change your words into truths—and then change that truth into love

October 8, 2018—Issue #135

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

I wrote a few weeks ago about the Madisonian system and the extent to which it’s under strain from the demographically narrow, ideologically factional governance of the conservative movement, as channeled through the Republican Party. (Become a paid subscriber to read that newsletter!)

Recent events, and especially the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, have led me to think a little harder about this stress on the system. And a recent conversation with a friend has helped clarify my thinking somewhat, although this is still provisional and subject to revision.

To start: In Federalist No. 39 James Madison, writing under the pseudonym of Publius, defines a republican form of government as contrasted with pure democracy (which he argues earlier in Federalist No. 10 cannot withstand the pressures of factionalism) and with monarchism, despotism, and aristocracy.

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is ESSENTIAL to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.

Madison’s “essential” clause, that republican government “be derived from the great body of society” was exclusive of most self-described republics, past and present. But it was theoretically inclusive of a number of different institutional forms, including the one established in the Constitution of 1787, where offices are apportioned by direct election, indirect election, and appointment. As long as “the great body of society” has a say at some point, it counts as republican and democratic.

This is true even as our Constitution allows for the possibility of “minority rule,” with governing majorities formed from distinct minorities. Indeed, you can understand the structure of our government as a way to mitigate the problems of legitimacy that come with minority rule. Under a system of separated institutions sharing powers, governance demands deliberation, concessions, and compromise. In theory, minority governments need to achieve buy-in from majorities to accomplish anything.

Intense factionalism—i.e. partisan polarization—changes the calculation somewhat, as governing majorities can develop ways to achieve their ends without concession or compromise even if they represent a narrow minority of the public. Even still, a government with multiple spheres of power and influence gives the majority opportunities to work its will on governance and policymaking. Minority government isn’t the intended outcome of the Madisonian system, but it can work—even under conditions of factionalism—provided the “losers” have an outlet that essentially forces the minority to consider the views of its political opposition.

The federal courts have, at times, played the role of that outlet, giving political losers an opportunity to force the “winners” to account for their interests.

With Kavanaugh’s confirmation—and President Trump’s successful effort to reshape the lower courts—we’re witnessing the end to the courts as a viable outlet for political liberals. At the same time, we’re living under minority government by way of the executive and the Senate, and factional government by way of the Republican Party. For the thwarted majority—or even just the competing governing coalition—it looks like a full shut-out from political power on the federal level. And that is a situation the Madisonian system cannot accommodate.

Something will have to give. If the “majority” ends up transferring its political support to a governing majority in the House or Senate, the pressure will relieve somewhat. But the prospect of this situation repeating itself will almost certainly spur reforms to prevent it. “Court packing” has already entered the fray, long with a renewed push to give statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico. One view is that these are dangerous attacks on the norms of American politics. But you could just as easily argue that we are in a period of norms breakdown, and returning to any equilibrium requires the construct of new norms attuned to the broad conditions of our political life, specifically high polarization and partisanship.

The only other option, as we seem to be witnessing, is breakdown of the Madisonian system itself.

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The Work

In case you missed them last week.

I wrote about the part Anthony Kennedy played in weakening our democracy:

The line from Bush v. Gore to Brett Kavanaugh should put Anthony Kennedy’s stated concern for American democracy—his fear that it has entered a cycle of “death and decline”—into its proper context. Kennedy had 30 years on the nation’s most powerful court to defend democracy—to build equitable institutions and shape a level playing field for discourse and deliberation. He did just the opposite. His legacy is a weakened democracy and a damaged Supreme Court.

And I wrote a little about the conservative misappropriation of the character of “Atticus Finch”:

If you want to make the Atticus Finch analogy, you must understand the actual dynamic of the story in question. You can claim the mantle of Lee’s hero if you are standing in defense of the marginalized, giving voice to claims of innocence, or victimhood, that are otherwise ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed. You can claim Atticus if you fight for the powerless, for those who might truly lose everything from speaking out, who feel the weight of society against them.

The Reading

Michael Hobbes on obesity. (Jamelle note: As someone who has struggled with his weight his whole life, this was really affecting. Highly recommended.) Wesley Morris on art and social justice. On the remarkable persistence of the 24x36 frame. Rebecca Solnit on Brett Kavanaugh. Rebecca Traister on Kavanaugh. Drew Magary on Kavanaugh. Michael Lewis on the Trump transition. Mayukh Sen on chef Edna Lewis’ communism. Adam Serwer on Trump’s cruelty. Jane Coaston on jaywalking while black.

The Photos

If you’ve been following me for awhile you’ve probably seen this picture before. I keep taking it because I think, eventually, I’ll get something good. This might be something good! I used a very wide lens which gives a usefully exaggerated perspective. The strong afternoon light provided contrast, and the woman on the bike was serendipity. Shot on Ilford XP2 Super film, if you’re curious.

Oh, and here’s a photo of Carter. Here’s about 7 weeks in this picture.

The Recipes

Some of you have requested more vegetarian recipes, so here are a few that are well-suited to the cooling weather. Both are from the New York Times.

Mushroom Risotto with Peas


  • 6 to 7 cups chicken, vegetable or garlic broth or stock, as needed

  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • ½ cup finely chopped onion, or 2 shallots, minced

  • ¾ to 1 pound wild mushrooms, cleaned if necessary and torn or sliced into smaller pieces if thick (small wild mushrooms should be left whole, mushrooms like maitake can just be separated into small pieces)

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped sage

  • 1 ½ cups arborio rice

  • ½ cup dry white wine, such as pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc

  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese


Bring stock or broth to a simmer in a saucepan, with a ladle nearby. Make sure stock is well seasoned, and keep it simmering on the stove.

Heat oil in a wide, heavy nonstick skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Add onions or shallots and cook gently until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes.

Turn up heat and add mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until they begin to sweat, about 3 minutes, then add garlic and thyme or sage. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper and continue to cook over medium heat until they are soft. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Add rice and stir until grains begin to crackle. Add wine and cook, stirring, until wine is no longer visible in pan. Stir in enough simmering stock to just cover the rice. The stock should bubble slowly. Cook, stirring often and vigorously, until stock is just about absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of stock and continue cooking, not too fast and not too slowly, stirring often and adding more stock when rice is almost dry, for 15 minutes.

Add peas, if using, and continue adding stock and stirring for another 10 minutes. Rice should be tender all the way through but still al dente. Taste now and adjust seasoning.

Add another ladleful or two of stock to rice. Stir in parsley and Parmesan, and remove from heat. Season with black pepper and serve right away in wide soup bowls or on plates.

Farro and Bean Soup


  • 1 ½ cups borlotti or cranberry beans, rinsed and picked over for stones

  • ¾ cup farro, rinsed

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

  • ¼ cup diced pancetta (optional)

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 bouquet garni with a few sprigs each of parsley and thyme, a bay leaf and a Parmesan rind

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced

  • 1 large stalk celery, diced

  • 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise, cleaned and sliced thin

  • Salt

  • 6 sage leaves, chopped, plus more for serving

  • 1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice

  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste

  • Freshly ground pepper

  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • Freshly grated Parmesan for serving


Combine beans and farro in a bowl and cover with 1 1/2 quarts water. Soak for 4 to 6 hours, or overnight.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or casserole over medium heat and add half the pancetta, if using, and half the onions. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add beans and farro, along with the soaking water. Add another 1 1/2 quarts water and bouquet garni and bring to a gentle boil. Skim foam, reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil in a heavy skillet and add pancetta. (If not using pancetta, add the remaining onion and the carrot, celery and leeks now.) Cook, stirring often, until pancetta releases some of its fat. Add the remaining onion, and carrot, celery and leeks. Add a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until vegetables are tender, 5 to 8 minutes.

Stir in the remaining garlic and the sage. Cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, add the tomatoes and juice, and salt to taste. Cook, stirring, until tomatoes have cooked down slightly and the mixture is very fragrant, about 10 minutes. Stir into the beans and farro and mix well.

Add the tomato paste and salt to taste. (You will need a generous amount.) Continue to simmer 30 to 45 minutes, or until beans and farro are very tender and the soup thick, almost creamy. Add pepper, taste and adjust salt. Remove bouquet garni.

Stir in the parsley and additional chopped sage if desired. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Parmesan over each bowl.

we all know sometimes life's hates and troubles, can make you wish you were born in another time and space/but you can bet your life times that and twice its double/that God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed