Tag Archives: populism

Purdy on Public-Lands Populism

From the closing paragraphs of Jedediah Purdy’s Whose Lands? Which Public?

In its monuments proclamations, the Trump Administration asserts a sweeping power to reclassify fifteen million acres of protected federal land and hundreds of millions of marine acres. The proclamations already issued, which purport to strip more than a million acres of monument status, are redolent of this Administration’s illiberal and procedurally dubious tendencies. They elevate to federal policy the themes and goals of a strand of Western populism that is tainted with outlawry and racism. The proclamations also cater to extractive industries, particularly uranium, oil and gas, and coal, in ways that resonate with the Trump Administration’s relentless mixing of public wealth and private interest–in a phrase, its penchant for corruption….

Corruption is not a novel concern here. For well over a century, the field [of public-lands law] has been shaped by recognition that precipitate and opportunistic privatization is a perennial temptation in a body of law that governs nearly a third of the country’s acreage and a great deal of its natural wealth. The Executive branch’s capacity for rapid, unilateral, and obscure action makes it especially suited to this form of misappropriation. Recognition of these facts is built into public-lands law in the long-standing asymmetric preference for Presidential power to preserve lands over Presidential power to privatize them…. The kind of opportunistic favoritism that the Trump proclamations display is precisely what public-lands law has been structured over centuries to avert. These proclamations are paradigms of why unilateral Presidential reclassification toward privatizing natural resources would be anomalous in public-lands law. A Court would properly consider the anomaly in deciding whether the power to create national monuments should imply the power to unmake them.

In the case of the Trump proclamations, the question of opportunism and favoritism in reclassification decisions interacts with the influence of racially inflected nationalism and localist outlawry on the Administration’s priorities. Here too, as with corruption, these themes are not novel or alien to public-lands law. Extractivism, settler-colonialism, and the priority of property-style resource claims and local control are, in key ways, continuations of the themes that governed the first hundred years of public-lands law. Their constituencies have never left the field. It is partly because of these constituencies’ persistent opposition to preservation agendas that public-lands law has always been inflected by disputes over national identity, from the utilitarian nationalism of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt’s national forests to the national parks’ much-advertised status as the American answer to Europe’s cathedrals to the claim that wilderness preservation would keep the country from becoming a “cage.”

Here too, public-lands law has been shaped by grappling with the themes that the Trump proclamations raise. And here too its shape contains a good part of an answer. The public-lands populists’ claims on behalf of privatizing and extractive policies already have a specific legal expression that is deeply embedded in public-lands law: in long-standing public rights-of-way across the federal lands of the West, in mining and mineral-leasing regimes, in grazing rights, and in the default policy of extensive public recreational access — and, above all, in the private real estate that was substantially created under federal privatization schemes. In other words, these claims do not come from outside public-lands law. They are part of it, and they occupy a specific place in its structure. Where they have been vested, they tend to persist within new regimes that otherwise emphasize preservation over extraction and economic use. On multiple-use lands, they play a prominent part in the statutorily mandated planning process. Where, however, they are not vested but take the form of inchoate expectations of continued access, they yield on categorically protected lands: new privatizing and extractive claims are almost uniformly excluded under preservation regimes. For such claims to get traction again, the lands themselves must be reclassified. That reclassification is generally reserved to Congress. If the Antiquities Act authorizes the President to hand a victory to public-lands populists by reclassifying hotly contested lands, then it is a dramatic anomaly in public-lands law. It would authorize constant perennial and shifting reopening of precisely the disputes that the field exists to structure and resolve, and through a mechanism that is procedurally orthogonal to the rest of the field.

The Trump proclamations raise a novel question for interpretation of one of the most important public-lands statutes. Like much that this Administration does, however, it is not so much new as it is an effort to reopen questions that many of us had hoped were closed. In this case, they should remain closed.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals And, Now, What’s Eating Me

In yesterday’s post about what’s troubling American intellectuals I arrived at what I considered a fairly uncontroversial point of view, namely, that the diminished social stature of the intellectual – and, in some quarters, the scorn and mockery of educated “elites” — indicates something disturbing about our attitudes toward education and where we are headed as a society.

Just what that something might be is up for grabs, but I was tending toward the dramatic and alarming view that this is the first stage of the eclipse of liberal arts education in America, the onset of a dark age. I tried to hint at that in the final paragraph of my post.

Not a single comment all day — until last night, when someone registered his strong disagreement on my Facebook page, and I had the sinking feeling that maybe everybody had strongly disagreed with what I wrote, but was just too polite to say so.

Michael commented that he “lost all faith in the ‘liberal intellectuals’ long ago,” and he goes on to say my post fails to register how badly intellectuals of all stripes have failed us, so they might just deserve our scorn.

…it was a bunch of Ivy Leaguers who got us into the damn mess we’re in–the latest version of “the best and the brightest.” Your intellectual aristocracy has failed us, Louis. They’ve screwed up the environment probably beyond redemption, they’ve brought us war without end, they’ve totally fucked up the global casino economy. This last half century of downhill slide wasn’t the consequence of bunch of climate-denying yahoos and creationist boobs; it was all the brilliant scientists at MIT, all those glorious minds at the Kennedy School of Government, all those experts at G’town International relations, all those Harvard Business School MBAs. Thanks a million, minds.

Just to be clear, I am not out to defend tenured Ivy League professors, the best and the brightest, or an intellectual aristocracy (if there is such a thing). They don’t need me to defend them. Nor am I trying to put them at ease. I am simply trying to understand why they are so ill at ease these days, and what that might mean.

If I widen the historical lens I begin to wonder whether a certain idea of the intellectual is passing from the American stage and maybe from the world stage. Technocrats and scientists still garner our respect and admiration (despite what Michael says about the folks at MIT and elsewhere), and we are still captive to a narrative of scientific and technical progress; but we may have lost our faith in the idea that we can ever learn anything of consequence about human affairs or the human condition. That’s not something I can lay out arguments to prove; it is simply something I wonder about, and it’s a possibility I dread.

On the other hand, I can’t really go where Michael is going with his comment, partly because I recognize the inherent fallibility of all intellectual undertaking — it’s no surprise that the best and the brightest would fail to deliver us from evil; nobody can — and because I admit that most human endeavor ends in pure folly, no matter how noble and inspired and smart it might at first seem.

That is no reason to give up on education or enlightenment. This is a point Russell Kirk made, snidely, but powerfully, in a passage quoted by Bainbridge:

Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what the Bergers call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.

To be sure, the current wave of populism will pass. My concern is that after the revolution, we’re going to have to start rebuilding, and it’s difficult to do that in darkness.

What’s Eating American Intellectuals?

I had dinner the other night with a friend who has been worrying about the sorry plight of the liberal elite in the year of the Tea Party. Ivy Leaguers see themselves outflanked by Astroturfers, unsure of their prospects and unable to connect. My friend wondered aloud what liberal intellectuals now ought to do.

The conversation would not really have made much of an impression on me – it’s one of those conversations one is bound to have after an election like the last one — were it not for the curious way it began to resonate in subsequent days.

Walter Russell Mead echoed many of the themes of our dinner conversation in a post about the delusions of the “liberal intelligentsia,” who were misled by the Obama victory in 2008. People really just wanted things to get a little better after the disappointments and troubles of the Bush years, Mead argues; they didn’t want a liberal political agenda forced on them and watched over by the guardians of the liberal elite.

Delusional, disconnected, defeated.

But it’s not just liberals. Soon I found out that even more people were having virtually the same conversation we’d had. For instance, I came across these themes in a lament on Stephen Bainbridge’s blog, about the plight of the intellectual elite on the right. Bainbridge was responding to a post by Nils August Andresen, who has been publishing a series on FrumForum about the role of intellectuals – specifically academics, and even more specifically, Ivy League academics — in the GOP.

Bainbridge, Andresen and others are rightly worried that the GOP is turning over the reins of power to boobs on the tube and anti-intellectual demagogues. The Palin and Beck crowd can easily out-shout the Smart Guys. Populism threatens to make the GOP not just the party of no, but the party of no ideas.

It would be easy to multiply the examples. Intellectuals on both sides feel as if they are under siege, or desperately out of touch, as if they are being pushed out of public life, or – worse – that nobody’s listening.

It’s hard to decide what’s really going on here. Are these just post-election blues, or have intellectuals begun to grasp some greater truth, not just about the intellectual death of the GOP or what’s really the matter with Kansas, but about their own diminished, marginal social position?

This much seems tolerably clear. A society that does not accord a place of prestige to intellectuals hasn’t simply stopped believing in the wisdom of tenured faculty at Ivy League institutions. Professors can earn or lose public face — and the social status and access to power — that comes with it. But a society that excludes, marginalizes or mocks intellectual elites has lost a certain faith.

It has stopped believing in the idea that educated people have any special insight into human affairs, and maybe even that such insight is possible. And so it has stopped believing in the value of education – or at least a certain kind of education: the liberal arts, the study of history, language and society – and the power of ideas to help people make sense of history, the problems of the day, or the future. If this is where we are, or where things are heading, then I’m worried, too.