Apologies for posting less frequently than usual. I’ve been traveling, which has made it difficult. Robert E. Prasch fills in today with an insightful post on the misapplication of categories. And I’ll have a new column within the next couple days.
One of the difficulties in following American politics is that words often lose their meaning in the course of partisan argumentation. But thinking clearly, requires attending to the meaning of words and the concepts to which they refer. One area where much work is needed is in the distinction between principles, policies, and personalities.
Principles, by definition, are “hard and fast rules.” As such, they are not subject to negotiation. Not for money, momentary political advantage, monetary reward, or any reason at all short of the direst of emergencies – and perhaps not even then. In the political realm, our society has sought to elevate certain moral and procedural principles to the status of “rights.” Long and painful experience has shown that we regret the consequences that follow, almost inevitably, from setting aside those rights. Knowing this, we have deemed these rights to be “inviolate.” This, as American schoolchildren used to know, is the idea underlying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the several ensuing Amendments, etc.[FS1] This special status is also important because we know, again from hard experience, that in the midst of emergencies, tragedies and panics (real, imagined, or induced), that the citizenry can be induced to set them aside. We also know, again from hard experience, that our elected officials can be counted upon to lead the call for the suspension of our rights.
For example, consider that there is no Constitutional Amendment forbidding our elected officials from banging their heads against the nearest wall. This is probably because history, experience, and introspection, all suggest that they are disinclined to do it, and that little of importance is at stake for our society or polity in the event that some of them decide to pursue such an activity.
By contrast, our Constitution forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures,” while insisting on a positive right to a “speedy and public trial,” along with a right “to be confronted with witnesses.” The reason is that circumstances have appeared and reappeared in which a majority of voters and elected officials insist that “this time is different.” Hence they claim that “in this exceptional case” there are reasons to violate these principles (otherwise known as the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution). As principles, these Amendments cannot and should not be set aside to appease the roar of a crowd, or because an influential person or group persons believes that doing so might be an “expedient” or “pragmatic” way to achieve a particular and popular end (one invariably advantageous to the party making the argument).
In contrast to principle, policy is about the government’s approach to a particular problem or issue. For example, the government may enact a policy designed to reduce the use of gasoline in that hope that doing so will improve the balance of trade while aiding the environment. As with all policies, some will “win” and others will “lose,” but it is important to observe that no principles are at stake, just interests. Policies cover a range of approaches to problems that can be discussed reasonably by reasonable people. It is understood that, as a consequence of differing interests and perhaps political philosophies, different people may arrive at different conclusions.
The same cannot be said about principles. So, when the minions of a sitting President of the United States work diligently behind the scenes to craft and then enact legislation granting the executive branch the authority to seize, imprison indefinitely, and kill United States citizens without “due process of law,” then what we are seeing is not a “policy difference,” the merits of which reasonable people may reasonably debate. Rather, we are seeing the violation of our core principles as they are clearly described in the Constitution. Only two positions can be taken on this issue: (1) ally with those who believe that we should live in a republic governed by laws, or (2) ally with those who do not. By clear and distinct contrast with the Bush and Obama Administrations, I count myself as among those who wish to live in a free republic.
Moreover, I maintain this position unapologetically. Most damning of all, by the standards of the District of Columbia, the White House, and the mainstream media, I am unashamed by my dogmatism. But, the situation is even worse. I fully, and with every ounce of contempt I can muster, dismiss the idea that we are living through a period of history featuring such unique, unprecedented, and extreme dangers that Constitutional protections can, and should, be abrogated. Living as a free citizen in a free republic involves risks. But, as we look around, it is evident that the risks are minimal and the costs – in lost liberties and out of pocket expenses — are massive (We can begin with the 230,000 employed by Homeland Security and the approximately 200,000+ employed at various “intelligence” agencies such as NSA, CIA, and others).
Let’s turn to personalities. For the past several decades, we have been asked to judge political candidates exclusively on the basis of their personality. Are they optimistic? Do they have a lovely wife? Have they had an affair? Have they ever transported the family dog on the roof of the family car? I do not care. I do not care about a politician’s family, their love-life, or the travel arrangements of their pets. As a citizen, I just don’t care, and neither should you. Adherence to the Constitution and an ability to formulate and “sell” compelling policies should be the foundation of political success in a well-functioning polity. Not personal foibles or failings.
Why, then, does personality play such a role in our politics? Two reasons come to mind. One is that matters of principle and policy may be difficult to interpret, especially in a world featuring massive expenditures on disinformation and partisan “spin.” Another, more disconcerting reason, is that the major parties represent the same elite interests and for that reason are not all that different on a wide range of issues. For example, both parties are committed to establishing and maintaining U.S. hegemony across the Middle East. Both parties are anxious to set aside Constitutional protections so as to further concentrate power in the executive branch. Both parties are fully committed to protecting the nation’s largest and most useless financial institutions. Both parties are anxious to pursue any and all “Free Trade” agreements designed by and for the Fortune 500 companies. Both parties are committed to rolling back the meager income security that Americans receive from Medicare and Social Security. Both parties understand that they will respond with alacrity and zest to the needs expressed by the upper 7-10% of the population as measured by income and wealth, even as they essentially neglect or assault the interests of the rest. The leadership of both parties are fully aware of this convergence, and I would submit that they have not fooled as many Americans as they think. However, just because they share a broad consensus should not be interpreted to mean that each party’s leadership is not anxious to garner the spoils of governing to themselves, their sponsors, and their camp followers.
In short, the focus on personalities, and the partisan bickering that follows from it, is not symptomatic of divergence, but rather signifies the convergence of political perspectives between the major parties. Moreover, this convergence of the parties behind an agenda designed largely by and for economic elites can be more readily masked if differences of personality can made to substitute for discussions of substantive content. So we should expect to see even more excited discussions about marital affairs and the travails of family pets as we witness the continuance of the bi-partisan push to set aside the core principles of republican government and the pursuit of economic policies designed to benefit a privileged minority at the expense of the rest of us.