Four Threats: Book Review

Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy (2020), Mettler and Lieberman, unique and interesting analysis of gross violations of democracy and constitutional rights by two political scientists. The four specific threats are: political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power (pp. 5-6). There was the potential for democracy, but history records plenty of backsliding [with a multitude of examples not included in the book].

They define democracy as: “a system of government in which citizens are able to hold those in power accountable, primarily through regular competitive elections, and in which representatives engage in collective decision-making, seeking to be responsive to the electorate” (p. 11). Democracies have four key attributes: 1. Free and fair elections. 2. Rule of law (“according to rules that apply to everyone and to the operations of government. … The rule of law also mandates procedures for elections and representation and establishes checks and balances between branches of government” p. 12). 3. Legitimacy of the opposition, the “competition for influence” based on rules. 4. The integrity of rights: “civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press” (p. 12). This contrasts with “competitive authoritarianism,” where leaders rule arbitrarily while ignoring the rule of law. Unfortunately, Freedom House rated the US at 86 (2019) versus 94 in 2010. The Economist rated the US a “flawed democracy” in 2017.

The book looks at five periods when these threats were paramount. The 1790s involved polarization; 1850s polarization, conflict on who belongs and economic inequality; 1890s ditto; 1930s executive aggrandizement; 1970s ditto; and 2010s all of the above. I knew the general history of these eras, but often little about the specific events described.

First the 1790s because of partisanship. Then the 1850s around “bleeding Kansas” over slavery; the 1890s and the stripping away of the democratic rights of blacks; the 1930s and the increased power of the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt during the New Deal, also the imprisonment of 100,000 Japanese during World War II; Nixon’s Watergate scandal of the 1970s, again the power of the executive. “In none of these periods of democratic fragility in American history were all four threats present simultaneously” (p. 6). That is, until the Trump presidency: “We confront deep political polarization. Political leaders exaggerate their differences in order to win elections. … Ordinary Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into separate camps. … They have grown more polarized and antagonistic toward the opposing party. Increasingly, partisans view one another not as honorable competitors but as an existential threat. … [Add] rising racial antagonism, pitched battles over gender, and soaring economic inequality … with extreme and growing executive power” (pp. 6-7).

The book begins talking about the president who passed laws against immigrants and against political enemies. This was the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 under President John Adams—a power grab according to opponents. There was no mention of political parties in the Constitution and President Washington considered himself nonpartisan (as did Adams). But Hamilton and Jefferson (and most others) did. Hamilton believed in strong government and affiliation with Britain. Jefferson did not and preferred France. Hamilton became a Federalist, Jefferson an Anti-Federalist, later a Democratic Republican. The Federalists, mainly Anglo-Americans from New England, favored elites and money/banking interests. Anti-Federalists were elites claiming to represent the common people (that is, most white males) and the Enlightenment ideas of the French. The Federalists dominated the first decade, but generated considerable uproar, including a whiskey tax leading to the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington led 15,000 troops to put down the rebellion, resorting to power and force. As Anti-Federalists gained more power, there was increased bitter partisanship. The Federalists viewed this as an existential threat, leading to the Alien (mainly against the Irish) and Sedition Acts. Jefferson and Madison advised states to refuse to abide by the acts as unconstitutional—the idea that states had the right to nullify laws. Civil war and secession were possibilities.

Chapter 1: Threats to Democracy. The founding documents have democratic ideals with representative government. However, the “three-fifths clause” institutionalized slavery and the Tenth Amendment made women give up their legal and economic rights once they got married to their husbands. Plus, suffrage was limited. Universal suffrage was not granted until the 1960s, at least in theory. The two parties were at times similar along the ideological spectrum, often competing for moderate voters [e.g., Median Voter Guy]. The authors refer to “cross-cutting cleavages” with overlapping ties that promoted compromise. This was especially true from the 1930s to early-1970s. The Democrats were the “big tent,’ with white southerners and more liberal northerners. The southern Democrats started switching in the 1940s and still at it when Nixon used his “Southern strategy.” Social issues were part of the debate. Newt Gingrich launched his scorched-earth strategy beginning in 1978 to undermine public trust to move voters to switch: “He rallied the base, found ways to embarrass the Democratic majority, and proved masterly at attracting media attention. As a political strategy, polarization delivered effectively. … Every election from 1980 to the present presented an opportunity for either party to take control of each chamber of Congress” (p. 17). It was all loyalty and party unity that mattered. So much for working across party lines. The Tea Party started in 2009 focusing on taxes, public programs and immigration; plus, negative partisanship (tribalism and distain for the opposing party). Trampling rule of law becomes justified. Republicans became mainly white, Democrats more diverse. Economic inequality has recurred several times, most famously in the late-19th century, the 1920s, and growing since the 1980s. The US is now the most economically unequal of all developed democracies. The Great Compression from the 1930s-early 1970, gave way to the Great Expansion. The “imperial presidency” has been a thing. [My view is the major culprits were Nixon, Bush/Cheney, and Trump.] The authors start with FDR, then Nixon and Trump.

Chapter 2: Polarization Wrecks. This chapter goes back to the 1790s and the loss of popularity of the Federalists. In the 1800 election, Jefferson and Burr, both Democratic Republicans, tied, Adams was third. The party wanted Jefferson as president, but Burr would not submit. It was up to the House to determine the winner. They could pick Jefferson as president (as the Republicans wanted), Burr or wait until after inauguration day and choose one of their own (as allowed at the time). Hamilton swung his position to Jefferson, believing Burr was too corrupt and that became the outcome. It was a peaceful regime change. The Federalists would continue to lose power and soon cease to exist; they had, after all, abused their power when in office. The Republicans under Jefferson and Madison had developed a party structure to gather politicians and recruit candidates. One reason for the growing importance of the Republican Party was immigration, specifically Irish and Germans, neither favorable to Britain. “Federalists’ overreach succeeded in bringing all the counties in the region—full of people who had been previously unengaged in politics—firmly into the Republican camp” (p. 52).

The Federalists did not believe in parties and did not consider the opposition legitimate; believing elites should rule. Too bad ordinary people became politically active, actually forming political societies—which the Federalists thought inherently “unlawful.” Hamilton believed in the importance of merchants and bankers, not so much for farmers—the position of Jefferson. He was forward-thinking, but voters had different ideas. Newspapers became partisan. The Federalists created the Gazette of the United States under John Fenno, “established for the purpose of disseminating favorable sentiments of the federal Constitution and the Administration” (p. 35). Jefferson established the National Gazette in 1791 under Philip Freneau (giving him a clerkship in the State Department). After arriving in office, of course, Jefferson found that he liked the extra power (that he previously opposed).

Chapter 3: Democratic Disintegration in the 1850s. Slavery was the problem, causing extreme polarization. Southern states had enough political power in Washington to maintain slavery, but opening up western states was problematic unless they were slave states. The issue had usually been solved by compromise, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase and new territory: the Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to be a slave state when Maine entered as a free state. The area above the “36/30 line” would be free. New parties formed: Andrew Jackson’s Democrats favored all white males, appealing to immigrants and Catholics. The Whigs coalesced as opposed to the Democrats, generally more educated, native-born white Protestants. Newspapers focused around partisanship. Both parties tried to stride all regions and were not critical of slavery.

The Mexican-American War of 1848 brought in more western territory. Texas would be slave, which added to the regional conflict. California could go either way. Calhoun announced in 1850 that the slave states were ready to leave the Union and during the 1850s it looked like the North was gaining more power. Under the Compromise of 1850, negotiated with Henry Clay and Senator Stephen Douglas. California became a free state and quite a bit of Texas land became the territories of New Mexico and Utah—slavery would be up to “popular sovereignty.” Also included was the Fugitive Slave Law allowing the arrest of former slaves.

Kansas and Nebraska became territories in 1854 and attempting statehood—but slave or free? The voting date for Kansas (which was the home primarily of American Indians) was January 15, 1856 by delegates wanting to exclude slavery. Many New Englanders settled in Lawrence, near the Kansas-Missouri border. Pro-slavery Kansans responded, mainly by disruption and violence; add propaganda and rigged elections. So much for fair elections, rule of law and legitimate opposition. “Border Ruffians” came from Missouri to disrupt the election and men from Missouri came for the day to vote for slavery in Kansas. The net result was duel constitutions, legislatures, and votes for slavery or no slavery. This became “Bleeding Kansas.” Democracy was not the solution—it was a war over slavery. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 (mainly replacing the Whigs) as anti-slavery northerners opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Senator Charles Sumner gave his “Crimes Against Kansas” speech in Congress, only to be beaten (“caned”) by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina with his walking stick. Brooks was hailed as a hero in the South. This was followed by the “Sack of Lawrence” in 1856. John Brown moved to Kansas and his band killed five pro-slavery people, “the Pottawatomie Massacre.” Brown returned to Boston, gathering more men. He raided the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His gang was easily defeated by Robert E. Lee. Brown was captured, tried and hanged.

The problem for the South was democracy worked against them. There was at the time about 40% more Northerners than Southerners. Fair elections would end slavery. Then came the 1860 elections. The Democrats split into northern and southern parties with their own nominees (Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge). The Republicans ran Abe Lincoln. Southern Whigs formed the Constitutional Party with John Bell. Lincoln won the northern electoral vote and Breckinridge the south (Lincoln did not appear on the ballot in most southern states). With Lincoln elected, southerners believed the worst. Lincoln claimed he was only opposed to slavery in new states, not the Old South. Seven southern states seceded before Lincoln was sworn in and created the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis. Kansas was admitted in the Union as a free state. Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War was on.

Chapter 4: Backsliding in the 1890s. This was the era when whites completed their complete control of the South, enforcing segregation and not allowing blacks to vote, total disenfranchisement. This was a combination of polarization, racism and economic inequality. That meant the end of all four attributes of democracy. It became one party rule; thus, the leaders had virtually unlimited power. [This allowed, for example, a Huey Long in Louisiana.] Progressives in much of the rest of the country were making progress on many fronts to better the lives of average people. [McKinley would be replaced by progressive Teddy Roosevelt for example.] The top 1% dominated politics much of the time and income inequality in the 1890s was high.

Reconstruction started after the Civil War mainly to promote the interests of blacks (that would be men only), especially to vote. Southern states were divided into five military districts and would be readmitted to the Union after blacks were registered and voting was assured. Over 2,000 blacks won elections during Reconstruction, mainly at the local level—but two in the Senate and 16 in Congress. The Ku Klux Klan was active early to intimidate blacks. The election of Hayes in the 1876 election by the House of Representatives (called “Ruther-fraud” given he effectively stole the election from Samuel Tilden) ended Reconstruction. Despite that, blacks maintained political power in black-majority areas. The Democrats gained power and northern Democrats looked to southern support to win the presidency under Cleveland, allowing greater intimidation of blacks.

As big industrial corporations gained wealth and power, they maintained control over workers in the established “master-servant” code of common law and “freedom of contract.” This meant government would protect the businesses and limit the power of unions—workers rights would be limited until the 1930s. Multiple strikes happened anyway; this was considered more useful that political help. In the South, about half of all farmers (mainly blacks) were sharecroppers or tenants. Farmers organized through the Grange movement, increasing their political power (especially in combination with progressives). They favored a silver standard, made famous by William Jennings Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896. Also, a progressive income tax, and eight-hour day. Some of these political movements were biracial. Despite that, Democrats in the South had a long history of voter intimidation of blacks, ballot stuffing and so on, limiting black success; plus poll taxes and literacy tests.

Wilmington, North Carolina was the site of an actual coup against a successful black community, the Wilmington massacre. The Republicans joined with the Populist Party to form a multiracial “Fusion” coalition achieving political success in 1896. They supported more public services, including education. The problem was Democrat white elites who were both racist and greedy. For the 1898 election, they enlisted white supremacist groups (White Government Union and Red Shirts, a terrorist arm). They roamed the black neighborhoods preventing blacks from voting. The Democrats won the state legislature, then took control of Wilmington. They destroyed the black newspaper, the Daily Record, then killed hundreds of people. They expelled the ones in power, including the sheriff and chief of police, and forced the government leaders to resign—at gun point. All black government employees were fired. This was a coup, yet no one came to their aid: not the governor, not the president, William McKinley. The result was permanent, including a revised constitution that included poll taxes and literacy tests.

The other southern states followed. Complete racial segregation followed (they called it “American apartheid”). There was substantial white supremacy support. (The details are presented beginning on p. 119). The court case Plessy v. Ferguson upheld Louisiana’s segregation of railroad cars as within the police powers of the state (“separate but equal”). Total segregation followed. It would last for 70 years. Segregation was picked up by the military and other federal restrictions like Wilson’s segregation of civil service and “redlining” in the 1930s. There was also a debate whether poor whites also should be disenfranchised. Limited state funds were distributed to local governments (the elites did not want to pay much in taxes); local governments distributed money in favor of richer areas and certainly as little as possible to black schools and other programs. “Destruction of democracy mattered little, foe they believed they were restoring the rightful order of society, in which the boundaries of membership and definitions of status were defined by race” (p. 127). It also meant political power for elites and the increasing influence of rich people on politics.

Chapter 5: Executive Aggrandizement in the 1930s. It’s difficult to think of Franklin Roosevelt as a proto-authoritarian, but that’s the case their making in this chapter. FDR grabbed the gears of power in a period of economic chaos, empowering future leaders toward the imperial presidency. The Great Depression started with the market crash of 1929 and bottomed out in 1932. It begins with the bonus march of veterans to Washington to get the $1,000 payment promised for 1945. President Hoover denied this and the veterans remained in “Hoovervilles” around Washington. Hoover asked General McArthur to clear them out, which he did with extreme violence (against the orders of Hoover)—claiming they were “insurrectionists.” Congress approved the payment in 1936. Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Act which put up trade barriers, disrupting global trade as other countries retaliated. Journalist Walter Lippman wrote: “Hoover surrendered everything for nothing. He gave up the leadership of his party” (p. 144). FDR would not trust Congress with critical policy issues promoting local interests. The Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act of 1934 allowed him to negotiate tariff agreements.

FDR was elected in a landslide, immediately facing a total collapse of the banking system. FDR started his “First Hundred Days” declaring a “banking holiday,” slowly reopening strong banks and passing reform legislation including banking—the Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall) created the FDIC. The Securities Acts of 1933 & 34 created the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforced stock market rules and required financial reporting and auditing. The Democrats were Northern liberals and Southern segregationists, so legislation was carefully crafted (and fairly racist). There were a number of “cooperative coalitions” across party. The key was a strong leader in Roosevelt; how to save capitalism while maintaining democracy. FDR and the executive branch had more power and independence from Congress (which had previously written detailed policies for the president to follow.

The New Deal introduced major restructurings of government, in an attempt to make major reforms to put people back to work and long-term legislation like Social Security—almost all problems not considered the responsibility of the federal government: poverty, employment, economic security, labor rights, and housing. Public works projects included the Public Works Administration; Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration for smaller-scale projects; National Youth Administration; and the Civilian Conservation Corps [my father was a member] on rural projects. The National Labor Relations Act guaranteed union rights and collective bargaining. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established minimum wages and related. Federal housing laws benefitted poorer white families, but redlining was institutionalized by the FHA. The Federal Communications Act established the FCC to regulate radio, then television.

This was also the era of Huey Long as the former corrupt Governor of Louisiana and current Senator. He was fundamentally a dictator and a potential presidential contender. He and Father Charles Coughlin spouted racist and anti-Semitic rants and supported fascism over capitalism and democracy.

There were the nasty episodes like incarcerating 100,000 Japanese Americans and denying entry of desperate Jews from Europe. J. Edgar Hoover made a name for himself in the 1920s and created the FBI out of the Bureau of Investigation. The 1920s was also the era of Teapot Dome and exposed the corruption of politics and especially the Attorney General, Harry Daugherty.

“Roosevelt’s skillful leadership and crisis management reveal how effective executive power can be at solving real problems and overcoming representative democracy’s tendency toward paralysis” (p. 156). The president’s power can also be used to stifle the opposition. National security capabilities also could be used to monitor ordinary people.

Chapter 6. The Weaponized Presidency in the 1970s. The chapter focusing on Nixon and Watergate. It centered on the break in at Democratic Headquarters on June 17, 1972. The FBI tracked the money used to pay the burglars back to Nixon’s reelection campaign. Haldeman and Nixon’s scheme called for the CIA to claim national security—it was on the infamous Nixon tapes. Nixon was determined to rig the system and “weaponize the presidency;” apparently, it didn’t matter if he needed to or not. He certainly used the intelligence apparatus as a personal political weapon: “compromise meant defeat, disagreement equaled disloyalty” (p. 162).

Joe McCarthy’s and the House Committee an Un-American Activities were examples of scare tactics used against perceived enemies. Nixon had used similar tactics at this time, including naming opponents as radicals and communists. The FBI used clandestine activities against Americans, including Martin Luther King. There wasn’t much polarization politically during Nixon’s presidency—the big debate was Vietnam, not really across party lines. Republicans favored business, Democrats labor, but with low inequality there was not much polarization. Despite this, Nixon pursued a “Southern strategy” to appeal to white voters, and a war on drugs, to promote the “silent majority.” Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War increased dissention, which he blamed on Communist support.

Then there was the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times in 1971 on the history of American involvement in Vietnam. It revealed the horrible decision-making by US officials since Truman. These were revealed by Daniel Ellsberg. After suing the NYT, Nixon went after Ellsberg, including sending the Plumbers to invade Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to smear Ellsberg. The evidence of the Nixon administration crimes came out slowly, with Woodward and Bernstein Washington Post reporting the most famous. Congress held hearings and remained fairly non-partisan. A special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed. He was fired after the attorney general, Eliot Richardson, resigned rather than carry it out. This was called the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Executive privilege and national security arguments did not work. Ultimately, the majority of Republicans turned against Nixon (and his approval rating fell from 67% to 27%) and he resigned to avoid impeachment. Lots of admin people went to jail; Nixon avoided it with a Ford pardon.

This was executive aggrandizement [and the rise of the imperial presidency]. The power granted FDR to save the economy was turned to personal use by Nixon. Fortunately, polarization and inequality were not significant issues at the time. The authors have detailed many of the events of Watergate in this chapter. “What would happen when a president not only possessed all the tools that came with the office by the late twentieth century, but also governed in a highly polarized setting” (p. 187)? That is the focus of the rest of the book.

Chapter 7: At All Costs: How the Four Threats Endanger Democracy. [Incentive structures and institutional frameworks look really important to me. Capitalism—especially the greed and incentives to cheap are significant to the story.] The authors focus on political power as it relates to democracy as particularly important. “Democracy relies on the presence of ambitious politicians who want to win: to win election, to win policy battles while in office, and to win reelection. … When partisan loyalty comes to override other goals, it can distort politicians’ incentives to be responsive to voters” (p. 193). Polarization pops up sometimes, like throughout the slavery question leading to the Civil War. It’s a big deal now. Equality and inclusion suffered under racism as segregation, and is still around. Racially-based restrictions on immigration also are recurring problems. The Voter Rights Act of 1965 increased election fairness.

Chapter 8: Dangerous Convergence. On to Donald Trump. It starts with Comey briefing Trump on Russian interference in the election. Trump declares: “I need loyalty.” Rosenstein appoints Mueller as special counsel, after Sessions recuses himself. Like Nixon, Trump viewed these agencies as his personal fiefdom. “Republicans in Congress stood by him, repeatedly declining either to criticize his behavior in public or to participate in congressional oversight of his administration. Republican voters too, remained faithful” (p. 212). “By the 1980s the Democrats had shed most of their long-faithful white southern members. … Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics increasingly identified with the Republican Party” (p 213). Republican leaders drove polarization.

“Republicans faced a conundrum: they could not promise new public programs because those ran counter to their small-government beliefs; neither could they simply by cutting existing programs, because in fact their own constituents relied on them heavily. … [instead they] embrace confrontation. … Newt Gingrich challenged what they perceived as a leftward drift. … Gingrich and his allies would level outrageous accusations against Democrats. … Attracting the media spotlight was crucial to Gingrich’s strategy. … Polarization worked: conservative Republicans began to win more elections. In the 1994 election, they triumphed collectively. … Gingrich embraced obstructionist tactics even when it came to routine matters such as the federal budget” (p. 215-7). The result was gridlock, in part based on their claim of “biased liberal reporting,” despite decades of serious journalism from the likes of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

The FCC stopped enforcing the “fairness doctrine” in 1985 [Reagan was president]. New conservative media flourished: prominently, Rush Limbaugh on radio, Fox News on TV. Negative news flourished, provoking more partisanship. Then the Tea Party (“taxed enough already”) emerged in 2010, opposed to deficits, government spending, immigration and “handouts.” They obstructed key votes, causing a near default on government bonds (S&P lowered the US bond rating to AA). McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to accomplish is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” So much for public policy.

American National Election Studies reported racial resentment from 1986 to 2016. The term represents the attitude that racial inequality persists because of the minorities (mainly blacks) themselves, mainly citing racial stereotypes like laziness and lack of work ethic—perceived as “freeloaders” and receiving “special treatment” (which also implies moral superiority of one’s own racial group). During this whole period, resentment remained above 50%. Resentment rose for Republicans to about 70% in 2016, declining for Democrats to around 40%. That is a lot of racism.

That is the prelude that led up to super-negative partisanship and Trump: 92% of Republicans voted for Trump, 94% of Democrats for Clinton. “Trump effectively seized a political opportunity that had developed in the Republican Party and that others before him had not touched: he identified the base’s already combustible attitudes about race and immigration” (p. 227). The gender gap also was evident in the 2016 election (Trump won by 12 points by men; Clinton 12 points by women). So much for an egalitarian country.

Income and wealth inequality have increased with policies favored by Republicans: a market-based approach even for public goods, lower taxes and removal of regulations; all great for the rich folk, not so much for most people. Trump’s cabinet is filled with rich folk doing the heavy lifting for the rich and powerful. The “great compression” of the post-War World II period is long gone. Income equality peaked in the mid-1970s; inequality peaked about 2008 and rising after the Great Recession of 2008. The income of the bottom half dropped to 12% in 2014. Washington did not help. Most assistance goes to seniors. Higher education is increasingly limited because of the rising costs.

The Patriot Act after 9/11 gave the president vast powers to combat terrorism, including domestic surveillance and access to private information. When bipartisanship is high, presidents seek compromise and consensus; with polarization, executive power can be a political weapon; Nixon was considered a master. Under Trump, all four threats are present and he uses them to his advantage

Chapter 9: Putting Democracy First. Given all four threats and institutional checks and balances ineffective, Trump was impeached. Trump was offering support for Ukraine only if President Zelenskyy did political favors by getting dirt on Hunter Biden—a scam and a witch hunt according to Trump and Republicans. Trump was acquitted along party lines (except for Romney) in the Senate. Once again, checks and balances did not work. “Trump played the four threats like a master puppeteer. He is polarization personified, utterly dismissive of opponents and vicious toward all antagonists. … Trump views the presidency as his personal domain and he has wielded its weapons to promote his personal interests. … Trump has launched a frontal attack on elections and the public’s confidence in them … [beginning with] his unsubstantiated 2016 claims that the election system was rigged. … Congress also has abandoned the duty to protect free and fair elections” (p. 243-5); remember “Moscow Mitch.” Trump has even threatened to pull the licenses of broadcasters. Surprisingly, most people have similar shared democratic values like respecting freedoms for everyone, misconduct should be punished, and separation of powers.

People diverge on ideology; material considerations based on costs and benefits, winners and losers (more starkly, what’s in it for me). Partisanship, something like group-think. Finally, the impact on the pillars of democracy (free and fair elections, rule of law, integrity of rights). Republicans seem to have abandoned protecting these pillars and push repressive behavior.

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© 2016 Gary Giroux