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Whatever Became of Socialism? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) July 8, 2020

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With the news dominated by Covid-19 and racial injustice, you might not remember one of the big stories of the past year: the rise of socialism. Previously a dirty word, socialism became popular among young people and polled well with Democrats.

But now we hear nothing about socialism. Bernie Sanders is gone and the Green New Deal has gone silent.

The fact is, young people were never interested in formal socialism. The same polls showing their attraction to it also showed they prefer a market economy over government control. They really didn’t want socialism, but free stuff: free college tuition, forgiven student loans, help with expensive housing and maybe a guaranteed income.

That agenda is now, quietly, Joe Biden’s platform, without the socialism name. He has embraced versions of all that and more. He is the candidate of free … and expensive … stuff.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Whatever Became of Socialism?

Dual Programming: The Trump Show versus The Biden Show (Washington Examiner) July 7, 2020

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Hamilton is not the only performance coming into your home this week.

After four years on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington, D.C., equivalent of Broadway, The Donald Trump Show is on the road, though appealing to smaller audiences. According to a recent Gallup poll, 38% approve of his job “performance” while 59% disapprove, a 19% gap. Even off Broadway, at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, there were empty seats, and the overflow venue outdoors was closed due to the small attendance.

Meanwhile, The Joe Biden Show (really a kind of no-show conducted largely from his Delaware basement) has attracted growing interest. Most of the recent polls show Biden with a significant 8-12% lead over Trump. Biden has also attracted more investors than Trump, outperforming the president’s prodigious fundraising operation each of the last two months and for the last quarter. By those measures, candidate Biden would do well to stay in his basement.

The conventional wisdom is that people are frustrated by the president’s lack of leadership during the coronavirus and protest crises. A president’s campaign for a second term is generally a referendum on his performance in his first four years, so that is certainly an important factor. It is also the case that the strong economy on which the president had planned to run for reelection has been pulled out from under him.

I would say it differently, however. I would argue that having a disrupter for president, one more interested in performance than governing, might have seemed tempting in theory but has been more difficult to pull off in practice. If you remember Trump’s campaign premise, it was that someone outside of Washington needed to come in and “drain the swamp” — or disrupt a corrupt system. As Yuval Levin points out in his recent book, A Time to Build, Trump is the first president who was never formed and shaped by American institutions such as the military, large corporations, the legislature, or a governor’s office. He came to the presidency from a career in a family business and celebrity, so that’s what he knows.

As a celebrity president, Trump is more about tweets and speeches than legislative accomplishments or policy programs. As campaign veteran Karl Rove recently pointed out, he has yet to tell the American people what he would do if elected to a second term. His presidency is not about agendas and policies but about him — his values and his frustrations, which his base shares. But it’s difficult to run a government that way, and in the end, that’s what we have traditionally expected a president to do.

Along comes Biden, then, who seems to know how to run a government. His career has been shaped by the Senate and the vice presidency. In the face of recent challenges, Biden has released specific plans about what he would do with the coronavirus challenge, for example. His communications tend to be more about policies and programs than his personal grievances and frustrations. He appears to be interested in governing.

Frustration and disruption have their place, but it is difficult to lead an institution from that base. Leadership as performance has long been a part of politics, but never has a political leader tried to invest so much in those without showing more interest in policy and governance.

It appears that The Trump Show may not be renewed for an extended run. Critics have never liked it, but now, except for his stalwart base, even audiences seem to be weary of it. A non-performance from an experienced candidate’s basement seems poised to overtake the rallies and tweets, the disruption and grievance of the Trump candidacy.

As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said, however, “A week is a long time in politics.” We’ll have to keep our eyes on the stage and the basement for another several months.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


From and For: The Prepositions of Freedom (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) July 3, 2020

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When Independence Day comes around, we mostly celebrate what we’re free from. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed our freedom from the King, from his abolishing our laws and taxing us without consent.

But the other side of freedom is to ask what we are free for? What is it we want to do in a positive way with our freedoms? We are free, the same Declaration said, to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That same dilemma faces Americans now as we celebrate another Independence Day. America seeks to be free from the interference of other countries, from undue interference even from our own government. Of course we’d like to be free from viruses and face masks and racial injustice.

But to accomplish that, we must accept the responsibilities of freedom. We must be free for living as responsible citizens every day.

Happy Independence Day!

To listen to the audio

David Davenport: From and For: The Prepositions of Freedom

Where Did Socialism Go? (Washington Examiner) June 29, 2020

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Whatever happened to last year’s political rage, socialism? Was it one of those musical one-hit wonders that soared briefly but then flamed out? Was it the political equivalent of a new television program that bombed after only one season?

With the news flooded by stories of a pandemic and racial injustice, it may be difficult to remember the hot political news of 2019 and early 2020, but it was a newfound taste for socialism in America. Once a dirty word, socialism began to receive a fresh look, especially from young people. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 51% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 had a positive view of socialism, rising to 59% among young Democrats. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 65% of Democrats held a favorable view of socialism. President Trump included a warning about the rise of socialism in his 2019 State of the Union message, saying that “we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism.”

Under the label “democratic socialism,” the doctrine began to make inroads into politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, was leading in the polls for the Democratic nomination for president, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another socialist, drew national attention for her bold proposal for a “Green New Deal.”

But now? Crickets. Even with both the COVID-19 pandemic and racial protests underscoring income inequality, we hear very little these days about socialism. I doubt you have even heard of Howie Hawkins, who is running as the Socialist Party candidate (and also the Green Party nominee) for president. The “Green New Deal” is rarely discussed these days, and even Bernie Sanders’s ideas draw little attention, a meager legacy for someone who was twice runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So what happened to socialism? To answer that question, we must first recognize that young people never really wanted socialism in the first place — in fact, they didn’t even understand it.

Young voters are not interested in moving to a system in which there is collective ownership of the means of production and distribution, which is the very definition of socialism. In fact, in one of the earlier surveys showing that young people admired socialism, they turned right around and said they preferred a market economy to one run by government by a 2-1 margin. When Sanders mentioned Denmark as a model in the 2016 campaign, that nation’s prime minister felt obliged to clarify that his country was not socialist but rather was “a market economy” with “an expanded welfare state.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Young people do not want high taxes or a managed economy. They want free stuff. They want student loans forgiven, free college education, and help with expensive housing, transportation, and healthcare. While we’re at it, maybe even a guaranteed annual income. And guess what? All of those things have now moved into the Democratic vocabulary — but notably without the socialist label.

Joe Biden intends to cancel all undergraduate student tuition debt for borrowers who earn up to $125,000 per year. He has also said he would make public college and university tuition-free (millennials’ favorite word) for families making less than $125,000 a year. Not limiting free stuff to millennials alone, Biden has also spoken in favor of lowering eligibility for Medicare from age 65 to 60. He describes healthcare as a right, not a privilege, and favors portions of the “Green New Deal.” Having once supported a federal balanced budget amendment, he now says we need to spend whatever it takes to address the pandemic and its effects on the economy.

The Democratic Socialists of America have only 50,000 members and very little political clout. Nevertheless, if you ask where the enthusiasm for socialism has gone, especially among young people, it has been bequeathed to the Democrats who favor the kind of free stuff young voters really want, even if they fail to realize that it’s not socialism.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Will Government Return to Normalcy? (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) June 23, 2020

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We all long to return to normal but the big question is whether government will. Our nation has a history of government taking on special powers and more spending during emergencies and never returning to normal.

Two periods in history illustrate the difference. In the 1920s, following a pandemic and World War I, President Warren Harding called for “a return to normalcy.” A decade of conservative presidents, especially Calvin Coolidge, worked tirelessly to bring government spending back to pre-war levels.

But following the Great Depression and World War II, there was no return to normalcy. Instead, the bigger government and higher spending led by President Franklin Roosevelt became the new normal.

Now we ask, will government give up its emergency powers? Will the federal government ever reduce spending? That’s the leadership question facing conservatives now.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Will Government Return to Normalcy?

Bending the Wrong Curve (National Radio Commentary, Salem/Townhall) June 12, 2020

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Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, we have a new vocabulary, including “bending the curve” of the disease to protect the public health system from collapse.

But other curves should be bent upward and not down including America’s civic education.

Recent national test scores show once again that young people do not know American history or how their government works.  Only 24% of 8th graders tested as “proficient” in government and proficiency in history dropped to a pitiful 15%.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly called the test results “stark and inexcusable.”
But these scores have been low for years and little has been done.  It’s time that we require students to study as much civics and history as they do math and science.  It’s past time that we demand our students understand the country they will soon be running.

To listen to the audio:

Davenport: Bending the Wrong Curve

What We Feel Are The Labor Pains Of A Social Revolution (Washington Examiner) June 9, 2020

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A political revolution is rare — a social revolution rarer still. We have not seen a social revolution since the 1960s, and you’d have to go back to the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal followed the Great Depression, to find a political revolution and a social revolution occurring at the same time.

The country is now experiencing the labor pains of what could be its next social revolution. That’s the discomfort and pain people are feeling when 80% of respondents told Wall Street Journal/NBC News pollsters that they think America is “out of control.” Sustained racial protests and massive unemployment, all topped off by a pandemic, will cause that uneasy feeling.

Unlike a political revolution launched by party leaders, the people lead in a social revolution. In the 1960s, it was primarily college students out in front, persuading the country that the Vietnam War was wrong and that the economic and moral values that drove policies were misguided. Political leaders were left to play catch-up, with Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for reelection and Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon left to pick up the pieces, both in Vietnam and on city streets across America. As songwriter Bob Dylan put it, people today are still living off the music and ideas of the 60s.

Likewise today, the people are on the streets and on social media leading the way while political leaders struggle to keep up. This is now the third week of major protests across the country, which have been prompted not only by the brutal death of George Floyd but also by the pandemic laying bare questions of economic inequality and racial injustice. President Trump has chosen to respond to this as primarily a law-and-order issue, and Joe Biden, still mostly in his basement as far as we can tell, has not been out in front.

Another sign that this is more of a social revolution than a political one lies in the nature of the issues themselves. Income inequality, for example, is not something that the government traditionally tries to regulate. Although we have a graduated income tax, it is not structured to take away large sums from the top and give them to people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. If America wants more of a middle class and less of a lower class, it would take a broad movement to get there. With lots of civil rights laws on the books, racial injustice seems to be more in people’s hearts and daily lives than in government policies. Maybe the government can reform the police, but systemic racism is much broader than that.

Two questions follow the protests. Will this social protest lead to a political revolution? The last time that happened, the 1930s, progressives who had long been ready to carry out major change to the economic and political systems and the Great Depression, along with the charisma and political leadership of Roosevelt, created the opportunity. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which came in response to the Great Depression, changed America forever, instigating major government controls over the market economy and, with the advent of Social Security, created the welfare state.

There is little evidence that the ideas and leaders are aligned for that today. It is one thing for the government to take greater control over the economy but another to lead a society out of racial injustice and inequality. There is legislation proposing a “Green New Deal,” but no one is really talking about it as the answer. Biden does not seem to be a revolutionary leader, and a Trump revolution would fly in the face of today’s protests. Young people’s record of turning out to vote is not great either. Only half as many of them voted in 2016 as did older voters.

Will current struggles result in major changes? It is entirely possible given the frustration and feeling of hopelessness felt by many young people and people of color. But strong as they are, protests are only the beginning. It will take a sustained push and more concrete solutions to give birth to a sustained social revolution.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


A Simple Conservative Goal: Return to Normal Government (Washington Examiner) May 13, 2020

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After only a few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all eager to return to normal. There is pent-up demand everywhere for a meal out at a restaurant, fully stocked shelves at the grocery store, an evening with friends, and a regular paycheck. All that will come in due time — we the people will insist on it.

What is not likely to come, at least not without a lot of intentional effort, is returning our government to normal. There is a bad history in our country of government taking on extra powers, increasing regulation, and spending more money in a time of crisis, but never allowing things to return to normal. Instead, the emergency powers and war footing too readily become the new normal for government.

Two periods in our history illustrate the choice. When Warren Harding ran for president in 1920, his slogan following a flu pandemic and World War I was “a return to normalcy.” But it took three conservative presidents most of the decade of the 1920s to bring government to heel after the war. President Calvin Coolidge, especially, inherited a major budget deficit from World War I when he became president in 1923. Amity Shlaes, in her wonderful book Coolidge, describes how he met nearly every week with his budget director to hammer things back to pre-war levels. He vetoed bills and slashed budgets to return government to some sense of normalcy in spending and size.

The contrasting period is Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency during and after the Great Depression and amid World War II. Government size and spending boomed throughout the New Deal and World War II but, unfortunately, were never downsized. A chart of government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product will show peaks during war, but the spike of the Roosevelt administration set the stage for a new normal. Even a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, did not pare back New Deal programs, instead building the interstate highway system, expanding Social Security, increasing the minimum wage, and developing a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Eisenhower called it “new Republicanism,” but it was really just a continuation of the New Deal.

Another cautionary tale is the unwillingness of Washington to cancel national emergencies and its expanded government powers. Most people are not aware that we currently live under some 30 states of national emergency, the oldest one declared by President Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. Although national emergencies may come and go, the emergency powers remain. Will President Trump’s executive order about the coronavirus crisis be revoked, as both the president and Congress have the power to do, or will it continue to be a blank check for increased government control over healthcare and spending?

Regrettably, conservatives have been caught up playing small ball during the COVID-19 crisis. They argue over pandemic estimates and death rates, often without any qualifications for doing so; they argue for more or less emergency spending; they advocate for opening businesses sooner rather than later. Challenging how government responds during a global pandemic is not going to make or break the conservative cause.

What will define the future of conservatism, and the country, is just around the corner: Will government return to normalcy? Will this be a Calvin Coolidge moment or another Franklin Roosevelt era? Democrats are already lining up to try to regularize many of the emergency programs: releasing more prisoners, increasing government spending on homelessness and healthcare. This is the real battle between liberals and conservatives and one that will define the field of political and policy play for decades.

A return to normalcy is not just about whether you can dine out again. It is about whether government will use this crisis to grow government regulation, control, and spending to unprecedented heights. This will be conservatism’s most important test of our lifetimes.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting scholar with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War.

Davenport Named Visiting Fellow at Hatch Foundation on Civic Education May 12, 2020

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Hatch Foundation Launches New Civics Initiative,
Announces David Davenport as Visiting Scholar
Washington, DC—Today, Hatch Foundation Executive Director Matt Sandgren announced that David Davenport—a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the former President of Pepperdine University—has joined the Foundation as a visiting scholar for 2020. Davenport, whose areas of expertise include federalism and constitutional law, will be working under the auspices of the Foundation to publish a comprehensive report this fall on the state of American civics.
David Davenport, newly appointed Visiting Scholar at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation
“The Foundation is bulking up its research arm, and David Davenport is a critical addition to the team,” said Sandgren. “With David on board as visiting scholar, we are pushing full steam ahead on a project, to be launched this fall, that will help us address our nation’s civics crisis. Our ultimate goal with this project is to advance concrete policy solutions to guide state and federal leaders in their efforts to strengthen civic education in schools across the country.”

“Strengthening civic engagement is one of the core missions of the Hatch Foundation,” said Orrin Hatch, Chairman Emeritus. “And who better to help lead us in this effort than David Davenport? David is a nationally recognized scholar who has dedicated the latter part of his career to improving civic education. His research will bring much-needed attention to the civics crisis and help move the national conversation on this issue in a positive direction. We have big ambitions for this project, and David is just the man to help us meet them.”

“Many of our country’s greatest challenges—from lack of civility to declining faith in institutions—are merely symptoms of a larger problem: a crisis in civic education,” said Davenport. “The success of the American experiment hinges on the strength of our civic education programs.  That’s why I am proud to partner with the Hatch Foundation on a special project that will not only identify the origins of this crisis but propose actionable solutions to restore civic virtue.”

The Foundation’s report will outline the scope and scale of the civics crisis and examine its root causes, including lack of emphasis on civic education in public school curricula and lack of testing on the subject. It will likewise examine the connections between poor civic literacy and low rates of civic engagement, rising support for socialism, and declining faith in institutions. In addition, the report will highlight best practices in states that are leading the way in civic education and outline policy strategies to help our nation’s leaders improve civic knowledge and understanding across the board.

Conservatives Are Stuck in a Covid-19 Stew (Washington Examiner) May 5, 2020

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is easier to make an appealing liberal case on social and domestic issues than a conservative one. Liberals essentially feel your pain and design government solutions and spending to address them. I love the story of President Lyndon Johnson, who, in his 1964 presidential campaign, demanded a brief unscheduled stop of his limo, grabbed a bullhorn and said, “We’re for a lot of things and against mighty few.” That should still be the liberal mantra today, more than 50 years later.

Conservatives, on the other hand, mostly play defense against big government solutions and spending. Conservative godfather William Buckley famously said that conservatives “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” Unlike Johnson, conservatives are not at all certain what they are for, but they have generally known what they are against, namely more government, especially more federal government.

When we the people have a serious problem such as a pandemic, the liberal message comes through loud and clear. We need the government to do more, to take over our lives, to rescue us. We need to be regulated. And while you’re at it, pass a few government spending bills to tide us over, the more, the better. As an Italian policy scholar said to me during the 2008 recession, one big advantage you have in the United States is that, unlike those of us in the European Union, you can still print money. At each point, President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed a spending bill, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were right there saying “more.”

Liberals are already celebrating the big advances they might make from the crisis. To prevent the spread of the disease, we are letting people out of jails and reducing bail, long a liberal cause. Government is taking greater responsibility for the housing and homelessness crises, another plank in the liberal platform. Government spending is growing like Topsy the elephant, along with a burgeoning regulatory state. Soon enough, liberals will be asking whether much of this shouldn’t be the new normal in this complex and problematic world.

So what, then, has been the conservative message during the COVID-19 crisis? Unfortunately, it is as muddled as a stew and generally negative, as usual. Many conservatives have asked why are we allowing scientific experts to run the country? Why are we allowing the government to take away people’s freedom to attend worship or go to the beach? Conservatives do like the greater exercise of federalism in the crisis, allowing state and local leaders to step forward instead of federalizing everything. But then they want to criticize liberal governors, such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who use their power in ways they don’t like. Even Trump has found it easier to stand on the sideline and criticize than to take the lead on the reopening.

My suggestion is that conservatives should be willing to accept that a crisis requires an increase in government power and spending. That’s why the founders allowed for a larger government role in a crisis; it’s why the government can declare a national or state emergency. Quibbling over whether the government should go faster or slower in an emergency is not a great look for conservatives.

No, instead, conservatives should be taking their stand on what President Warren Harding and other Republican presidents of the 1920s called for: A return to normalcy. The key is whether and how quickly government gives back its emergency powers and spending when the crisis has abated. With Harding, especially Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover in charge in the 1920s, government power and spending from World War I was effectively dialed back. Unfortunately, President Franklin Roosevelt (successfully) intended that the increase in government power and spending following the Great Depression and World War II should become the new normal.

That must be the conservative message in this decisive moment: Can they lead a return to normalcy following the COVID-19 crisis?

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


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.