If the recently concluded U.S. mid-term elections did nothing else, they drove home anew the realization that we – the American citizenry – are consigned, for who knows how long, to the Era of Trumpism. It is a Shakespearian moment of incessantly oscillating tragedy and farce, where norms of governance and institutions of government are constantly under assault, and American society is in perpetually divisive turmoil. This calls to mind the famous opening to Rousseau’s The Social Contract: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
Conditions today being what they are, one can’t help but recall journalist Richard Rovere’s characterization of 1950s Cold War-era McCarthyism:
He [Senator Joseph McCarthy] stamped with his name a tendency, a whole cluster of tendencies in American life. The name survives. To many Americans, whatever is illiberal, anti-intellectual, repressive, reactionary, totalitarian or merely swinish will hereafter be McCarthyism. The word is imprecise, but it conveys a meaning and a powerful image.
Today, more than half a century on, only the namesake has changed – not to protect the innocent, but to project the guilty. Just add insecurity, paranoia, incompetence, vindictiveness, disparagement, and narcissistic self-promotion, and both effect and image are essentially the same. The symmetry of the two moments – then and now – lies, perhaps surprisingly, in an underlying focus on national security. In fact, the lesson of the present moment, for those who concern themselves with the affairs of state, is to acknowledge the totality of the precepts embodied in what we might call America’s Security Credo – the Preamble to the Constitution: not just providing for the common defense, but also securing national unity (a more perfect union), justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare, and liberty for the generations.
Add to these guiding precepts the other foundational ideas that underlie the American system of governance, and we get a fuller picture of what is at stake in this era of Trumpism and what those in public service have sworn to support and defend against enemies foreign and domestic: popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the consent of the governed, public accountability, separate and shared powers, checks and balances, majority rule and minority protection, civil liberties, due process, and civilian control of the military foremost among them.
In the interest of immediate post-election stock-taking, we – all of us, but especially those who have sworn the oath of allegiance to the Constitution – do well to consider some key aspects of politics and governance in this country to judge whether the rotely voiced claims that the United States is the world’s greatest democracy and that representative democracy – its alleged ideal form – is worthy of preserving and protecting, especially where blood and treasure might be at play.
Among the most noteworthy and unsettling challenges to the ideal now confronting us are these:
Sacrificing Governance for Office-Seeking.
America’s founders – politicians themselves, to be sure – established a system in which politics would be but the means to the end of governing; and governing meant doing for the people, with and only with their consent, what government is ultimately expected to do: securing and preserving inalienable, universal human rights; in Lincoln’s words, doing for the people what they need done, but can’t do themselves, at all or as well. Was Woodrow Wilson maybe onto something, or had his legendary idealism gotten the best of him, when he said that the state exists for the good of society, not society for the sake of the state?
Today’s politicians, with few notable exceptions, are all about politicking – obsessively, single-mindedly seeking and retaining their hold on public office – not at all about governing. A painful truth, this. Consider how much time the average politician spends campaigning and fundraising at the expense of job-tending. This is statecraft become stagecraft, every public act or utterance a performance to satisfy the hunger for recognition, adulation, and the perquisites of office.
The alleged goodness of representative democracy is based on the flawed premise that the best of us – the rich and wellborn, in Alexander Hamilton’s words – govern the rest of us – the turbulent and changing masses, who seldom judge or determine right. In other words, we – the Little People – have relinquished our prerogative to govern ourselves to representatives who promise to lead, that is to demonstrate the traits demanded of bona fide leaders: vision, competence, decisiveness, courage, accountability, selflessness.
Our forebears, from the Founders to Lincoln, were generally of one mind that no one is good enough to govern another without the other’s consent. But it was English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s late-19th century essay, “The Americans,” that cynically but accurately captured the tenor of our times today. “The Republican form of government,” he said, “is the highest form of government: but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature – a type nowhere at present existing.” What he saw then is what we see glutting the halls of elected government today: performers, abetted by us, who occupy positions of leadership but don’t lead; charlatans who attract followers but aren’t leaders; poseurs whose most demonstrable traits are myopia, ineptitude, indecisiveness, cowardice, unaccountability, and unyielding selfishness.
Voteless Representative Democracy.
Popular sovereignty – ultimate power in the hands of the people; government of, by, and for the people – is the very essence of representative democracy. Whether Lincoln actually said, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet,” it is a sentiment that fully captures the canonical belief that the vote is the silver bullet that gives the people, not government, the final say in the affairs that affect their happiness and well-being. It is an ideal we all recognize, especially today, is elusive if not illusory when subjected to the depredations – gerrymandering, voter suppression, manipulation of voting processes – of the saboteurs of democracy who walk in our midst.
Party Loyalty Over Institutional Responsibility.
Political parties are the carnivores that roam the jungle of American politics, devouring whatever feeds their selfish appetites. They are at the forefront of the factions Madison spoke of in Federalist 10, animated by common passions adverse to the rights of others and to the community. Washington remonstrated at length in his farewell address, about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” “The alternate domination of one faction over another,” he said, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, . . is itself a frightful despotism.”
Institutions, by comparison, are akin to bureaucratic zookeepers, charged with maintaining order in the zoo of politics by establishing and enforcing constitutionally prescribed duties, rules, and boundaries that both limit and enable. They are meant to mediate between the Self and the Other, the individual and society, the selfish and the selfless.
The Constitution is silent on the role of political parties, instead providing an architecture of coequal institutions expected to check and balance one another in a search for some form of dialectical unity. No doubt the Founders expected this institutional superstructure to tame the factional passions of party politics, provided that the individuals manning the institutions gave their loyalty to the institution and its prescribed responsibilities rather than to the party they had chosen to align themselves with.
Today, party loyalty completely dominates institutional allegiance, thereby relegating the Constitution to little more than a parchment fig leaf.
Relinquishing Rights for Power.
The Constitution, most notably in the Bill of Rights, canonized what the Declaration of Independence had established as the philosophical foundation of the American republic: the centrality of human rights. The underlying assumption was that the people, motivated by the innate human desire to enjoy their God-given rights, would do so by appealing to their elected representatives. Lincoln, in the years before he ascended to the presidency, observed that, “The people know their rights, and they are never slow to assert and maintain them.” The elected representatives of the people, by fulfilling their obligation to their constituents, would be rewarded accordingly by reelection. Competent, responsive representation was thus meant to be the means to the end of securing rights that inhere in nature.
But recent events and trends increasingly suggest that growing numbers of people are now willing to forsake their rights and act against their own best interests by siding with politicians who seek to terminate such rights and benefits – Medicare, Social Security, prescription drug price reductions, even basic voting rights – but whose party affiliation promises a continuing hold on power for ideological fellow travelers. What clearer testimony could there be to the eternal truth, once voiced by Henry Kissinger, that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”?
Selfish Interest at the Expense of the Public Good.
Self-interest is innate in human nature – good when it produces self-fulfillment and improvements to the human condition; not good when it sacrifices the well-being of The Other and the community. The line between self-interest and selfish interest is a fine one – too fine to be noticed most of the time, but all too real and all too conducive to injustice. Tocqueville, in his classic commentary Democracy in America, displayed telling, if cynical, insight when he observed: “One can change human institutions but not man. However energetically society in general may strive to make all citizens equal and alike, the personal pride of individuals will always seek to rise above the common level, and to form somewhere an inequality to their own advantage.”
Years before Tocqueville’s journey through America, though, Thomas Paine warned of the “blowback” that ignoring the Golden Rule of governing could produce: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
It was the element of altruism incorporated into the Founders’ conception of representative democracy – government of the people, by the people, for the people – that has been lost today, supplanted by the overweening selfishness of those who have no other aim than to perpetuate their stay in office and their hold on power.
Populist Passion Over Deliberative Reason.
America’s founders were generally united in their embrace of representative democracy, though they were divided in their preference for either representative democracy – an elitist conception – or representative democracy – a populist conception. In something of an ironic twist, Hamilton and Jefferson, bitter rivals in nearly every respect, were both elitists – but of dramatically different stripes. Hamilton, recall, considered a small vanguard of the rich and wellborn essential for taming the instability and excesses of the masses. Jefferson, in contrast, believed in a natural aristocracy of well-informed and educated citizens as those most fit to govern themselves. Jefferson spoke forcefully and at considerable length for an informed, educated citizenry as the absolute precondition for a working democracy: “Educate and inform the whole mass of people. Enable them to see that it is in their interest to preserve peace and order. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” The meta-ideal, if one were to exist, would be the Jeffersonian ideal – a natural aristocracy of the mind, rather than one of wealth or birth.
Today, populism – in bastardized, distorted form – rules. It is a populism that feeds and feeds on passion, which resides in the heart or gut, accentuates ignorance, relies on misinformation and disinformation, and is predicated on insistently telling the people what they want to hear, rather than equipping them intellectually to deal critically and responsibly with what they need to know. Thus does opinion born of emotion supplant judgment born of deliberative reason.
Ideology as Substitute for Fact.
Among America’s founders, it was John Adams who argued most forcefully that happiness – the happiness of society – is the end of government; and that such happiness is a product of virtue, private and public: concern with and action for the greater good. Generally aligned in his thinking with Adams, though expressing himself in different terms, Madison took the position, most notably in Federalist 51, that the end of government is justice – presumably reflecting fair and equitable treatment for all. Both views envisioned a self-governing, civically engaged, civically literate electorate. Little more than half a century later, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Character,” mirrored such thinking when he said, “Truth is the summit of being; justice is the application of it to affairs.” Justice, if it is truly to be served, and in the process civic virtue honored, requires that it be based on truth – fact grounded in reality, not assumption, predisposition, habit, or contrivance.
Then there is ideology. Ideology stands distinctly apart from fact, reality, and truth. It is a reification of reality, a social and intellectual construction that is imposed on circumstances and serves to motivate and sustain unthinking true believers. It isn’t a constellation of ideas; it is anti-ideational. It isn’t a philosophy; it is anti-philosophical. It isn’t thoughtfulness; it is an anti-intellectual prism that demands unthinking acceptance as received truth. Ideology relieves one of the hard work of thinking; and that is why it is so prevalent today as a substitute for thinking.
Ad Hominem Politics. Name-calling and mudslinging have a long tradition in American politics. Consider, for example, the 1800 presidential campaign that pitted John Adams against Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s camp accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” The Adams camp returned fire by calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
Such tortured invective seems tepid and innocuous by today’s standards. One would think that an established democracy, now over two centuries old, would have matured to the point where the public discourse of those seeking and holding office would reflect a heightened level of dignity, sophistication, and decorum. Not so. Rather do media-obsessed politicians increasingly consider it de rigueur to employ the nastiest, most vitriolic and disparaging language possible against their opponents. Ironically, instead of being viewed by the electorate as the impoverishment of the affairs of state, such practices seem to have a contagion effect that magnifies their prevalence and normalizes their presence. Civility has, we might say, been mugged by scumbaggery.
Weaponized Politicization. Political neutrality and political responsiveness are two sides of the civic coin of the realm. Those in positions of political authority fully expect the instruments of statecraft at their disposal to be unconditionally and instantaneously at their disposal in carrying out their responsibilities – even as they consciously seek to blur the lines between the public interest and their own personal interest. By the same token, those who serve as the instruments of statecraft just as assiduously seek to distance themselves from partisan politics – even as they recognize that they are duty bound to defer to duly constituted political authority.
Politicization poisons the well of neutrality between those who politic and those who administer. For politicization to be avoided requires tacit agreement by both parties – politicizers and politicized – to maintain a healthy distance from one another and to respect self-imposed limits on their own line-crossing behavior. Now, seemingly as never before in recent memory, the politicizers are in command, blatantly open about their weaponized efforts to coopt those in government most expected to be neutral – the uniformed military, the diplomatic corps, the intelligence community, law enforcement, and even the courts – for partisan political advantage.
Faced with all these distortions and perversions, We the People must act now to restore equilibrium. In fact, the time to act was yesterday, especially by those among us who are constitutionally bound to defend the Constitution against enemies domestic and foreign. Indeed, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Regrettably, the mid-terms offer little hope that we have a clue what to do if and when we act. At a minimum, we must face up to this question: Is the United States actually a great power, as it proclaims itself to be, or just a big country?