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My Fellow Citizens,

The news was exhausting before any of us had heard of the whistleblower's complaint. Or the text messages. All political news seems to lead back to the idea that the Senate will never remove President Trump from office.

The smartest podcasts, most detailed analyses, and careful insight from people with long careers in government all bounce from one revelation to the next. Tomorrow, we'll wake up and do it all again. 

This downward spiral of political discussion led journalist John Dickerson to insert a bit of advice from Haley Barbour into this week's Political Gabfest. He interrupted the long list of details to remind us all, "the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." 

I shook my head emphatically while sitting in rush hour traffic. Then I realized I still felt completely lost. What's the main thing again? 

A recent Vox video features Ezra Klein offering his take on the main thing and how polarization seems to have the last word. It takes political power to make the main thing the main thing. 

Klein shows how today's partisanship looks more like the pessimistic vision of parties, partialities, and animosities in Federalist No. 65.  The optimistic vision of a dignified tribunal and more independent Senate seems impossible. We do not have access to the Senate that Alexander Hamilton describes in his essay on the power to impeach.  

It sounds like this is another situation where no one is looking for answers. Then Klein posed a new take on a familiar question:

What is it that impeachment CAN do? 

The answer Klein presents has several parts. Impeachment can serve to sanction the president, provide important information to voters, put foreign countries on notice, and leave a record for the future. 

That last part, a record for the future, reminded me of something I read in the very first pages of Sheldon Wolin's book Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Wolin taught at Princeton University as a Professor of Politics Emeritus and worked as a political theorist for fifty years. 

In introducing the book originally published in 1960, he wrote:

"My hope is that this volume, if it does not give pause to those who are eager to jettison what remains of the tradition of political philosophy, may at least succeed in making clear what it is we shall have discarded."

What commitments from yesterday become untenable when we accept the arguments we're making today? Whatever position someone takes on President Trump's conversation with the new president of Ukraine, we need to also speak deliberately about what it means to make room for that behavior.

Partisanship intermingled with governing has long been considered a dangerous proposition. We have a framework for talking about that danger too.

In George Washington's Farewell Address (1796), he acknowledged that partisanship is indeed part of our nature. He observed it appears in different forms in all types of government. In popular government like ours, Washington warned partisanship, "is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy." He then described the "permanent despotism" parties unleash. 

Governing ourselves with a politics that accepts no limits on partisanship serves to* :

  • Distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration
  • Agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms
  • Kindle animosity of one part against another, and foments occasionally riot and insurrection
  • Open the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions

*These are Washington's words organized for today's hyper-efficient reader 

Supporting your party is easy. Making affirmative statements that this is the kind of politics you want for the future might present a challenge. Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, modeled this for us too. He didn't just say the Southerners who wanted to secede were wrong. He demonstrated that the principles they promoted were fatal.

In an address to a special session of Congress on July 1861, President Lincoln explained that the arguments of the seceders relied on a principle of "disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure." 

The details will keep coming at us. The partisan positioning will continue to swirl around each story. It's up to us to keep the principles at work at the center of it all. 

The principles, especially the ones we can share, are the main thing.

Let's not give up on the main thing,



Please consider forwarding this newsletter to someone you know who feels a civic responsibility to follow all the latest news. They might be feeling worn down too.

The Wolin quote along with Presidents Washington and Lincoln felt like grabbing hold of a life line when I found them. If anything you read worked that way for you too, pass it on. 🌈
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Questions of Civic Proportions
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(share your responses in our Learning Studio)

"There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies."

—Walter Lippmann, American writer and reporter

What does patriotism as a defense for wrongdoing tell us about our politics?

Recent events have provoked a lot of discussion about "smoking guns" and Watergate. What might be more interesting is the work of historians looking back at President Ronald Reagan and how he escaped impeachment. Doug Rossinow writes that Reagan's supporters "shrewdly managed perceptions of the scandal, by diverting attention to subordinates. In The Guardian, Heather Cox Richardson writes "The historical argument for impeaching Trump," and offers patriotism as a winning defense:
"When Ronald Reagan's administration was exposed for having illegally sold arms to Iran to raise money covertly for the Contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government, Reagan acknowledged that the evidence was damning – yet defended the principle behind the scheme. Reagan's successor, George HW Bush, pardoned the six leading figures of the Iran-Contra affair because, he said, 'whether their actions were right or wrong', they were motivated by 'patriotism'. "

In Vox, Richard Skinner still looks back to Watergate. He says the key difference between now and then is the strength of today's parties and the weakness of our non-partisan elites. Our problem isn't philosophical differences as much as its "team behavior." If you still have the stomach for it, you can see how opinions on the current impeachment inquiry have changed across teams with this tracker from FiveThirtyEight. 

What does seeing a corrupt system require of those who have seen it?

A murder case in Texas took a bizarre turn when judges ruled that the jury could consider the state's Castle Doctrine in determining their verdict for Amber Guyger. A Dallas police officer, she entered the wrong apartment and shot a man sitting on his couch. She had mistaken the apartment to be her own, and her defense team wanted the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine on her behalf. Texas Monthly posted, "If the 'Castle Doctrine' can justify Botham Jean's shooting, the law itself is the problem.

That story faded fast when the jury sentenced Guyger to ten years in prison. Then everyone took to social media to share Botham Jean's brother expressing his forgiveness for the murderer as his victim impact statement. There's another point on the timeline that needs extra bandwidth. The victim's mother spoke to the Dallas West Church of Christ after the trial, "What you saw and what you heard in the courtroom really showed what your system is and you must seek to do something about it."

What arguments are we missing when we spend our time debating small details?

These two exercises in constitutional thinking aren't new. The impeachment frame makes the arguments a bit more pressing. In December last year, George Packer wrote, "The Corruption of the Republican Party: The GOP is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start." He clarifies, "The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn't an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them."

With an eye to the Supreme Court, Erwin Chemerinsky wrote an op-ed in The Guardian last November and asked: "Where is the progressive interpretation of the U.S. Constitution." His big takeaway is that "A day will come when we have a more progressive court, and we must now build the intellectual framework for that day. 
Occasionally we pick up these questions and the topics they present in our Learning Studio. Look for deeper inquiries in this closed online community where the focus is on following the conversation. 

The Learning Studio requires a membership but it's free. 

From the Learning Studio:

Did you read Politico's report on "The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy?" We started building a reading list around it in the Learning Studio. Check out the post "Is Democracy Defeated?"

While you're contemplating our capacity for self-government, you might also enjoy thinking through "Democracy is for the Gods" by Costica Bradstan. He argues that democracy is unnatural "because it goes against our vital instincts and impulses." We want to hear what you think about that too. You'll find our Learning Studio post here
Join the Studio

Good Work: America in One Room and a Better Way to Disagree

The reporter asks Chanel McNair, "When's the last time you talked to a 70-year-old white Republican?" With some reflection, the Democrat from Long Beach, California, responds, "I don't think I've ever talked to a 70-year-old white Republican until now."

[There's a short video recap of the weekend available here.]

In Grapevine, Texas, 526 voters, including Chanel McNair, participated in a political experiment. An in-person poll called "America in One Room" brought a representative sample of Americans together for the weekend. In these discussions, pollsters "can get a picture of what people believe when they're not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues."

You can see the portraits of the participants and learn more about the weekend on The Upshot

Over the weekend, these voters representing all of us worked through a 55-page briefing booklet to discuss issues like immigration, healthcare, border security, and trade policy. When asked if they had changed their minds at the end of the day, most participants said no. They also offered additional statements that they felt they had learned something that helped them understand the other side. 

The political scientists who had pulled the whole thing together had more promising results to share, though. Talking to NYT's The Upshot, James Fishkin and Larry Diamond said:
"Voters at the event on both the left and right appeared to edge toward the center. Democratic support receded for a $15 federal minimum wage and for 'Medicare for All'; Republican support grew for rejoining the Paris climate agreement and for protecting from deportation immigrants brought to the United States as children." 

And, if that isn't enough movement on the issues, one number doubled over the weekend. Fishkin added, "the share of participants who said they thought American democracy worked well doubled, to 60 percent."

What's the main thing here? We still know how to talk to each other when we have the opportunity.
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