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Impeachment Hangs on Whether Trump’s Actions Were Illegal or Merely Ugly (Washington Examiner) November 8, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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In the first 175 years of the Republic, the House of Representatives impeached only one president, Andrew Johnson. Now, in the last 57 years, we have impeached two presidents, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and are on the verge of impeaching a third. It’s worth considering the modern rise in impeachments: Are presidents really that much worse, or is something larger afoot?

We normally evaluate a president’s performance through elections. We are continuously shown opinion polls about what people think of President Trump and impeachment, but impeachment is not a popularity contest. The people’s view properly comes to the fore a year from now in the 2020 election.

Let’s keep these two accountability measures straight: Elections are for the people to express a judgment and preference, but impeachment is a constitutional question for the two branches of Congress to decide.

Compared to the normal recourse for presidential failures through an election, impeachment is an extraordinary measure. It is based on a high standard spelled out in the Constitution: “High crimes and misdemeanors.” And, at least for 175 years, it was used incredibly sparingly.

So what has changed?

Well, for one thing, everything a president says and does may now appear in a public record. A phone call with a foreign leader would have been private in an earlier time, but not today. That does not justify anything a president says and does, but politics is an ugly business, including global politics.

A quid pro quo in foreign policy? Hardly shocking. I’m sure it happens all the time. We may not like it, might even want to vote against it, but does it really rise to the high bar of an extraordinary remedy for “high crimes and misdemeanors?”

Or, to take a different angle, today everything is seen as extraordinary and we demand immediate action. Lacking political patience, we jump to extraordinary remedies because we can.

The textbook case of rushing to extraordinary remedies came in California 16 years ago when, having just elected Gov. Gray Davis to a new term, his opponents turned around, got enough ballot signatures, and put him on the ballot to be recalled.

Why? Because they could. The joke was that if you put “none of the above” on a ballot, that would win, so it was easier to get a negative vote through a recall than to beat him head-to-head. So we can’t wait a year to judge Trump in the election?

Finally, what has changed is that our politics and policymaking have become political theater and war. We no longer debate and deliberate over the best policies, rather we use executive orders and party-line votes to impose the will of the party in power. We declare “war” on policy problems and enact national emergencies. The Senate, historically called the world’s greatest deliberative body, hardly deliberates at all anymore.

Now, votes in Washington are not about finding the best policy or even doing the right thing. They are political theater, the point of which is to please and energize your base, raise more money, win elections, and stay in power.

You could tell that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was not eager to pick this impeachment fight a year before the election, but her base more or less demanded it, just as Trump is stirring up his base for the coming political war. This impeachment battle, sadly, is more about the politics of war than about meeting a constitutional standard or doing the right thing.

Willie Brown, the former speaker of the California Assembly and former mayor of San Francisco, is still an insightful political observer. A few years ago, when federal prosecutors wanted to go after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for involving politics in the replacement of former President Barack Obama in the Senate, Brown warned that politics was a crazy business (I would say ugly) and that there always has been plenty of “this for that talk,” but that doesn’t make it illegal.

That is pretty much where we are today. Politics has once again revealed itself to be ugly, and many people don’t like it. However, that does not make it illegal or a reason to choose an extraordinary remedy rather than allowing the people to decide in the next election.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Sanders vs. Warren: The Revolutionary vs. The Regulator (Washington Examiner) October 25, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Many see Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as two peas in the liberal Democratic pod. Battling to consolidate their overlapping constituencies, they might be called left (Warren) and lefter (Sanders). But a deeper look at an earlier time in history, specifically the Progressive Era and the New Deal, reveals real and important differences in the left back then that are at play in the Sanders vs. Warren battle today.

In short, the early Progressives, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, were focused on government regulation of the economy and business which, at the time, was a bold new idea. Teddy Roosevelt was known as a “trust-buster” through his antitrust prosecutions and regulatory reforms. His “Square Deal” sought to regulate industries in such a way as to increase fairness to the public while also respecting business. At heart, he was a reformer.

By contrast, Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, was more interested in an economic revolution. His “New Deal” sought to turn economic policy upside down, focusing on the “forgotten man” who was losing out to the “financial titans” and “economic royalists.” In his 1936 speech accepting the nomination for a second term, he said he was not interested in regulating the power of big business but ending it. In his 1944 State of the Union message, he set out a “second bill of rights” to provide economic security for people. The New Deal was America’s French Revolution, changing everything.

Today, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders support many of the same policies, but there is an important difference: One is a reformer while the other preaches revolution. Likewise, one is a descendant of an essentially American political movement, progressivism, while the other professes loyalty to a brand of European politics, socialism. It is a bigger difference than first appears.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was a prophet crying in the wilderness with a new and even extreme message. By the 2020 campaign, however, most of his positions have been embraced by others on the Democratic debate stage. “Medicare for All,” free college, and an increased minimum wage are all standard Democratic fare by now, so the prophet has become mainstream. He can try to take credit for being first (“I wrote the damn bill”) but that energizes only his enthusiasts.

What continues to distinguish Sanders from other Democrats is his constant preaching of the need for “a political revolution.” This system, he argues, is “rigged” and needs to be overturned. He recently gained the support of another revolutionary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, strengthening his movement.

Although new front-runner Elizabeth Warren shares many of Sanders’ policy positions, she comes at them from the more cautious and nuanced stance of a regulator and a reformer, not a revolutionary. She made her mark in the Obama years by championing the establishment of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was appointed assistant to the president to get it up and running. A centerpiece of her campaign is heavier regulation of Wall Street and banks that she argues will level the playing field for everyone. Her own area of expertise as a Harvard law professor has been the complex system of bankruptcy laws.

A key difference between the revolutionary Sanders and the reformer Warren came to light in the most recent presidential debate. Sanders openly said that he would pay for Medicare for All with a special tax on “extreme wealth.” Apparently, Elizabeth Warren did not know there would be math on this exam because, when asked how she would pay for it, she could only admit later that she would have to develop a plan for that.

Bernie goes for the jugular — taxes on the wealthy — and we can predict that Warren will find a more nuanced approach.

Revolutionaries rarely win political campaigns but, in a sense, Bernie Sanders has already won. His policies are now in the more cautious hands of a regulator and reformer, Elizabeth Warren.

Conservatives: Beware the Wrong Message (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) October 22, 2019

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Conservatives’ message was individual liberty and limited government, but it’s been narrowed to a defense of capitalism and free markets. This message is a dead-end for younger voters, especially.

Young people view both government and markets with suspicion but they think government is fairer. Having lived through 2008, facing student debt, wage stagnation, lower-paying jobs — they dislike the harshness of markets.

A 2017 Pew poll found that 57 percent of younger Americans want a “bigger government with more services,” which is what liberals offer.

There is a larger point to conservatism than just free markets and capitalism. Young people love their individualism and resent being told they have to wear helmets and pads through life. They can still be reached with a message of individual liberty and limited government, which is where conservatives need to begin.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Conservatives: Beware the Wrong Message

Democrats Foolishly Pine for a New New Deal (Washington Examiner) October 18, 2019

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If you are a Republican running for political office, it’s a safe bet that you seek to identify with conservatives’ last great president, Ronald Reagan. Increasingly, the Democrats’ alternative is not so much a person, since he has faded from memory, but a program: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. With their poor understanding of American history, young people fail to realize that what they really want is a new New Deal, and what candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are prepared to offer them is best understood as a further expansion of the original New Deal.

In a speech on socialism and the economy in June, Bernie Sanders said, “Today … we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.” New front-runner Elizabeth Warren also admires the New Deal, and opinion writer Noah Smith called her “the closest thing modern American politics has to a successor to FDR.” When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced her sweeping new environmental proposals, she labeled them a “Green New Deal.”

But what does it mean to identify with the New Deal today, 87 years after Roosevelt launched it? In short, it means more government guarantees of economic security, or, as I call it, government that is big, expensive, and federal.

Roosevelt was actually a precursor of the Rahm Emanuel school of public policy. You remember Emanuel’s famous proclamation as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff that you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste because it is an opportunity to do things you could not do before. Without question, Roosevelt confronted a major crisis, the Great Depression, but he used it to implement a sweeping New Deal that permanently changed what the federal government does and how it does it. Not only did he implement the first large economic security program, Social Security, but he also built out the modern presidency and administrative state that continues to balloon in size and power. The New Deal was America’s French Revolution, changing everything.

At the heart of the New Deal was Roosevelt’s belief that the federal government should go into the business of guaranteeing people economic security. He foreshadowed this emphasis in his first inaugural speech when he asserted, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The true breadth of Roosevelt’s agenda, however, awaited in his 1944 State of the Union message when he introduced “a second bill of rights,” which was a sweeping list of economic guarantees Americans should expect. Among these were the right to a useful and remunerative job, a decent home, an education, adequate medical care, and protection from the fear of old age, sickness, accident, or unemployment.

From the cradle to the grave, it is pretty much all there, thanks to your Uncles Sam and Franklin.

After Roosevelt enacted Social Security, other presidents found opportunities to move the economic security ball down the field. Lyndon Johnson added Medicare and Medicaid. Barack Obama provided guarantees of healthcare. Even Republican George W. Bush added prescription drug benefits for seniors. Since these protections are virtually all for seniors, however, young people now want their share: free college, assistance with student debt and expensive housing, and, while we are at it, why not a guaranteed annual income? This is the new New Deal: economic security by the government for everyone.

Expanding the New Deal is actually the heart of the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren agendas. We can have all of this, they say. We can double down on the New Deal, or, as Bernie Sanders says, “carry it to completion.” The question, of course, is the same question candidate Tulsi Gabbard posed to Elizabeth Warren in the most recent debate: Where do we send the invoice for all of this? Perhaps someone should also ask whether government guaranteeing and taking over everything from healthcare to college costs and a guaranteed minimum income is even the sort of country we want.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Hoover Digest: Essay and Interview on “How Public Policy Became War” October 15, 2019

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The lead essay in the latest issue of Hoover Digest is from Gordon Lloyd’s and my new book, “How Public Policy Became War”


The issue also contains the transcript of an interview Peter Robinson did with me on Uncommon Knowledge about the book:


Beware A ‘War’ On Climate Change (National Radio Commentary, Salem/Townhall) October 3, 2019

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Politicians have learned that, if they don’t know how to solve a problem, they declare a war on it.

So: now we live under countless domestic policy wars—the war on poverty, war on crime, war on drugs, war on terror, war on energy consumption and the like. These wars spend money, increase federal executive power, but solve very little.

Now comes a dangerous cry to declare a war on climate change. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls climate change “our World War Two” and Senator Sanders, who proposes an even bigger Green New Deal, agrees. Scholars claim it is already a war that we are losing and ask the president to declare an emergency.

All of this is code for “we don’t really know what needs to be done, but it needs to be big, expensive and federal.” Beware a new policy war on climate change.



Who’s in Charge of the California Housing Crisis? (Washington Examiner) September 23, 2019

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In the past week, both President Trump and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson visited California to examine its housing crisis. Meanwhile, the state legislature passed a statewide rent control bill and officials in Sacramento are bullying cities to change their zoning laws. A veritable tug of war has emerged between state and local governments, with Washington eager to weigh in. Not only is there a housing crisis, but also a crisis of authority: Who is in charge here?

Though there is a debate over both the causes and solutions, there is little argument that the urban areas of California and elsewhere in the nation face a housing problem. In California, it is largely a result of economic growth because a booming job market, especially in high-tech areas, has attracted more workers than can be housed. The San Francisco Bay Area has added 676,000 jobs and only 176,000 housing units in the last eight years. Estimates suggest that the state needs to add as many as 3.5 million new homes, which Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to see built by 2025. In his first months in office, however, new housing starts have gone down and not up.

Another portrait of the crisis is painted by rampant homelessness in California cities, which is what President Trump came to see. While 12% of the nation’s population lives in California, it has 22% of the homeless population. A study released by the White House this month, “The State of Homelessness in America,” found that four of the five cities with the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness are located in California.

So yes, California, we have a problem. But who is in charge of fixing it?

Although traditionally land-use laws such as zoning and rent control are very much under the authority of local governments, Newsom wants to take charge from the top and impose solutions from Sacramento. Now cities are being ordered to construct specific numbers of new housing units or else the governor has threatened to withhold their gas tax revenues. On the “island” of Coronado, off downtown San Diego for example, the city has been targeted to build 1,001 new housing units but it sits on only 2.2 square miles of heavily built land. The mayor of Coronado rightly objects to these top-down and one-size-fits-all mandates from Sacramento.

The state has already issued warning to cities such as Encinitas, San Bruno, and Cupertino about their housing policies, and a lawsuit against the city of Huntington Beach is in the works. Of course, many California cities caught up in these new state mandates are not even in the neighborhoods of the technology job boom that has created the problem in the first place. They have to be wondering why a lack of planning by major tech firms and the cities that host and tax them has suddenly created a crisis for their land-use planning. As a Brookings Institution study reported this summer, “Many homeowners are opposed to new multifamily development in their communities,” explaining that there are not only lifestyle preferences at stake, but also economic, traffic, and other impacts.

In one sense, we have the California dream of single-family suburban living against the new California nightmare of homelessness and a housing crisis. But in another sense we have a crisis of governance: Who’s in charge here? I would say beware federal and state officials who subscribe to the Rahm Emanuel (former chief of staff for President Obama) philosophy of governance: Never let a good crisis go to waste, it’s a chance to do things you couldn’t do before.

California cities are right to be suspicious when Newsom comes to them saying, “I’m from Sacramento and I’m here to help you fix your housing crisis.” His one-size-fits-all ideas of state rent control and state mandates for higher zoning densities and unrealistic targets for new housing starts will not only fail to solve the larger problem, but create many more.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


“How Not to Teach American History” (Defining Ideas) (with Gordon Lloyd) September 18, 2019

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Given the myriad crises our country now confronts, who would have guessed that among them would be how we teach American history?  Nevertheless, as a new school year begins, the content, presentation and teaching of US history are in the news almost daily.  Should statues honoring civil war figures—at least those from the losing side—or former slaveholders be retained?  Do we need to change the names of streets or buildings if they bear the names of historical figures that do not satisfy present moral or political sensibilities?  Should history texts be rewritten to diminish their emphasis on our flawed heroes while increasing the teaching of racial, ethnic and gender minorities?  In short, should we be about the business of erasing, rewriting, apologizing for, protecting against, knocking down or covering up our history as many have proposed? 

The recent controversy over historic murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco presents a microcosm of the problems.  A 1936 painting depicting the life of George Washington shows two features that some found troublesome:  White settlers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s estate.  Some students, faculty and parents said the mural was racist and offensive.  Others said no, it tells the truth about that era and should be seen.  Still others said, regardless of the historical questions, it is a work of art and should remain.  Washington High graduate, actor Danny Glover, said, “Art has to make us feel uncomfortable.  That’s what art does.”

Initially the school board decided to do away with the mural but after a hue and cry from many—including minority groups and artists—it reversed course and, by a one-vote margin, concluded it would cover them up at a cost of over $600,000.  The sense was that showing the art would traumatize students and others in the community, but that destroying it permanently went too far.    At the root of the debate is whether such depictions are appropriate for learning from our history or, alternatively, whether history must be presented in a way that does not offend.

What happens in the schools constitutes the ground war in the battle over American history, but elites are busily engaged in an air war.  The New York Times joined the battle this month by introducing The 1619 Project, “a major initiative…to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.”  The beginning of slavery in 1619 explains everything, including the brutality of American capitalism, says the Times, and it will “publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”  Meanwhile, across the country in California, the state school board has proposed a draft ethnic studies curriculum that seeks not just to celebrate the historic contributions of minorities, but to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression at the intersection of our society.”  That is hardly the way to open a conversation about the historic contribution of ethnic groups.

The bombs are dropping and the guns are firing in the war over America’s history.

Can We Make Sense of This Moment?

Why should the teaching of American history have become so controversial at this moment?  Surely one factor is a shift in how we think about students themselves.  For many years, now, the term “helicopter parents” has described a heightened involvement by adults to keep careful watch over their kids, fearful that in this complex age, their child will be left behind.  A new term, “lawnmower parents,” seems to characterize the current age even better, since these adults now seek to mow down any and every obstacle that might stand in a child’s path.  Children are thought of as “snowflakes” who might melt if exposed to too much heat, including the fires of controversy or even criticism.  Taking down murals and rewriting stories of an uncomfortable history becomes part of the strategy of coddling and protecting sensitive kids rather than letting them confront the difficulties of history and make sense of them for themselves, developing judgment and resilience for life.

Another important factor is the movement, begun several decades ago, to demythologize American history.  Howard Zinn led this charge with his People’s History of the United States (1980), a textbook that reveals the selfish motives and cruel actions of America’s traditional heroes, while retelling America’s narrative from the perspective of their victims.  By Zinn’s account, Columbus came to murder natives and steal gold, while the Founders developed a constitutional republic that would protect their slaves and property.  The counter-narratives continues into modern times, when World War II was about “advancing the imperial interests of the United States,” and the last fifty years were “a capitalistic encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparations for war.”

In the early going, The People’s History, was assigned by teachers as a supplement or counterpoint to traditional history textbooks.  However, today it has sold over two million copies and has become, as Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has said, “mainstream” and, in many circles, “the dominant narrative.”  One way to read the battle over American history, then, is a conflict between the traditional heroic view and Zinn’s account of resistance.  But it is no longer enough for Zinn’s story to be presented as a counterpoint to the traditional view, allowing students to make their own choices, but Zinn’s disciples now feel the need to eliminate the heroic view and favorable understanding of American history altogether.  We live in a moment when many feel a need to throw out the baby of America’s accomplishments with the bathwater of colonialism.  Zinn’s work presents not merely a counterpoint but a new orthodoxy.

In seeking to understand the current history wars, we might go so far as to say that they have become politics by other means.  American history has been afflicted by presentism, examining our past with 21st century sensibilities and standards.  If colonials owned slaves, for example, our present standards must cause us to reject them, even erase their names from our history.  If a leader was on the wrong side of the Civil War, we may no longer honor them, despite any other accomplishments.  Professor Wineburg calls this “reading the present into the past.”  Since we now find politics in every part of the curriculum—even in biology and art—we should not be surprised to find it in history class.  Indeed, publishers sell very different history textbooks in conservative Texas than they do in liberal California.

Toward Better Teaching of History and Civics

As a starting point, all sides should be able to agree that we have been teaching history and civics poorly.  In the most recent report of the National Educational Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, or “America’s report card”), only 18% of 8th graders tested as “proficient” or better in American history while a mere 23% were “proficient” or better in government and civics.  Only 1-2% tested as “advanced” in these subjects.   The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported last year that only 36% of Americans could pass the US Citizenship Test, including questions about the ratification and provisions of the US Constitution, the participants in World War II and other history basics.  An Annenberg Public Policy Center Study in 2017 reported that 75% of students did not know the three branches of government and 37% could not name one right in the First Amendment.

History and civics have been crowded out of the curriculum in many places by the heavy emphasis on STEM (science, math, engineering and technology).   Further, with few colleges requiring courses in American history and civics, and with schools of education teaching pedagogy and not content, many history teachers enter the classroom with very little understanding or enthusiasm about the subject.  Perhaps worst of all are the textbooks that are boring at best and biased at their worst.  They reduce exciting moments in American history to a few dry paragraphs and, in the case of Howard Zinn, they present a diatribe against the American ideal.

As a starting point, we should recognize that the purpose of teaching American history in K-12 education should be different from its treatment in a college course.  Quite simply, younger students need to learn the basics about our history and leave the interpretation for college courses.  College is the time for reading multiple approaches to historical narratives and sorting out a proper interpretation, but the lower grades should be about laying a proper base of understanding.  Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University underscores that younger students “do not get the interpretive game [and] are just learning that claims must be judged not for their alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present and their ability to account for the unruly fibers of evidence that jut out from any interpretive frame.”  We do students a disservice when the adults carry out their political battles over history on the playing field of high school history classes.

A number of curriculum experts advocate the more promising approach of teaching students using primary documents, not just textbooks.  The Ashbrook Center in Ohio has trained and retrained thousands of teachers to use primary documents—not just the Constitution and Declaration, but speeches, letters, and other documents of the time—to recreate events and debates in our history.  This engages students more actively than the passive reading of a textbook and invites them to understand history from the perspective of the participants, not just through the political lens of the 21st century.  Teachers report both greater excitement and understanding from the use of primary documents as well as the prospect that students can draw their own conclusions.  Several other curriculum efforts such as the DBQ Project and programs at Berkeley, Stanford and Brown University similarly put primary documents at the center of history teaching.

There is even a new and improved textbook, finally, in American history:  Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope:  An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter Books, 2019).  McClay succeeds in delivering an inspiring narrative of American history, without rewriting, whitewashing, avoiding or politicizing.  Author Gordon S. Wood understood the value of such a narrative during, as he put it, “a time of severe partisanship that has infected many accounts of our nation’s past.”  History, in McClay’s hands, is a compelling and hopeful narrative, not a collection of disputed facts and intrusive opinions.

Dare we further propose that another important objective in teaching American history should be to help students not only understand but also love their country and be prepared to serve as well-informed citizens?  The Founders understood that a free republic would only work if an informed citizenry supported it and education was high on their agenda.  More recently, President Ronald Reagan, in his farewell message, warned of the need to return the teaching of civics and history to develop “an informed patriotism.”  Sociologist James Loewe, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, reminds us that, “We aren’t just learning about the past to satisfy our curiosity—we are  learning about the past to do our jobs as Americans.”  Professor Sam Wineburg agrees:  “It is not popular to talk about in an era of identity politics, but history teaching in school has a civic purpose, not only a disciplinary purpose.”


We live in a time when we seem to engage in every possible approach to history except to learn from it.  We seek to erase it, cover it over, topple it down, rewrite it, apologize for it, skip it—but not to put it out there to learn from it.  The evidence suggests students are doing very little learning of history as it is but, with all the bad ways we are presenting history, we should not be surprised.  It is time we return to an understanding that history and civics are essential underpinnings for good citizenship, and that teaching them includes, most assuredly, the basics but also an appreciation of one’s country and a willingness to be prepared to serve it.

Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.  Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center and Dockson Professor Emeritus at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. 

To read the essay at Defining Ideas:


Capitalism is a Dead End Narrative for Conservatives (Washington Examiner) September 12, 2019

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Here’s a Jeopardy! answer for you to consider: The federal debt, free trade, a consistent national security policy, and young voters. The question: What are things conservatism has lost?

But the biggest conservative calamity of all, and one that creates real jeopardy at the polls, is the loss of its narrative. Conservatives, whose message was once individual liberty and limited government, are instead now branded by the narrower and less popular narrative of capitalism and free markets. It turns out that path is a dead end, especially among younger voters.

As Patrick Dineen pointed out in his book Why Liberalism Failed, the two great operating systems of our time are now the state (big government) and the market (capitalism). To many, including most young people, these are both opaque systems operated by distant forces beyond their understanding and influence. Both are undesirable but, of the two, government at least allows some kind of voice or representation of the people, so to young people it seems fairer than the harsh markets that produce winners and losers.

Indeed, the perceived harshness of capitalism and the market is the underlying cause of the recent rise of the once-despised term “socialism” in the American vocabulary. As presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg explained, “I think the reason we’re having this argument over socialism and capitalism is that capitalism has let a lot of people down.” Young people, who lived through the recession of 2008 and its aftermath, carry huge student debt, experience wage stagnation and lower-paying jobs, and are resigned to less financial success and security than their parents.

Unfortunately, for Republicans and conservatives, they are associated with free markets and capitalism, whereas liberals and Democrats are for big government. A 2017 Pew survey found that 57% of Americans 18-29 years old want a “bigger government with more services,” compared with only 38-40% of those ages 50 and up. Young people say they are interested in “socialism” but, if you probe a little more deeply, what they really want is free stuff: free college education, reduction of student debt, help with the high cost of housing, and the like, and this is precisely the direction most of the Democratic presidential candidates are heading.

Conservatives and Republicans have only begun to realize that their singular pursuit of capitalism and free markets is heading over the cliff and appear to be at a loss on what to do about it. Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson shocked his Fox News audience on Jan. 2 with a tiradeagainst capitalism that could well have been articulated by Sen. Bernie Sanders. David Brooks, the New York Timesconservative columnist, worries that economic competitors have been too focused on their own short-term gains and have lost their moral compass. Now there is a debate on reforming corporate practice to take account of more goals than just shareholder value. It will doubtless take a while to see if conservatives are able to reform capitalism to the satisfaction of young people, or whether their efforts will be seen as just putting lipstick on a pig.

The larger point, however, is that there is a larger point to conservatism than just capitalism and free markets, and it is here that conservatives need to take their stand. Conservatives have traditionally believed that freedom is indivisible and extends to political, religious, social, personal freedoms, right along with economic freedom. They are the champions of the opening line of the Declaration of Independence claiming that America is about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They are the defenders of the Constitution that set up systems by which individual liberty is to be guaranteed, especially from threats by big government.

Young people, who still love their individualism, resent being told they must wear helmets and pads through life, don’t like to be told they can’t buy a 16-ounce soda or an e-cigarette, or that their private health insurance is now illegal under Obamacare. They can still be reached by a message of individual liberty and limited government. That is where conservatives must begin their narrative, not with today’s bogeymen of capitalism and free markets.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.


To view the column at the Washington Examiner:



The Death Penalty: Who Decides? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) August 29, 2019

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Liberals have used the courts for decades to carry out their agenda of social change. From Roe vs. Wade’s constitutional right to abortion to the more recent protection of same-sex marriage, courts have become an engine of social change.

The death penalty seems to be the next target for social change, either through the courts or by governors. When the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced it would resume carrying out the federal death penalty, presidential candidate Kamala Harris attacked it as “immoral and deeply flawed” while Joe Biden reversed yet one more long-held position and said it was wrong.

Meanwhile in California, even though voters twice upheld the death penalty, Governor Gavin Newsom has suspended it.

Questions like the death penalty should be decided by the people and their elected representatives, not by elite courts and lone ranger governors who think they know better.


To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: The Death Penalty: Who Decides?