Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Modern Coup D’état

Today at Real Clear Politics there's a reprint of Dorothy Thompson's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 31, 1937. The famous journalist's testimony was in opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's famous court packing scheme. RCP provides some interesting background to testimony before presenting the transcript:

Thompson’s experiences [in Weimar Germany] had provided the inspiration for her husband Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” which is about a fascist demagogue who whips up popular resentment and takes over the United States. As she testified before senators on this date 83 years ago, a “modern coup d’état” was not just a dystopian conceit, it was her warning that it can happen here.

Thompson's full testimony is far too long to reproduce here. On the other hand, the relevance to present day politics of her reflections on the Dem court packing scheme should be immediately apparent. In fact, her testimony could be regarded as setting a sort of baseline for conservatism. While I would be the first to add that far more in the nature of philosophical substance is required to support and maintain such a baseline, Thompson's testimony is a useful reminder of the dangers that always face constitutional government such as ours, and rarely more so than today. It's notable that a consistent underlying theme of the Trump administration has been a return to constitutional rule. This is especially clear in Trump's handling of federal - state relations during this Covid19 pandemic.

I'll offer an excerpt that I hope will capture the spirit of the full testimony. Food for thought:

The Modern Coup d'Etat
The outstanding fact of our times is the decline and fall of constitutional democracy. A great need of our time is for more accurate analysis of the pathology of constitutional government, of why constitutional government perishes. 
... there are a great many people in the United States, for instance, who think that ... constitutional democracies have fallen because they “failed to meet human needs” and pass adequate social legislation. I refer to that because that, apparently, is the president’s view. That is what he said, at his first speech in support of his proposals for reforming the judiciary. He said: 
In some countries a royalist form of government failed to meet human needs and fell. In other countries a parliamentary form of government failed to meet human needs and fell. In still other countries, governments have managed to hold on, but civil strife has flared, or threats of upheaval exist. 
That is what the president said, and apparently the moral of that is that unless Congress is made perfectly free to make any sort of legislation it may hit upon and then pass it on to a Supreme Court representative of the ideas of the majority, we shall see the end of democracy. Also, Mr. Harry Hopkins, in a radio address, recently said, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” That is just another expression of the thought that democracies perish if they are curbed, or if they fail to respond immediately to all the economic and social demands of powerful groups of the community. 

Does that not remind us of Pelosi's rhetoric of the supremacy of the House?

Gentlemen, I have come to a quite different conclusion about why democracies collapse, and give way to tyrannies of one sort or another. ...
[E]ach [example of a failed democracy] was the answer of a particular people, with particular mores and particular traditions to governments which were failing, not to meet human needs -- if by that you mean failing to pass social laws -- but failing in the first function of government: Failing to keep order and social cohesion and respect for principles. ... 
I think the disciplines of law are particularly needed in democracies and are especially needed at any moment when a powerful majority is in temporary control of the current political situation almost to the exclusion of minority representation. We have such a situation in this country now. The men who designed the structure of this Republic realized this. They did not believe that the cure for the evils of democracy was more democracy. They believed that the prevention against a democracy running away with itself, the prevention against a powerful majority riding roughshod over the temporary minority and selling short the whole future of the country, the prevention against today’s majority mortgaging tomorrow’s majority, lay in a written constitution and an independent Supreme Court to interpret that constitution. 
There is a reason why Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, and removable only by impeachment. That reason is obvious. It was certain that successive executives and successive Senates would seek to put upon the Supreme Court bench men responsive to their own ideas. Everybody is human, but it was arranged that the Supreme Court, only by the merest chance, by a very remote mathematical chance, would ever coincide with the majority of the moment. It was so arranged that the Court should represent not the momentary dominant majority, but the continuity and tradition in American life. 
The difference between a regime of pure democracy, which moves from majority to majority, one often overthrowing the other and seeking to destroy all or much of what its predecessor has done -- the difference between that kind of government, which I do not think has ever worked on this globe -- and our own constitutional democracy is the difference between legislation which is haphazard, which is directed by powerful forces at large in society, and legislation which is somewhat checked by the will to continuity. 

Here I think that Thompson strikes a chord that resonates in our current situation, as she refers not to mere political parties but to "powerful forces at large in society"--what we call The Establishment, or The Power Elite.

It is true that the Supreme Court is conservative. I think it is conservative by its very nature. And that, gentlemen, is its function -- to conserve. It represents, the opponents, say, the past. Yes, perhaps it does. It represents continuity; it demands that today’s laws shall be checked against the whole body of law and the principles governing the state, and thus it ensures that new laws shall be designed in some conformity with certain long-established customs and ways of life. And just because it represents continuity, because it exerts a constant reminder on the people that they have a past, a past to which they have a duty; just because it reminds them that when they act, however radically, however drastically, they must keep an eye on long-established patterns of law and behavior -- just for that reason I think it safeguards the future. For certainly those political democracies, gentlemen, have been proved safest which have the longest and most unbroken traditions. You might say that just because we have a past, we can be most confident that we have a future. 

In this we see the reason for the Left's drive to take over the institutions of education, already now controlled almost entirely by the Federal bureaucracy, under the thumb of Congress and the elites. The goal is to purge the past from men's consciousness so that a future of our own making can be put in place. We see in this a society directed by hubristic ideologies that deify human will--traceable to the Hegelianism embraced by the early Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson.

The dangers that threaten democracies are two: One is that the legal pattern should be too rigid; that the dynamics in society should shatter themselves against a Chinese Wall which can be broken only by revolution. That argument is constantly advanced these days by the advocates of rapid and drastic change. That argument is implicit in the president’s speech at the Democratic Party rally. It is the threat of revolution. I am not impressed by that argument. ... But wise democracies do not attempt during such emergencies to fundamentally alter the continuing structure of the State or set precedents for new procedures, and they return as rapidly as possible to the traditional pattern of procedure. 
I think the second danger to democracies is far greater: It is that reforms, often very good and much needed reforms, should be rushed through at a rate in which they cannot be digested in society. It is the danger that eager and unchecked majorities should set up new instruments of power, before they are equipped properly to administer such instruments. It is that the will of powerful pressure groups, even when such groups embrace a majority of voters, should find expression in total disregard of the feelings, apprehensions, and interests of large and important minorities. All of those things, for instance, would hold true if you analyzed the pathology of the Austrian republic. 
There is the danger that radical changes, affecting the social structure, should take place without the guidance or the check of any clear unequivocal principles. I think the greater the demand for popular franchises and rights, the greater is the need for constitutional control. Otherwise, this struggle for democratic rights -- or, if you want call if that, for new economic freedoms -- can very rapidly degenerate into a chaotic redistribution of privileges. ... There are always hundred percenters for democracy, those who want pure democracy. They want to do away with every impediment, and march at high speed toward what they call a real or modern democracy, or the democracy in harmony with the times. But precisely in such revolutionary times -- and we live in one -- it is most necessary to have a point of reference, a warrant, an instrument which confidently assures the legitimacy of what is being done. For without such a point of reference, there ceases to be a spontaneous social cohesion and what you then get as sure as fate is social cohesion by coercion. 

Is not what we see today on the Left the rejection of all principles, of even the notion of principles--except the principle of Human Will? Isn't that the real meaning of the Transgender Movement? The ramifications of all this go far beyond naming conventions.

I am sorry, gentlemen, to take your time by what may seem to be a lot of political philosophizing. But this question is essentially a political, and not a juridical, one, and I do not know how to discuss it except on the basis of a philosophy of politics. I know that the president’s proposal is legally constitutional. But I am convinced that it is not politically constitutional.


  1. I agree with you that the President is doing a good job with the Wuhan virus. But, he already is calling for another $2 trillion of money. I'm with Cocaine on this, let's see how round one of the spending helps.

    Let's cut out the fat like the Kennedy Center. I know that the House is Dem-controlled but Trump should use his bully pulpit and point out that this is a crisis, not Christmas.

    Spending other people's money is a bipartisan endeavor.

    1. It is a Deep State endeavor.

      End of last year, Fed bailed out hedge funds, to the tune of $1 trilllon. And in this new $2 trillion, the first of several, I gather, over 50% of that loot is going to crony capitalists, most of them on Wall Street.

      It's the old concentrated benefits, dispersed costs racket. Works every time!

      Until we run out of...just what is it they're printing?

    2. I agree. It's very disturbing--this country is far more corrupt than when Thompson was speaking. Not sure where Trump stands on this. I thought he hated the hedgers.

    3. Brilliant video, btw. Almost as good as Sir Humphrey's conversations with Sir Desmond Glazebrook:

      Sir Humphrey Appleby:
      Didn't you read the Financial Times this morning?

      Sir Desmond Glazebrook:
      Never do.

      Sir Humphrey Appleby:
      Well you're a banker, surely you read the Financial Times?

      Sir Desmond Glazebrook:
      Can't understand it. Full of economic theory.

      Sir Humphrey Appleby:
      Why do you buy it?

      Sir Desmond Glazebrook:
      Oh, you know, it's part of the uniform.

    4. Sir Desmond Glazebrook. Those were the days.

  2. The Senate Republicans should introduce a bill now to add three justices to the Supreme Court, effective before the end of 2020.

    Make the Democrats vote on the proposal now, while Trump is the President.