Coordinating Economic, Social, and Cultural Life under Republican Rule

All week I have drifted back to the article that I’ve copied below from Doug Muder’s Weekly Sift, the first thing I read last Monday. (I apologize if you’ve already read it—I have recommended Muder’s writing for years.) Republican-controlled state governments of Montana, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, Florida and elsewhere seem bent on passing laws that intrude on the very personal decisions of other people, decisions concerning reproduction, sexual identity, medical care, marriage, and what is available to read in schools and public libraries. As I watch, listen to, and read of these efforts I experience a palpable feeling of claustrophobia—a closing in—the very antithesis of the personal freedom we as a nation are supposed to stand for. 

Gleichshaltung was the German word used in the 1930s to describe the top-down enforced coordination of the country under the Nazis. The word appears in Muder’s article toward the end. It is a word well worth keeping in mind.

Keep to the high ground,


Laboratories of Autocracy

The 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called the American states “laboratories of democracy”. But recently the red states have been experimenting with something else entirely.

In his 2018 book Reconstructing the Gospel, Christian minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reflected on one of the paradoxes of religious fervor.

Even as we feel guilty about doing the things we know we ought not to do, and strive to do more of the good we want to do, our very worst sins are almost always things we know to be our Christian duty.

He illustrated the point with examples: the Crusades, the high priests who condemned Jesus, and the Southern “Redeemer” movement, whose violent terrorism ended Reconstruction and inaugurated Jim Crow.

Over and over, Christians support and participate in atrocious evil, not because we choose to do wrong, but because we think we’re doing the right thing — the righteous thing, even.

Not wanting to pick on Christianity, I’ll add some secular examples: the Reign of Terror, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Bush administration’s torture policy. Wilson-Hartgrove is pointing to a human thing, not a uniquely Christian thing. Cruelty is often practiced by people who imagine themselves to be heroes.

Seekins-Crowe. I recalled Wilson-Hartgrove’s observation this week, when [Montana State] Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe‘s moving and highly emotional speech went viral.

Seekins-Crowe gave the speech in March, during the debate over Montana’s new law banning gender-affirming care for minors. (The bill passed and was signed Friday by Governor Greg Gianforte.) The main argument against the bill was that it would cost lives. (We’ll get to Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s “blood on your hands” comment later on.) Teens struggling with their gender identity have a high suicide rate; gender-affirming care is often an attempt to save their lives. So banning it may well increase teen suicides.

Seekins-Crowe did not shy away from that argument. She did not scoff at it or trivialize it, but took the bull by the horns. She explained that she had lived for three years with a suicidal daughter, and so she knows that some things are more important than saving your child’s life.

That seems like a brutal summation of her words, so I feel obligated to quote her at length and provide a video.

One of the big issues that we have heard today and we’ve talked about lately is that without surgery the risk of suicide goes way up. Well, I am one of those parents who lived with a daughter who was suicidal for three years. Someone once asked me, “Wouldn’t I just do anything to help save her?” And I really had to think. And the answer was, “No.”

I was not going to give in to her emotional manipulation, because she was incapable of making those decisions and I had to make those decisions for her. I was not going to let her tear apart my family and I was not going to let her tear apart me, because I had to be strong for her. I had to have a vision for her life when she had none, when she was incapable of having [one].

I was lost. I was scared. I spent hours on the floor in prayer. Because I didn’t know that when I woke up if my daughter was going to be alive or not. But I knew that I had to make those right decisions for her so that she would have a precious, successful adulthood.

Monstrous as it is, I can’t watch that video without feeling Seekins-Crowe’s sincerity. She believes what she is saying, and believes that letting her daughter suffer for three years was the right thing to do. (I have no idea how that story came out. After three years, did the daughter stop being suicidal, or just reach adulthood?) And now, she believes that passing this law is the right thing to do. I have little doubt that she would describe it as her Christian duty.

That speech is, I think, an almost perfect distillation of the authoritarian mindset: People who see the world differently than I do are deluded, so I have to be strong enough to make their decisions for them, even if it kills them.

There is, of course, room for debate about when parents ought to overrule their children’s desires. Nearly every parent, at some time or another, has forced a toddler to go to bed, or refused to let one eat all the candy. Those calls get harder as children grow, and I don’t know any clear rule about when someone is old enough to make their own decisions about gender-affirming medical interventions.

But now Seekins-Crowe has taken the next step, and is making “right decisions” for all the parents in Montana, particularly those who might not be “strong” enough to ignore their children’s anguish, or sure enough of their own convictions to close their ears to whatever their children might say. Those “weak” parents need a strong government, full of strong people like Seekins-Crowe herself.

Providing that strength is her Christian duty.

Watching Seekins-Crowe’s speech makes me realize that conservative leaders like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have spoiled me, because their villainy is so direct and uncomplicated. I have no doubt that Trump knows he is a grifter, and that he is consciously taking advantage of the people who support him. Likewise, DeSantis knows that critical race theory is not a thing, and that Florida’s librarians and grade school teachers are not grooming children for pedophilia.

If everyone on the other side were like that, life would be simple. But instead the world is full of Abrahams whose willingness to sacrifice Isaac makes them feel closer to their God.

What can we do with them?

I don’t have an answer for that question, so I’m just going to continue talking about the Montana legislature, and red-state governments in Texas and Florida that also gave us insight into authoritarianism this week.

Zooey Zephyr. One thing authoritarians don’t do is tolerate dissent, particularly from people they deem inferior. A few weeks ago, the Tennessee House decided not to tolerate Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are Black. The Justins delayed the business of the House for an hour or so by encouraging pro-gun-control demonstrators in the gallery, so they were expelled from office. But the people of their districts put them right back.

This week, the Republican supermajority in the Montana House did something similar to Zooey Zephyr, a trans woman (whose adulthood, in Seekins-Crowe’s terms, must not be “precious” or “successful”). On April 18, during debate on the bill banning gender-affirming care for minors (and several other anti-trans bills), she was blunt:

This body should be ashamed. If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.

In response, the ironically-named Freedom Caucus in the Montana House called for “his” censure because of that “threatening” comment. Majority Leader Sue Vinton responded directly (and self-righteously) to the “shame” comment:

We will not be shamed by anyone in this chamber. We are better than that.

The censure resolution was not immediately taken up, but the Speaker refused to recognize Rep. Zephyr when she rose to speak, and said that he would not do so until Zephyr apologized, which she refused to do.

Last Monday, hundreds of pro-Zephyr demonstrators came to the Capitol. When Zephyr rose and was ignored, they loudly chanted “Let her speak.” The Speaker still did not recognize Zephyr, and the House ground to a halt for half an hour until the demonstrators could be removed. On his way to jail, one demonstrator explained:

In this country you don’t get many rights but one of the things you do get is an elected representative, and 11,000 Montanans are waiting for Zooey Zephyr to speak for them, to represent the interest of trans people in the state who belong in the state as well. It’s not just … the old white men who run the show over here. It’s every single person. Montana is big enough for all of us, and I think it has space for all of us.

Republicans have since inaccurately described the demonstrations as “violent” and “an insurrection”. (I commented two weeks ago on the Right’s practice of breaking words that have been used against them. Ever since January 6 they have been trying to break insurrection through misuse. It falls flat to claim that January 6 was merely a “protest”, so they have been characterizing any liberal protest as an insurrection.)

Zephyr was blamed for this breech of “decorum” (the same offense charged against the Justins). So she was banned from the House floor for the remainder of the session (which ends May 5). The resolution banning her did not also bar her from serving on committees, but all the committees she serves on then had their remaining meetings cancelled.

Like the Justins, Zephyr returned home to a large rally of her supporters. (Remember: “Large” means something different in Montana, where each House district has only about 11,000 people.) Since the legislature only meets in odd-numbered years, her term is effectively over. But she’ll be running for reelection in 2024.

Universities. Another thing authoritarians do not tolerate is an alternative source of institutional authority. That’s why the current crop of red-state authoritarians is working so hard to bring the universities under control. Universities do not wield power directly, but they are recognized sources of authoritative opinion. So they cannot be allowed to remain independent.

A number of German words have already made it into the American vocabulary — zeitgeistschadenfreuderealpolitikgestaltwanderlust. Well, it’s time to learn another one: gleichschaltung, [click for a fascinating article from the Holocaust Museum] whose root words mean “same circuit”. Originally an engineering term translated as “coordination” or “synchronization”, gleichschaltung was adapted in the 1930s to describe the process of unifying German society and culture under Nazi ideology. Simply controlling the national government wasn’t good enough; the kind of German renewal the Nazis promised could only be accomplished by a unified society whose institutions all pulled in the same direction. So local governments, corporations, unions, professional associations, universities, social clubs, and youth organizations all needed “coordination”.

This week, Texas took a step towards its own gleichschaltung when its Senate passed SB-18, which would eliminate tenure in the state’s universities.

An institution of higher education may not grant an employee of the institution tenure or any type of permanent employment status.

Current tenured faculty are grandfathered in, but no new tenured appointments would be made after September 1. The Texas Tribune claims that the bill “faces an uphill battle at the Texas House”, so perhaps Texas’ university system will be spared for another term or two.

The argument for the bill is primarily political, not educational.

[Lieutenant Governor Dan] Patrick’s push to end tenure in Texas started more than a year ago after some University of Texas at Austin professors passed a nonbinding resolution defending their academic freedom to teach about issues like racial justice. The resolution came as Republicans hinted that they wanted to extend restrictions on how race is discussed in K-12 classrooms, which were approved by the Texas Legislature in 2021, to the state’s public universities.

The resolution outraged Patrick, who accused university professors of “indoctrinating” students with leftist ideas and argued that the state must stop awarding tenure because faculty with the benefit don’t face any repercussions for it.

But that’s precisely the justification for tenure: It allows academics to do their jobs without worrying about offending the politicians currently in power. In a liberal democracy, universities are not supposed to be “coordinated” with the ruling party.

Florida is another state trying to synchronize its educational institutions with government ideology. Governor DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act created a list of ideas that cannot be taught in Florida public schools, including the state universities. The part affecting the universities has been blocked by a federal judge, whose ruling says:

The First Amendment does not permit the State of Florida to muzzle its university professors, impose its own orthodoxy of viewpoints, and cast us all into the dark.

But acts of the legislature are only one path to gleichschaltung. The governor also has executive power to appoint trustees to university boards. DeSantis’ new trustees are in the process of coordinating New College in Sarasota. At a recent meeting, all five faculty members up for tenure — including three in the supposedly apolitical hard sciences — were rejected, and the faculty chair (who had been broadly criticized for being too accommodating to the new regime) quit.

Disney. I mentioned corporations in the list of things that need to be synchronized with the ruling ideology. Well, after DeSantis passed his Don’t Say Gay law, Disney had the temerity to put out a statement saying that it opposed the law and would continue to work against it through the systems our constitution provides for reversing government actions:

Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.

All in all, it was pretty tepid stuff, but it marked Disney as a company not marching to the DeSantis drum. That led DeSantis to strike at Disney in ways that fell comically flat: A bill to dissolve the special taxing district around Disney World had to be undone when nearby counties noticed they might wind up responsible for about $1 billion in bonds the district had outstanding. Then DeSantis announced a takeover of the board that oversees the district, but was again outsmarted by an agreement Disney signed with the outgoing board.

Now DeSantis is trying to get the legislature to nullify that agreement, and Disney decided it had had enough: It filed a federal lawsuit claiming that DeSantis is illegally retaliating against Disney for speech protected by the First Amendment.

There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so. … This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see. …

It is a clear violation of Disney’s federal constitutional rights—under the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the First Amendment—for the State to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the Company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed. … In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.

The reason there’s “no room for disagreement” is that DeSantis didn’t just announce in public that he was abusing state power to punish Disney for making a political statement, he wrote about it in his book. DeSantis clearly could have benefited from the class Stringer Bell taught in The Wire:

Is you taking notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy? What the f**k is you thinking, man?

DeSantis’ defense of his actions is that Disney’s control of the special taxing district around Disney World is an inappropriate merging of state and corporate power, so he is right to take it away. And in the abstract, that may even be true. But legal and even reasonable exercises of government power become unconstitutional when they are used to punish speech protected by the First Amendment, as these actions clearly were.

David French looked up the appropriate legal precedent: O’Hare Towing Service v City of Northlake (1996). Speaking for a 7-2 majority, Justice Kennedy wrote:

If the government could deny a benefit to a person because of his constitutionally protected speech or associations, his exercise of those freedoms would in effect be penalized and inhibited. Such interference with constitutional rights is impermissible.

But in spite of the governing precedent, French is still not entirely sure how the case will come out.

At the beginning of this piece, I said that DeSantis should lose, not that he will lose. Court outcomes are never completely certain, but this much is correct: A Disney defeat would represent a dangerous reversal in First Amendment jurisprudence and cast a pall of fear over private expression.

French is afraid, in other words, that gleichschaltung may already have reached the Supreme Court.