Tuesday, May 17, 2016
The Things Parties Believe In
I read an interesting article by Mike DeBonis in the Washington Post last Friday - House Speaker Torn Between Principles, Duty to His Party*. The article analyzes the dilemma in which House Speaker Paul Ryan finds himself as he tries to stay true to his conservative credentials while figuring out how to work with presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, who appeals to many conservatives even though his conservative credentials are, to say the least, confused.
The entire article is interesting and worth reading, but this quote from Speaker Ryan caught my attention:
“Look, there are just things we really believe in as conservatives ... We believe in limited government. We believe in the Constitution. We believe in the proper role of the differences in the separation of powers. We believe in things like life … These are things that are important to us.”
Let's look at this piece by piece:
1. "We believe in limited government." That's true - conservatives hate big government, but everyone - including conservatives - wants it to do certain things. Conservatives want the government to stay out of the way of business, but support policies that benefit businesses and the wealthy. Limitations on government appear to apply only to those things the government does that assist average citizens.
2. "We believe in the Constitution." The implication, of course, is that everyone not a conservative doesn't believe in the Constitution. This is, of course, nonsense. Anyone who has studied American history knows that the Constitution as it was originally written was the product of endless argument and gritted-teeth compromises among various factions representing powerful central government, weak central government and strong states, manufacturing and trade vs agrarian principles, free states vs slave states, etc. The Constitution that we worship today was never a monolithic statement of unchanging principles, but the end result of what could be achieved through consensus among bitterly divided factions. For a useful primer on all of this, read the recent book by Fergus Bordewich titled The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.
3. "We believe in the proper role of the differences in the separation of powers." The Constitution established a government structure with three independent parts: Legislative (to write the laws), Executive (to carry out the laws), and Judicial (to interpret the laws). This recognized the principle of separation of powers, allowing the three branches of government to balance each other and preventing any one of them from accumulating too much power. This, of course, assumed that the three branches of government would generally work together in the common interest ... which is not the situation in which we find ourselves today. What happens when, as today, the Congress is totally deadlocked and inflexibly opposed to the agenda of the elected president? The Legislature is enraged when the president attempts to make things happen by exercising independent executive authority (whether explicitly authorized by the Constitution** or not), and when the Judiciary attempts to do things the Legislature cannot or will not do***. What we see today is not the separation of powers envisioned by the Founders, but the exercise (or lack of exercise) of Constitutionally-granted powers because of political spite.
4. "We believe in things like life." The implication is that everyone other than conservatives opposes life. This is ridiculous and a distortion of the legal and moral quagmire that is the "right to life vs right to choose" argument. Without wading into a hopeless discussion of the moral, legal, political, and religious debates over the subject, let's just accept as a given that conservatives in general approach the issue from a religious/moral perspective, and liberals approach it in general from a woman's freedom of choice perspective ... and freedom of choice is, oddly enough, a generally conservative position.
The point that I'm trying to drive home in my own windy way is that neither Republicans nor Democrats have a monopoly on Constitutional interpretation. The two parties have fundamentally different paths to the same goal: a representative government, based on law, that works on behalf of the people who elected it. Republican political and economic philosophy focuses on the betterment of conditions for business and the wealthy, on the assumption that such policies will ultimately benefit everyone†. Democratic political and economic philosophy, on the other hand, focuses on policies that stress inclusivity and universal economic and political opportunity as a way of improving conditions for all.
There are probably areas in which the two parties might be able to agree, but they're so busy demonizing each other and engaging in cheap point-scoring and deliberate distortions of each other's positions that such agreement is unlikely. If nothing else, agreement of any kind with the other side (particularly a Republican accused of the rank heresy of agreeing with a Democrat) leads to the individual being ostracized and sidelined in favor of someone more politically and socially extreme.
It's going to be a long, hard ride to the election in November, and the new administration that takes charge next January will have its work cut out for it. If the Democrats win the White House and the Republicans keep control of Congress, just buy more booze and hunker down for the next four years.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.
* That was the print title. The online title is different.
** See Article II, Section 2, Clause 3.
*** This is that gawdawful "legislating from the bench" cry screamed by whichever side's political ox is being gored.
† The "rising tide lifts all boats" argument, also known by the somewhat disingenuous name of "trickle-down economics."