused the problem.

CM: Thank you so much for your thoughts. I think you really gave some valuable insight into the role of government regulation.

PW: Sure. That’s just my perspective, and I think it has plenty of support among economists, but unfortunately too many people can’t imagine a world without government control. That’s a continuous fight, and I hope that the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program will pick up the baton and run with it. There’s a lot to be said for the free markets.

CM: We will certainly lead the charge. Thank you.

Carson Macik is a first-year in Saybrook College.

Firing Line Debate on Gun Control: A Conversation with the Legal Minds of D.C. v. Heller

On Friday, September 21, 2018, the Buckely Program hosted Joseph Blocher and the Clark Neily for a Firing Line debate on gun control.  Joseph Blocher is a Professor of Law at Duke University and a graduate of Yale Law School. He focuses primarily on Second Amendment law and legal history. Mr. Blocher provided much of the legal thinking behind the D.C. government’s argument that their handgun ban was constitutional in the landmark Supreme Court case D.C. v. Heller. Clark Neily is the Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute and served as co-counsel to the plaintiff in Heller.

By: Grant Gabriel

First, a formality, I recognize the elephant in the room: a “Firing Line” debate on gun control… it is hardly subtle. Indeed, given our present political climate, the proposition seems rife with peril. Invite Professor Joseph Blocher, who helped draft Washington, D.C.’s argument in defense of the handgun ban overturned in D.C. v. Heller, and the Cato Institute’s Mr. Clark Neily, plaintiff’s counsel in the same case—two leading legal voices on one of the most politically contentious topics today—and the Buckley Program might as well have countenanced a duel.

Accordingly, when I sat down across from Messrs. Blocher and Neily for our pre-debate interviews, I came loaded for bear. I was prepared to probe both sides of the decision in Heller and cover the well-trodden ground of Second Amendment interpretation. From the very beginning, however, it was clear that these two intellectuals refused to succumb to the lesser angels of our present politics. Though their legal positions in Heller might have been antithetical, the two began their interviews, conducted separately, expressing a nearly identical sentiment: litigation is not the solution.

“I think that everyone should accept the precedent as it stands….” If this opening concession from D.C.’s advocate was surprising, Mr. Neily’s was just as telling: “Up until this point, and to a pretty high degree of certainty going forward, judicial protection of gun rights has been trivial.” The two, that is, now agree on a fundamental point. The Second Amendment protects the personal right to keep and bear arms, and the courts are highly reluctant to carve out Second Amendment protections beyond that central holding.

The reality of judicial non-intervention in Second Amendment jurisprudence may very well result from Professor Blocher’s assertion that “It was a closer decision than people on either side would like to admit.” Recognizing this situation, and fearing the potential political backlash historically associated with holding large portions of party platforms unconstitutional (see e.g. Dred Scott v. Sandford and more recently Roe v. Wade), the courts may very well be reluctant to take too active a role. Indeed, while proposals for Australian-style gun buybacks may run rampant on Ivy League campuses, both Professor Blocher and Mr. Neily agreed that the majority of gun control advocates have accepted the premise behind Heller and have adapted their proposals accordingly. As Professor Blocher put it, “[Heller] is not antithetical to the Democratic Party in the way Roe has been to the Republican Party.”

Professor Blocher called for the courts to develop a more robust Second Amendment doctrine to help draw out some of the vagaries of Justice Scalia’s opinion. Namely, he hoped for more clarity in parsing the “common use” test—hinging protection on a firearm’s “common use” in society. He suggested drawing on the three-pronged Miller Test from obscenity doctrine for guidance. But ultimately, with the courts’ reluctance to test the bounds of the political acceptance of Heller, both men turned their sights to the realm of policy.

Though maintaining that he held little hope of altering his opposition’s underlying opinions about firearms, Mr. Neily seemed armed with facts tailored to create political common ground. He emphasized the disproportionate enforcement of gun regulations against African-Americans. “47.3% of federal gun convictions are African Americans, which is a greater racial disparity than with drugs,” an outcome of a criminal justice system in which “African Americans are arrested for gun crimes at a rate five times that of whites, [and receive much harsher penalties] when they are prosecuted.”

These disparities represent a cruel irony considering that the inability of African-Americans to trust their own defense to the state in the Reconstruction South played a key role in solidifying the conception of a personal right to keep and bear arms outside of militia service. Yet, Professor Blocher stressed that African-Americans, often living in the communities most heavily impacted by gun violence, are among the most likely to support stricter gun laws. Nevertheless, he decried what he considers a false dichotomy between those who support the Second Amendment and those who advocate for gun control.

Contending on opposite sides of D.C. v. Heller,these two accomplished attorneys began from opposing legal positions. When I interviewed them, they made clear that they were intent on marching towards political solutions. Later that evening, they engaged not in an antagonistic debate but rather thoughtful discussion. This “Firing Line,” hosted by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, made clear the imperative of civility in political and legal discourse. I encourage all who get the chance to watch the recording of the dialogue posted by the Buckley Program. If I could, I would make it mandatory viewing for my classmates in the law school. If these two former foes can engage in this manner, then surely, the rest of us should aspire to nothing less.

Grant Gabriel is a student at the Yale Law School. 

 

Oren Cass on “Overheated” Climate Change Coverage

Oren Cass addressed Buckley Fellows in a lecture on Monday, April 23rd to discuss his work on overdramatized analyses of climate change. A fellow spoke with him before the talk, and his thoughts are printed below. 

Oren Cass is a Senior Fellow with the Manhattan Institute, where his focus includes energy, the environment, and poverty, as well as corresponding policy issues. He previously served as domestic policy director for the Romney campaign from 2011-2012. He often briefs Congress on his conservative policy approaches for issues such as environmental regulation, trade, poverty, and climate change, and his work has been widely published among prominent media outlets. He received a B.A. in Political Economy from Williams College and a J.D. from Harvard University. 

By: Matthew Fantozzi

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Oren Cass to ask him some questions about his views on climate change.  Prior to my interview with Mr. Cass and his lecture that followed, I would have said that I had a good idea of what climate change was and how it would affect the globe, and I definitely would have said it was a serious issue we need to address as quickly and forcefully as possible.  With that said, I was excited to learn more about Mr. Cass’ views and to hear about how he arrived at his conclusions.

Mr. Cass’ general view on climate change can be summarized as the following: it is happening and humans are causing it, but it is not as serious or urgent an issue as most people believe.  Mr. Cass’ position is that the slight warming of the globe over a long period of time will be something humans can easily deal with, and he believes that the issue has been blown drastically out of proportion.

For my first question, I asked him why he thinks the issue has been so blown out of proportion and why the idea of global warming as an existential threat has caught on so thoroughly. Mr. Cass thinks the main problem is that people often forget how adaptive humans are, and how fast technology changes. When looking at the issue with the mindset that our society will not change as the climate does, the projected effects can indeed look quite scary.  The key, he says, is to trust humans and the technology we will discover to effectively combat climate change.  He believes this is very plausible given that climate change is a very slow-moving problem, giving us plenty of time to learn about and deal with it.  As for the reason it is viewed as such an immediate, severe threat, Cass believes it is simply marketable.  Articles about the disasters climate change will bring get a lot of clicks on the internet, so media outlets are encouraged to run more of them and the problem snowballs from there.  Articles that talk about climate change as nothing more than an interesting problem we should begin learning about now to effectively combat in the future do not tend to be as popular.  He spoke about this from experience, being someone who has himself written many articles arguing for this more reasonable approach.

My next question asked how we should deal with this type of long-term, potentially major issue, and which long-term issues Cass finds more worrisome, given that climate change does not fall into this category. He breaks down the process of evaluating and addressing major issues into two main components.  First, we as a society must learn as much as possible about the potential issue and what effects it may have in the future. After this is done, we must work to create a society that is resilient to the effects we foresee, as opposed to trying to eliminate the causes of those effects. With specific respect to climate change, for example, we should be looking to create a society that can, in the future, accept and manage slightly hotter temperatures and a slight rise in sea level.  As for the second part of the question, he told me that he believes any risk or problem that moves quickly is significantly more worrying than climate change. Perhaps something like nuclear war or a pandemic that could cause significant damage over the course of weeks or months would pose a greater immediate threat.  One of the upsides of climate change, he says, is that it moves incredibly slowly, giving us time to prepare and adjust.

My last question for Mr. Cass asked, even if the effects of climate change will not be that drastic, whether there is harm in everyone beginning to do their part now to reduce it.  His main problem with this is that he believes everyone making their own small contributions has no measurable effect. According to Cass, the only way to make a difference, even domestically, would be with drastic government policies that would significantly alter daily life.  Such policies could come in the form of sweeping restrictions on cars and air travel.  More than that, he says, it is important to understand that climate change is not a domestic problem, but a global one. This century, between 70 and 80 percent of emissions are projected to come from the developing world. That is where we would have to focus efforts in order to make a meaningful impact on climate change, and that does not seem fair to him.  It is unreasonable to prevent leaders from developing their countries and improving the lives of their citizens because of an ambiguous problem we might have to deal with in the future.

There is an established narrative about climate change and its seriousness on campus, and it turned out I knew very little beyond that coming into this interview. According to Cass, there is ample room for criticism of this account. Climate change is definitely a problem and an interesting one, but it is important to not simply accept the mainstream view on this subject without critical thinking.  It is important to listen to people like Orren Cass because it is impossible to address any problem completely without a full understanding of the issue, including the views of experts on all sides of it.

Matthew Fantozzi is a sophomore in Pierson College.