Discover more from Gideon's Substack
The anniversary of 1/6, intimations of war in Ukraine, and other pleasant reflections
Mahogany boxes containing the electoral certificates of the 2020 US Presidential election, after they had been removed from the Senate floor by staffers on Jan 6, 2021. No, “La La Land” still didn’t win.
This past Thursday, as no doubt everyone knows, was the anniversary of what I’ve taking to calling the Animal House Putsch, a really futile and stupid gesture by dead-end Trump supporters, after all legal avenues for contesting the election results had long since been exhausted, to use force instead. Except for the fact that people got injured and killed, it would be easy to see the effort as largely farcical. But even if no one had been hurt, what would have kept it from being pure farce was the fact that it was egged on by the sitting president who was also the losing candidate.
A year ago, I wrote a column arguing that, if the Democrats were serious about repairing this very serious tear in the fabric of our democracy, they would offer a real substantive olive branch on policy in order to get a conviction on the second impeachment trial of President Trump, which would have required the Republican Senate Majority Leader’s cooperation to achieve. That didn’t happen. Trump was acquitted, and a year later he remains the overwhelmingly dominant figure in Republican politics. If he wants the nomination in 2024 it is reasonable to assume it is his for the taking. Moreover, the mainstream Republican position is that the 1/6 rioters were right in principle even if wrong in practice—that is to say: the election was stolen, the Democratic Party is an existential threat to our republic, and therefore the rioters had every reason to be enraged, even if attacking the police and invading the people’s house was not the right way to show it.
There’s a tendency in some quarters to treat this as a good talking point for the Democrats. It is not. It is a big problem for our democracy for which pointing and shouting will be entirely inefficacious to fix. The fact that 1/6 was commemorated as a largely partisan event is a terrible sign, and precisely because of that the Democrats do not benefit in any way by pointing it out. There is no way out of this problem that doesn’t involve the parties working together, and there never will be. That fact potentially gives the Republican Party a lot of negotiating leverage, and a perverse incentive to make unreasonable demands. I understand why Democrats think that’s grossly unfair. It doesn’t matter. It’s the reality of the situation.
That’s the core point I tried to hammer home in a guest essay of mine in The New York Times this past Tuesday. The essay begins with imagining a Trump victory in 2024 in which there are credible claims made that the count was interfered with by Republican state legislatures, leading to protests and ultimately violence in response and a widespread refusal by Democrats to accept the results of the election. That’s a very real concern—but those very Republican legislators argue that they have taken this power precisely in order to protect electoral integrity from partisan Democrats. I wanted Democrats and Republicans to look in the mirror and see how that lack of trust in the legitimacy of the opposition is the core problem, and the reason why there is no partisan legislation that could restore our democracy. Of course there are laws that could be passed that would improve our democracy, from simple fixes like clarifying the Electoral Count Act to larger-scale reforms like adopting multi-member districts. I would happily vote for Senator Joe Manchin’s voting rights bill. Personally, I think we should have a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote. I don’t believe the best policy lies somewhere between the two parties. But I also recognize that so long as these reforms are structured and advanced on a partisan basis, they will be perceived—sometimes rightly, sometimes not—as being fundamentally about partisan advantage, and will therefore be seen as illegitimate by the opposition. But democracy, if it is to endure, cannot be a partisan matter.
I made similar points on Thursday on Michael Smerconish’s SiriusXM radio show (I don’t currently have a link to that appearance) and on an episode of The Breakdown, a podcast sponsored by The Lincoln Project. I do think there’s a possibility of getting some narrow bipartisan legislation on electoral integrity—not voting rights—out of this Senate. If there’s any possibility, it should be pursued vigorously. That won’t solve all our democracy’s problems, but it will at least establish that at some level, both parties still stand together as part of a single polity. I hope such bipartisan legislation is pursued. I wish I were more confident it would actually pass.
A Decisive Week for Ukraine
My column at The Week was similarly uplifting; it’s about whether there’s anything the diplomats can do when they meet this week to try to diffuse a possible war in Ukraine. Specifically, it was a response to Anatole Lieven’s creative suggestion of how to do just that.
Assuming Putin is prepared for war, as he seems to be, forestalling it seems to require exceptionally creative diplomacy. Anatole Lieven of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has proposed just that: neutrality for Ukraine, modeled on the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 between the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France, as wel las the Soviet-Finnish treaty of 1948, which established Austrian and Finnish neutrality, respectively, during the Cold War.
Lieven's suggestion is that America offer Russia a "golden bridge" away from conflict, something that would satisfy Moscow's core security objectives without resorting to war or sacrificing core Western interests. The United States and NATO would permanently abjure NATO membership for Ukraine in exchange for Russia's agreement not to incorporate Ukraine into any alliance of its own. Ukraine would be required to implement the "Minsk II" protocol's provisions of autonomy for the Donbas region, and Russia would agree to withdraw its troops there. By these means, Ukraine would become a neutral buffer state. This would avoid war, Lieven argues, satisfy Russia's need to keep Ukraine out of the Western orbit, and not compromise Ukraine's own independence or NATO's credibility.
It sounds like an elegant solution — a way for the West to limit Russian expansion while avoiding an expensive and dangerous new liability. But it's premised on the assumption that both sides actually want to avoid conflict. I suspect that assumption is false.
As I go on to argue, the problem is precisely that the West isn’t prepared to offer Russia a genuine sphere of influence (such as the Soviet Union had during the Cold War) which Ukraine could be a neutral buffer state on one side of, and that Russia wants to incorporate Ukraine into just such a sphere of influence. Neutrality is indeed the middle ground between those two conditions, but if both sides think they could gain more by war than by compromise (and I suspect that’s the case, even though the West doesn’t plan to actually fight Russia over Ukraine), then a compromise isn’t likely to be agreed to.
I hope I’m wrong—for Ukraine’s sake among other things.
Two posts this past week on this Substack:
“Encounters With Greatness”—why do we read the Great Books, whether in required university courses or on our own? Because they’re great. It sounds like a tautology, but it’s actually the heart of the matter, and justifications in terms of cultural literacy or civic education or character formation are really far more peripheral, and more readily vulnerable to challenge, than is the matter at heart.
“Will Redistricting Favor the Democrats?”—it looks like the answer may well be yes, but that doesn’t mean gerrymandering is no longer a concern, at least if you’re a small-d democrat. The biggest problem with gerrymandering isn’t that it tilts the political field slightly one way or the other but that it insulates legislators from accountability. We should be doing more to maximize the competitiveness of our political system—which is against both parties’ interests.
The World Elsewhere
Peter Bogdanovich died this past Thursday. I suspect more will mourn the recent passing of Sidney Poitier and Betty White, and well they deserve to be mourned widely: they were both great artists and also powerful agents of change in cinema. But Bogdanovich’s three most-heralded films—The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon, all made within a single three-year span—are personal favorites that resonate deeply with me and helped shape my taste and appreciation for film as an art form, and Bogdanovich as a figure has long fascinated and beguiled me. If you want to get a sense of him as a character, I recommend this interview conducted in 2019. And then, if you haven’t already, go watch those three films. You’ll be in for a treat.