Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as one does, he or she looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” 

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse. Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: ”Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  ”As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demagoguery are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Colosseum.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.

Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as s/he does, s/he looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse.  Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: ”Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  ”As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demogogary are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Collesium.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.

Capture or Kill, War or Crime

In a “Washington Post” story today it was reported that under President Obama there are more targeted killings than captures in counter-terrorism efforts.  Senator Bond (R, Mo) says: “Over a year after taking office, the administration has still failed to answer the hard questions about what to do if we have the opportunity to capture and detain a terrorist overseas, which has made our terror-fighters reluctant to capture and left our allies confused.”

I’m confused too.  If terrorism is going to be treated by this administration as a crime rather than an act of war, and if those captured are going to be treated as criminals rather than enemy combatants, then isn’t it a crime, the crime of murder, to just kill them without a trial?  Let me get this straight.  We kill them so that we don’t have to worry about Mirandizing them and finding a place to hold a trial if we capture them?

How long can we maintain this kind of cognitive dissonance?  If the Left wants to try G.W. Bush for war crimes, does that mean we would try President Obama for murder?

Steyn on Kennedy (or Why I Tend to Be Non-Progressive)

In general I would like to change the overall tenor of my blog away from the more polemical, reflections on the news-of-the-day, culture war sort, but something Mark Steyn recently wrote about Edward Kennedy summed up a lot of things for me.   Steyn is acerbic, clever and hilarious, the closest living writer we have to a Twain (in his journalism and travelogues (not fiction)).  I have debated with myself for years if an H.L. Mencken (whom I love though I don’t share his worldview) style of rhetoric and writing is appropriate for a Christian.  At one time I read a lot about Muggeridge, though I have only dipped into him, and have the sense that he may have pulled it off.

Steyn wrote: “If a towering giant cares so much about humanity in general, why get hung up on his carelessness with humans in particular?”  While I really do find that I tend to adopt mediating political and theological positions, though that does not make me a moderate, I am a thorough orthodox Nicene Christian with strongly held beliefs, and though I dislike hubris on either side, I tend to believe political conservatism (for all its faults, failures and excesses) tends to do less harm to humanity.  Basically it’s a slower descent on the road to hell.

Steyn’s quote above nails it for me.  Progressives care deeply about the Poor, and less about the poor.  They are more concerned with Environmentalism than they are the environment.  They love Humanity and hate man.  Jesus Christ was the opposite.  His life and ministry showed an unparalleled concern for concrete humans, and His death showed that that deep care was extended to all Humanity.  This is the arrow of love–it moves from the particular to the general–and without that focus on the concrete, historical person before you; that is, our neighbor, we can not truly exhibit compassion for humanity.

We see this in 1 Timothy 3.  An overseer should be gentle, temperate, faithful, self-controlled and hospitable, among others, all qualities that relate to specific, real, tangible human beings we are in family or community with.  We find an awful lot in Scripture about how to treat persons and not so much about how to treat peoples.  We find almost exclusively teachings on how individuals should relate to individuals and how communities of faith should relate to individuals (e.g. Matthew 18:15-17).  I can not think of a teaching off-hand that deals with our responsibility to our neighbor, family or community mediated through the government, unless it’s Jesus’s teaching to reconcile with another before it lands in court, suggesting, at least, that judicial intervention is a valid and necessary, if undesired, process.

It’s interesting to me that Jesus, Paul and Peter all addressed our obligations to the government, especially when the government they were referring to would be intolerable to us today, as long as it wasn’t in conflict with our obligations to God.  Nowhere I am aware of do they delineate the obligations of government to the individual or the individual’s obligation to other individuals through the government.

Don’t get me wrong; I cherish representative democracy even if it is “the worst form of government except all those others” (Churchill) which contains the “seeds of its own destruction” (Robert Welch) ((No I am not a member of the John Birch Society and know very little about it)), and ours is sliding into an insidious individualism with a destructive bent towards self-gratification and consumerism.  However, nothing we can do will remove the consequences of original sin.   When we try to “fix” problems, especially on a grand scale, we tend to make them worse–the more grand the proposed solution the less grand the outcome.

So, I tend to be generally more conservative politically and more radical (in the sense of the Sermon on the Mount, not French Revolution) personally. Conservatism should be about conservation (and I should say I tend to an older pre-Reagan conservatism, one that at one time would have embraced thinkers like Wendell Berry), and the best way to conserve is to plant.  If democracy does indeed contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction, as all human Babels must, then at least it takes longer for the weeds to flourish because there are just so many vibrant, beautiful plants growing.

Governments do indeed have positive roles to play; some problems (e.g. toxic waste, highways, defense, education) need resources, regulations and direct intervention, but governments deal with people in the aggregate and abstract, and this leads to care for Humanity and carelessness towards humans.  It creates a situation in which people can advocate for health care as a positive right while denying life to millions.  Medical treatment guaranteed to the sick by governmental legislation is not as  legitimate a function of government, if at all, than protecting the innocent or defending those who can not defend themselves.  Because the unborn have been abstracted to fetuses, we have decided they are not human and have no rights.  The first right a government should protect is the right to life.  Even liberty itself comes after that!

It is not progress to medically treat a person with the flu in the same hospital where an unborn baby is deprived of her life and where another baby is born and another is operated on in the womb.  (While most abortions are done in specialty “clinics,” there are still hundreds of hospitals that perform them, and even if they were not, it’s not progress to treat those who were born while killing others. The hospital was a useful, but unnecessary, comparison.)  Yes, of course, I think the conditions which drive some women to abortion need to be addressed.  That’s why we adopted two older, special needs children out of the public adoption system after they were removed from their mother.

Desipte what Obama said in his address before Congress on September 9th, don’t be fooled into thinking that if we get a national public option we won’t eventually get tax-payer funded abortions.  They already have them in Canada.

Render unto Caesar, but love your neighbor.

Congressmen: Help Us to Help You

Years ago talk of term limits was all the rage when discussing the restoration of American democracy.  I think it’s time to bring such talk back.  Much of the current economic crisis can be laid at the steps of the Capitol building, but we keep electing them over and over.

Just this morning on the way to take the kids to school I heard on NPR that Obama  is definitely going to nominate NH senator Judd Gregg as commerce secretary.  Of course this speculation has been in the news and the hold up was that Gregg did not want his seat to go to a democrat.  Apparently they worked out a deal because both NRP and the AP are reporting this morning that:

Nevertheless, it’s all but certain Lynch will choose a Republican, probably Bonnie Newman. She is a veteran of the Reagan White House who served as Gregg’s chief of staff during his House tenure. Under such a plan, Newman would not run in the 2010 election for the Senate seat. [emphasis added]

NPR added that the reason Newman would not run in 2010 was so that a democrat would have a chance!

If incumbency is such a powerful force that in 2 years time a person would have a lock on a seat–which is basically what happens each time a new person is elected to the House–then we have a problem, and that problem must be part of the nature of democratic elections.

Perhaps there’s some political mechanism embedded into the very structure of democratic elections the way certain people have biological mechanisms which predispose them to addictions.  I don’t know, but it is a political fact that elections advantage the incumbent.

It’s also self-evident that the temptations inherent in power are so strong that few are ever able to resist them for long.  From Richardson to Geithner to Daschle it is clear that we won’t have change in this administration; we won’t have reform.

We can’t because just as the addict becomes controlled by his addiction the politician becomes controlled by a self-interest to remain in power.

Meanwhile, we have Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who safely crash lands–or should that be crash floats?–a plane into the Hudson and then calls the library to tell them he can’t return the book on professional ethics he had borrowed.

That’s the kind of person we need in office, but it would be wrong to leave him there long.   Human nature is such that no one can avoid corruption, even in a decent and well-structured system.

Many of our elected representatives are honorable, decent women and men who go into politics with a genuine and noble desire to serve the people.  We owe them gratitude and honor (in the same way we owe it to the men and women in uniform), but we rarely give it because they overstay their welcome.  But, just like those who go into combat need respite and relief–and still will never fully heal emotionally and spiritually even if they are never wounded–so our elected representatives need to be helped by relieving them of the temptation to power.

Someone who day after day exposes himself to a toxin for the good of others can not walk away if that toxin is compelling and addictive.  George Washington was able to do it, but he was the exception who proves the rule.  The rest of them need our help.  They can not do it themselves.

We need a Constitution amendment.  Congress has to propose it.  “Ay, there’s the rub.” They have to commit political suicide, and just like with Hamlet it may be  “a consummation Devoutly to be wished,” but the dreams that may come when they have shuffled off their political coils give them pause.  And so, “That makes calamity of so long a [political]  life.”

There must be enough of a grassroots outcry that they are forced to deal with their addiction.  We need a national intervention for their sake and ours.

Obects of History

Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked On-Line, wrote what is probably the most perceptive essay on the Obama phenomena that I have seen:

So there was a dual historic element to the inauguration: there was the real history of it, but more powerfully still there was the projection of a yearning for history on to it, the semi-official and on-the-ground transformation of the inauguration into a clear, unambiguous, internationally recognisable dividing line between then and now, between the old cynical order and something new, between who we were yesterday and who we are today. Ironically, this intense Historification of the inauguration, driven by people’s desire for a sense of purposeful destiny, ended up exposing the absence of genuine history-making today. In the past, people tended to tell stories about what they did during major historic events (as captured in the age-old question ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’), while the question of ‘where were you?’ was confined to one-off, freak occurrences that took us by surprise (‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot? When Diana died?’). Today, the rush to ‘participate’ in Obama’s inauguration simply to say ‘I was there’ captures the view of history as something that we observe, something that is done on our behalf by other people, something we can be at but not really part of.

Indeed, watching the inauguration yesterday – both the historic and Historic versions – one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was the American people themselves who made this event happen. Increasingly, Obama is discussed not as someone who was elected by the masses, mandated to govern the United States, but as someone who ‘arrived’, who ‘came’, who ‘emerged when we most needed him’. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘And out of [our] great need, I believe he came. Barack Obama came’. There is a religious twist to this view of Obama ‘coming’, and it also strikingly reveals the absence of, or at least the weakness of, a sense of human agency in the Obama phenomenon. The inauguration confirmed both that millions of people want meaningful change but also that they feel incapable of bringing such change about – so they invest all of their hopes and aspirations on to one man instead; one man who, as a woman in DC said when interviewed by a journalist on what Obama should do next, is expected to ‘do everything’. Fundamentally, and contradictorily, Obama represents both people’s urgent and positive desire for a new way of governing, and also their feeling of atomisation, their sense of being the objects rather than the subjects of history.