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Constitutional Self-Governance is Not Simply a Partisan Matter

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I met recently with an individual who had come to the Institute I direct to discuss a project. Our guest remarked during introductions that they had read at least one of my recent commentaries and had concluded on that basis that we differed in partisan terms and that they “would leave matters there.” I responded that I hoped we could discuss whatever differences they might have perceived. Our guest agreed we should do so, but thereafter did not seek to develop a conversation along such lines.

This brief interaction set me thinking, as I have long argued in these essays that while I am often critical of today’s Republican Party and its officials as well as the current President for the consequences of their choices for democratic self-governance, I do not offer my arguments on partisan grounds. I am quite confident I would make identical criticisms of the Democratic Party had its leaders and officials chosen to make decisions akin to those the GOP has taken in recent decades. Notably, however, they have not, at least not to date. The Democrats have made their fair share of mistakes and missteps over the years, but not to the extent or with the profound implications of the GOP’s actions and efforts that I outline below. I have highlighted many of these in past columns.

  • To declare that self-governance is the principal problem confronting the polity and that the market can and should substitute for it to the maximum degree possible
  • To nominate an unprepared and well-known pathological liar as its presidential standard bearer
  • To elect to exploit race and racial and ethnic difference as a self-conscious strategy for electoral gain, and to do so for decades (since the advent of Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy”)
  • To mislead its adherents on the purport of its policies and mobilize them instead on the basis of fear and animosity of the “other,” including on the foundation of profoundly disingenuous claims concerning poor and otherwise vulnerable individuals
  • To decide self-consciously in their quest for power they would strongly support a chief executive who has now lied to the American people more than 10,000 times in his relatively short tenure in office[1]
  • To criticize anything leaders of the opposing party might embrace when that party controlled the presidency, even when those policies had originated within their own ranks or would allay costs or harm to citizens, in the name of mobilization politics to secure or maintain power. In so doing, the GOP has repudiated virtually every major precept for which it has stood in the modern era, save for upward redistribution of wealth
  • To adopt an ever more absolutist, rigid and constricted ideology, often laying aside facts and reality to do so.

The slow-moving governance crisis to which these choices point has reached a full-blown Constitutional turning point and I therefore want to emphasize once more that our country’s situation today is not one of partisan disagreements about whether taxes should rise or fall marginally or whether specific public programs should receive more or less funding or states should have a greater or lesser role in one or another policy domain. Rather, it now concerns whether this nation will continue to support and enjoy freedom of the press and of speech, and the rule of law within a separation of powers framework and on the basis of a popular sovereign.

As I reflected, therefore, on the conversation with our guest, I came to see it as a metaphor of America’s current moment, in which too many individuals are willing to define what is now occurring in our governance as simply partisan. In fact, it is not, as secession was not simply partisan and calls for civil and human rights or equal treatment under the law are never simply partisan. Nonetheless, it is now extremely difficult to occasion that consideration amidst the cacophony of semantic claims issuing from the GOP and the White House and its media allies, and the misinformation broadcast across social media and other platforms attacking anyone who might criticize the current President or his many lies. The question is why this situation has developed and why so many are so willing to countenance it and to believe it represents merely partisan differences.

At the deepest level, this crisis represents the President’s and his party’s willingness and capacity to exploit human fears and racial, religious and ethnic differences for power. They have and continue to do so, on the basis of the foundational fact that language itself is infinitely unconstrained and only human beings employ it, albeit across a Babel of tongues. As philosopher and critic George Steiner has argued:

Because semantic means are unconstrained, anything can be said or written about any other semantic act, about any other construct or form of expressive signification. There is unbounded license of possible statement about each and every text, painting, statue, piece of music and, in natural consequence, on each and every secondary or tertiary comment or explication arising from them.[2]

Here we have come to the nub of the matter: While anything can be argued without relationship to principle, facts or reality, words can only persuade when the audience at whom they are targeted elects to accept them. So it was that many ordinary Germans, for example, chose to accept Hitler’s lies concerning Jews and Judaism. History teaches that too many other populations also have accepted similar claims against one or more groups as a would-be leader, official, or faction sought to mobilize them to gain or maintain power. What is lost when such occurs are any shared premises or any prudential consideration of the facts, in favor of surrender to relentless attacks on the perceived others. So it is, too, that criticisms of one’s preferred party’s efforts on the basis of governance concerns are construed as mere partisanship and therefore readily dismissed. In truth and at its extreme, irrespective of partisan inclination, this phenomenon can occur because those accepting such claims are willing de facto to embrace moral and ideational nihilism in favor of the protection of the perceived status of their clan or group.

Turning to our present situation for examples of this phenomenon, most in the GOP were willing to tolerate President Trump’s embrace of Neo-Nazis in 2017 and his continued frequent morally and ethically outrageous targeting of immigrants and minorities. So, too, these individuals are willing to accept his constant barrage of false statements concerning the press and the rule of law on the basis of essentially tribal contentions. Such can occur when those offering such assertions no longer are willing to acknowledge reason or shared moral premises or norms of discourse in their politics. In such cases, adherents are instead willing to attack principles on the grounds of attaining or preserving power and perceived partisan advantage alone. Thus, Trump, his staff and his GOP supporters label as “Fake News” all reports they view as unflattering concerning the President or his actions, and they pillory, dismiss, or ignore all attempts by the Congress, a co-equal branch of government, to play its rightful Constitutional role. In such cases, as Steiner has also contended, the proverbial ground falls out from beneath all argument and anything can be advanced and accepted:

The fact is, simply, this: inasmuch as the generation and communicative verbalization of all interpretations and value judgements are of the order of language, all elucidation … must operate within the undecidability of unbounded sign-systems.[3]

When all exchange is a priori defined as partisan rancor and all anchoring moral and prudential propositions that do not support the current incumbents’ personal power are also set aside in favor of partisan will, only solipsism remains. That, sadly, is an apt description of too much of our current politics. All of this leaves the analyst, as opposed to the partisan, hearkening hopefully, if a bit fearfully, to that which is now under attack: that is, to the citizenry’s capacity to recognize power posturing and fearmongering for what it is and to act in favor of freedom and continued collective self-rule instead. Steiner put this point, a reminder of the foundation of self-governance, this way:

 In practice, how do we proceed? By appealing, more or less overtly, to prevailing opinion, to the cultural, institutional consensus which has evolved across time. We count heads and we count years.[4]

Our polity relies on rough consensus, tacit belief and cultural assumption concerning the signal significance of personal freedom and the importance of maintaining the fundaments that underpin our political institutions and social way of life.  On these reeds of what is a sustained, contested, rough-hewn and continuing conversation concerning how we shall conceive of individual freedom, dignity and rights, our self-governance must ultimately stand or fall.

Given this reality, it should be said that while roughly 60 percent of the electorate now view Trump negatively, those voters supporting him are increasingly willing to see any and all questioning of him as simply partisan posturing. This situation must be overcome via political action, election or persuasion, or all of these, if our regime of separate institutions sharing power accountable to a popular sovereign is to endure. So to argue is not to offer a Republican or Democratic claim, but instead to offer a governance-related caution or, perhaps, plea. As such, it should not be set aside on the false grounds that all questioning of the current GOP or Trump is “Fake News” or that the rule of law should be ignored or the freedom of the press compromised so Trump does not have to address questions concerning his choices.

In sum, the question is an age-old one for democratic governance: Can a self-ruling people summon the will and shared belief to manage itself by a necessary measure of deliberation and reason or will it fall prey instead to demagogues willing to exploit its frailties and factions for power? Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree that the polity must be supported in efforts to avoid such corruption and the loss of freedom that follows in its train.  Whatever one’s ideological bent, this contention is not simply a partisan concern, and to consider the matter such avoids serious conversation even as it trivializes self-governance. Notably, each of these possibilities is corrosive of democratic possibility.

Notes

[1] Kessler, Glenn, Rizzo, Salvador and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made more than 10,000 False or Misleading Claims,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/04/29/president-trump-has-made-more-than-false-or-misleading-claims/?utm_term=.79acd7025736

[2] Steiner, George. Real Presences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, p.60.

[3] Steiner, Real Presences, pp. 60-61.

[4] Steiner, Real Presences, p.62.

Publication Date

May 23, 2019

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