Page Two: Constitutionally Sound
At its best, the government is an exploding, bloated, graceless machine. That just means it's working.
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain"
– "Gerontion," T.S. Eliot
This is the last of three columns that have been more or less on the same range of topics. Many, if not most, Chronicle readers will find all three of these columns more questionable and suspect than usual because they are based on, as was quite openly acknowledged in last week's column, the minority and much-derided opinion that "the [U.S.] government is not basically broken, though it has been intentionally jammed up by the current administration."
• The driving idea behind the design of this country's government in the Constitution is that of a democratic constitutional republic, not a democracy. The crucial distinction is that in a republic the majority still controls legislative power, but when it exercises that power, it must do so without infringing, abridging, or compromising the rights of minorities. (When the document was drafted, minorities were considered to be those whose political, religious, and ideological philosophies differed from those of the majority; the concept later came to encompass race, sexual orientation, and sex.)
• Therefore, structurally, the movement of government is designed to be slow, cumbersome, and easy to block.
• As specifically as the Constitution empowers each of us and protects our opinions, it does exactly the same for all other citizens, including those with whom we most violently disagree.
• Religious, political, and activist true-believers of every stripe may talk the talk of constitutional fidelity, but all too often their positions, policies, and goals actually negate it.
• Way too often, when people complain about the failures of the federal government because the Constitution is not being strictly followed, their real problem is the exact opposite: The principles are being too closely followed. Listening to most political dialogue, no matter the allegiances and ideological beliefs of the speakers, what one hears most often is contempt for constitutional principles rather than any kind of respect. Isn't one of the most common complaints we all make about our government that one group or another has too much power, while our beliefs are not adequately represented? Bemoaned as the great failure of the implementation of the Constitution, the situation is instead a consequence of its success.
Politicians are constantly castigated for not following the will of their constituencies. Yet the Constitution is clear that elected officials are expected to place their own ideals above the will of the people. The president was given a four-year term and senators were given six-year terms so that they would be free to legislate in what they considered the country's best interests – and immune to the fads, whims, and mob passions of the majority.
The 'Successes' of the U.S. Government
The very idea of the Constitution's ambition that the government reasonably represents all its citizens demands a lack of cohesiveness, agility, speed, and consistency. Given the current population of approximately 300 million (supposedly) equally empowered citizens – with ideally there being no special regard given to class, race, position, income, politics, and family – at its best, the government is guaranteed to be an exploding, bloated, graceless machine out of Rube Goldberg's worst nightmare.
The 'Failures' of the U.S. Government
• Most often, the current failures of the government are framed by the successes of a past, which, unfortunately, has more basis in nostalgic fantasy than in reality. Every one of the current symptoms offered as evidence that these are the last days of a constitutional U.S. government has been with this country since the beginning (often in far more virulent forms), including the existence of a too-powerful upper class, an increasingly disenfranchised lower class, endemic corruption, partisan rather than national allegiances, parochial partisan policy goals, election fraud, ballot-tampering, the manipulation of election results, the disenfranchisement of specific groups (racial, political, religious, national), and the manipulation of election returns. If anything, more Americans are empowered now than have ever been.
• Obviously, if you believe that we are in the grip of a one-world conspiracy, helpless victims of the puppetry of the overlords, trapped in the minute manipulations of the world's bankers, or suffering in a history carefully controlled by Zionists, papists, communists, or Masons, then anything I have to argue here is pointless.
• Finally, the suggestion here is that – rather than being the results of decisions made by a ruling elite or demonic cabals – the failures, corruption, operations, ambitions, successes, and manipulations of government are caused by far more mundane, if no less mendacious, sources.
This all leads to my main theme that the greatest threat to our constitutional government is demonizing those with whom we disagree. In this vein, almost all political conflicts are cast as good vs. evil, the patriotic against the treasonous, rather than principled conflicts between those with opposing ideas and positions.
My Current Conflict With My Beloved Naderites
According to many of the responses to last week's musing on the Naderites, I am again doing what I am constantly preaching against: demonizing those with whom I disagree. The argument was that I was acting hypocritically, demonizing Naderites by calling them evil, which only meant that I was actually evil myself. The accusation was that my position was "let us not argue ideas but instead attack people!"
J'accuse back at you, my friends.
Certainly, I am no innocent; any complaints about the extent to which I have belabored my concerns over Ralph Nader and his acolytes' actions are right on target. But I have not accused them of being evil and intentionally doing harm, because that is quite clearly not the case.
This column presents my opinions, but always in the context of dialogue, I am well aware that my thoughts are not going to change anyone's mind, especially those in disagreement with me on many or most issues. My argument with Nader's supporters is precisely because I don't think they are evil or demons or intentionally doing harm. One does not bemoan the consequences of fascism to fascists – after all, isn't that exactly what they want? What I have perhaps implied, rather than stated clearly, is that my obsession with this group is because I believe we share similar beliefs, as well as concerns, about our government. Not on Nader, but on many issues of policy and platform, our beliefs have far more in common than differences. Given our common concerns, my position is that their actions, even if well-intentioned, have worked against these concerns, inadvertently causing much more damage than good.
Notice I say "my beliefs," while just as obviously they believe differently than I do. I am not calling them names or insulting their motivations. I am angry at their actions, an anger that perhaps is too presumptuous, but it comes from shared values, from similarities – not because they are fifth columnists out to destroy all that is good and holy. As misguided as they find my criticisms of them, I find their actions and their justifications of theirs.
Al Gore lost for many reasons: a weak campaign, many strategic blunders, a dissatisfied electorate, Bill Clinton, and the willingness of the Republicans to pillage in Florida, among many others. Gore was not destined to win.
Now they can tap-dance and shadow-play all they want, but if Nader had not run and those people had still voted and voted their consciences, the results quite likely would have been different. What I despair and bemoan is that the consequence of their voting their consciences instead led to the invasion of Iraq, the gutting of the safety social net, a conservatively stacked Supreme Court, and the nihilistic anti-Americanism of the Bush administration's assault on the Constitution of the United States and the unity of the American people.
Yes, there is a difference between the two political parties, perhaps not as pronounced or wide as some might like it to be, but it is there. Maybe this is just a pointless argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But given that between 70% and 80% of the American people supported the invasion of Iraq, I think that progressives have more of a pragmatic responsibility to underprivileged and disenfranchised Americans, as well as to the world, than they do to vote their consciences or indulge in a boutique morality that has more to do with American privilege than with genuine compassion and concern with the day-to-day reality of all too many others in this world.