Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the Union

Tonight President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address before Congress. It will be followed, as always, by responses from the opposing party (two this year, evidently, since Michelle Bachman has tossed her Tea Party hat into the ring of replies). It will also be followed by millions of words of reportage and analysis in the media, in the blogs, and around the water cooler. The unfortunate thing is that none of these -- the address, the responses, the commentaries -- will really assess the state of the union today.

The bulk of the verbiage surrounding the president's address will be focused on various policy considerations: health care, cutting the budget, the ongoing wars. These are important topics and should be the focus of a major policy speech. And it makes all the sense in the world for the opposing party to make its own statement on these policy issues. But note that I refer to these topics as appropriate in a "policy speech." Over the years, the State of the Union address has become just that -- a speech in which the president outlines his preferred policies and tries to sell them to the viewers. I am not an expert on the history of the address, so I do not know when what the Framers described as "Information on the State of the Union" morphed into the advocacy of "Measures he shall judge necessary and expedient" -- probably very early in our history. For quite some time now the State of the Union has been much less about the condition of the country and much, much more about the administration's policy agenda. Worse, it has turned into a free opportunity for the president to play host to "guests," usually seated next to the president's wife, who reflect the priorities of the administration. The guests are not just invited to attend; they have a function -- they are used to make a point. They are props for the president's dramatic performance, shuttled forth to lend policy a human touch in an effort to sway not by the power of reasoning but by the strength of the tugs on the heart strings.

So what we will see tonight will be a political speech, one not out of place on the hustings, followed by two even more political speeches suitable for the editorial pages of conservative journals. The opportunity to enter into a serious conversation about the real state of the union will be lost once again.

That is too bad, for our nation is not in good shape. Only part of the problem lies with the slumbering economy, with its frighteningly high jobless rate and its foreclosure crisis. Some of the problem lies in the disastrous state of our health care system, something the ongoing battle over health care reform only serves to cover up. Some of the problem lies in the bill that will inevitably come due from all those expenses we have deferred over the years, and all those borrowings from the resources available to future generations.

The problem is much deeper. It lies in the amazingly widespread lack of knowledge about the principles upon which the nation was founded. Very few in our nation understand what prompted the creation of our nation, or its reconfiguration through the Constitution. Very few voters and an equally small percentage of politicians share a sense that government exists to foster the common good, not the good of particular groups, parties, industries, or leaders. Many people have a sense that we are subjects of government not governors -- that government is something done to us rather than something we do together. Most lack the knowledge, skills, and dispositions essential to become active participants in the debate, deliberation, and action necessary for a truly constitutional republic to thrive. Most think of a citizen as simply a voter and a patriot as simply someone who cheers for the home team, waving his flag, sporting her flag pin, decorating with flag decals, filling the air with nationalistic bluster.

Our problem lies in the twisting of our founding documents (the Declaration, the Constitution) into justifications for partisan political positions -- an activity engaged in by many on both sides of the political fence, from Supreme Court justices to talk show hosts. This style of twisting has a long tradition, to be sure, but at least some consideration should be given to the possibility that other, more fruitful and more justifiable approaches to these documents have been undermined,  if not lost altogether in recent decades. And it cannot help that many of our citizens (not to mention our politicos and even many of our judges) believe that the fundamental documents of a constitutional republic should be subjected to simplistic, even silly, modes of analysis. Such a predilection cannot adequately help us wend our way through the vicissitudes of the ongoing project of governing ourselves in a constitutional manner.

Part of the problem, too, lies in the incivility of life in general, and of politics in particular. It lies in what seems to be an increasing tendency to glorify ignorance and stupidity and to belittle intelligence, education, and thoughtfulness -- in the rise of fools and the disappearance of real statesmen, in the prominence of bluster, nonsense, and nastiness and the absence of real thought and reasoned discussion, let alone deliberation. It lies in the quick reliance on self-defensiveness when suggestions are made that discourse could stand to be more civil, and the quick assertion of rights in the face of ethical critique.

Some of our problem lies in what literary scholar Rochelle Gurstein calls "the repeal of reticence," as all limits are dropped, all sense of propriety is pooh-poohed, all words and images are allowed no matter what the context -- as if liberty means nothing more than challenging boundaries so as to free us up to gratify our natural (formerly called "baser") instincts and desires. Don't get me wrong here -- there are plenty of newly minted boundaries out there, some of them silly, some of them unjust and oppressive, all of them enforced with a cultural rigor that lends credence to the concerns of Mill or Tocqueville. We are still the children of the Puritans. No matter what our political leanings, no matter what our educational level, many of us find it easy to castigate others who fail to live up to our standards of propriety -- whether they do so by being overweight, smoking, failing to exercise, or by refusing to abide any of a myriad of fundamentalisms (religious, economic, or political) by which we structure our vision of the world. Indeed, this is also part of the problem: we too quickly slide into treating fellow citizens as infidels, as beneath our concern, as not deserving of respect. We too easily reject members of our community as beyond the pale. And when we do, our overall societal lack of reticence permits us to talk about these folks as if they are enemies to be wiped out. As the crowning touch, we call this freedom.

Of course we cannot expect the president to talk about these things. We have grown unused to political leaders -- or would-be leaders -- speaking the truth about things. We expect them to paint a rosy picture, to fire us up, to pat us on the head and tell us how wonderful we are. And we expect them to tell us how destructive the views of their political opponents really are of the welfare of our nation. All this is rhetoric, of course, and rhetoric has its place in politics (as political thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Hobbes both recognized). But let us not fool ourselves into thinking tonight's speeches will rise above the ongoing campaign that is Washington to enlighten us about the real state of the union. They will not.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Incivility and Degeneration

Today comes news of the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman at an event for constituents in Tucson, Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is in critical condition after surgery to address the damage caused by a gunshot wound to the head. So far, six have died in the shooting, including a U.S. District Court Judge John M. Roll and a nine year-old child. The United States now takes its place with a host of Third World nations whose politicians and judges are not safe in public. It is a sad day for our constitutional democracy.

Since very little is presently known about the assailant, it would be presumptuous to say too much about what this incident reveals. I do think, however, that it suggests something about the current state of American politics. There can be little question that the increasing incivility of our politics -- revealed in threats against public officials, in the inflated and shrill rhetoric of our politicians, in the emergence in the media and on the hustings of public figures who speak the language of hate and disrespect -- contributes to the likelihood that events like today's will occur. We know that Rep. Giffords (and, for that matter, Judge Roll) have taken positions on political and legal matters that many of the loudest, most uncivil voices in our nation find not just wrong but offensive. We know that the voices of intolerance that increasingly pervade our media and, unfortunately, our political campaigns claim that people who take certain legislative positions, or interpret the law in certain ways, are not just wrong but intolerable. When the message is everywhere that certain points of view, even points of view that have long been considered within the mainstream, border on the treasonous, when the idea that some kinds of people and some kinds of ideas should be hated rather than respected, extremism in action can be expected. When the political "discussion" in some states routinely reveals a level of intolerance, prejudice, and disgust toward fellow human beings, it should not surprise us that those states become the sites of behavior we associate with uncivilized lands and not the United States. It does no good to say that the nastiness is just talk, that it is simply a matter of electoral strategy -- for if the messages are persistent enough, if they are pervasive enough, ordinary citizens begin to take them for truth rather than tactics.

The classical political philosophers argued that all political systems, including democracies, have a natural tendency to degenerate. The American Founders sought to craft a system that would resist this tendency. We should be proud that our republic has survived more than 200 years and some very deep social divides. But republics can only persist so long as all citizens, including politicians, recognize each other as fellows, as companions in the ongoing constitutional project. In other words, degeneration occurs when incivility replaces mutual respect. All of us should do all we can to halt this process. I hope it's not too late.

The Constitutional Cloak

This week, as the new Congress began its business, we were treated to the spectacle of members of the House of Representatives reading the text of the Constitution from the podium -- the whole text (well, almost), out loud, spurred by a desire on the part of the Tea Party and others to remind Congress of the centrality of the Constitution to American government. Of course, despite the belief of many, many Constitution-wavers across the country (and in the halls of Congress), there is no "pure" version of the founding document -- parts of it have changed, parts of it have been replaced, the whole thing has been amended twenty-seven times -- so decisions had to be made about what to read and what to leave out. And, like all things in Congress these days, those decisions were controversial.

For instance, the decision to leave out the various references to slavery in the original document prompted some members to chastise the Republican sponsors of the reading for presenting a censored version of the document that whitewashed the troubled history of the nation and the way in which the Constitution has changed and grown over the centuries to reflect changing mores and values. Of course, the amendment process that led to those changes in the original document was itself part of the original -- so in that sense the amendments are a part of the document in a way that Supreme Court decisions are not. And we should always keep in mind that the Constitution does not refer specifically to "slavery," for the Framers chose always to use some other expression or euphemism: the "three-fifths clause" speaks of "all other persons"; the "fugitive slave clause" refers to a "Person held to Service or Labour"; Article 1, Section 9, in prohibiting Congress from interfering with the "slave trade" (without calling it that) until 1808, speaks only of "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit." The words "slave" and "slavery" do not appear until the Civil War Amendments. 

From the reports I saw, about one-third of the members of the House attended the reading.That is a sad commentary on the state of things in Washington. What were those other members doing? Taking a stand against the reading of the Constitution? Why? Just because it was sponsored by the wrong folks? Did they believe this was simply "political theater" (a term I heard in one of the news reports)? It was, but that does not necessarily undermine the value of the exercise. All Americans, not least of all our elected representatives, should become vastly more familiar with the Constitution. The Constitution is central to what it means to be an American citizen -- so knowledge and understanding of the Constitution is fundamental to good citizenship in the United States. Not many have actually read the entire Constitution, and that includes, I suspect, an unfortunately high percentage of those who have taken an oath to defend it. By reading the Constitution from the floor of the House, an example is set that should be emulated rather than castigated.

We need to spend more time thinking about our Constitution and about the characteristics of constitutionalism, and so turning Constitution-reading into a partisan event is unfortunate. In fact, it may be fatal to the kind of spirit essential to successful constitutional democracy. The critics of the reading in the House have a point to the extent that some politicians seek to use the Constitution as a cloak in which to wrap a particular set of political views. The Constitution, of course, does embody certain political views, but they are not those of the Tea Party any more than they are of liberal Democrats. The Constitution reflects the view of a generation of American statesmen (and a handful of women), more than 200 years ago, that constitutional democracy was preferable to monarchy (even constitutional monarchy of the British sort). Those statesmen also believed that constitutional democracy was preferable to the sort of decentralized democracy espoused by the civic republican tradition as translated into American thinking by some of those labeled "anti-federalists." The Constitution, in other words, had nothing to do with favoring certain kinds of policies over others (say, government-run health care over insurance company-run health care). Rather, it sought to establish a moderate constitutional democracy that combined both national and state power, and it sought to establish it in the face of those who preferred the certainties of a centralized monarchy and of those who preferred to keep all power (except some national defense functions) in the hands of state governments.

The key feature of the Constitution is that it places significant limits on both the power of the people and the power of the government. It does not establish a democracy, if by that term we mean a system in which the majority rules (no matter what it wants to do), for much of the Constitution and all of the Bill of Rights is specifically aimed at stopping the people from using their government to do certain things. In fact, it was the experience of democracy during the 1780s that prompted many of the Framers to call for both a stronger national government and limits on the responsiveness of government to popular whim. Many of the Framers had come to fear state governments and they set out to build a much stronger national government -- a government removed from the people by size, distance, and a body of institutional mechanisms (including the Electoral College and the indirect election of senators) that insulated national government from the whimsical meddling of the people. The non-democratic features of the Constitution have been recognized by critics (then and now), and their complaints about it filled the newspapers and broadsheets of the day and the academic studies of today.

Constitutional democracy is preserved by a balance of forces: state vs. national, legislative vs. executive vs. judicial branches, House vs. Senate, and so forth. The Constitution was a brilliant attempt by a body of statesmen -- some wise, some narrow-minded; some nationalists, others not -- to craft a constitutional democracy, to establish a structure and a pattern that would persist through time. All of them -- a point that cannot be made strongly enough given the silly ideas associated with shallower forms of originalism -- believed that the Constitution would either change over time or fail, and it would change not just through the amendment process but also because its terms would take on new meanings as the world itself changed. (Madison made this point clearly in Federalist 37.) It was, after all, a structure designed to last in a changing world, a framework capable of adjusting to new conditions as they arose. It was not an attempt to create a Platonic ideal state that would avoid the nasty tendency of material reality to change over time. The Constitution is not scripture -- for it is not the Word of God but the flawed attempt of humans to find some little bit of stability in a political world. That means, of course, that while the Constitution lies at the heart of what it means to be an American, it is not a sacred document and should not be treated as such.

The reading of Constitution this week could have been an important step in strengthening constitutionalism. The sad thing about what actually happened was that the occasion was treated by some as a chance to don the document as a cloak for their controversial political predilections. It is also unfortunate that many in our society, including many in Congress, continue to treat the Constitution as if it were something handed down from heaven, something worthy of worship, something sacrosanct, something with some deep, original meaning that must not to be violated.

Finally, it is sad that some reject the very idea of reading the Constitution in public. For even if the reading in the House was a mere "happening" set up by those seeking to score political points, familiarity with the founding document of our constitutional democracy should be encouraged, And the reading itself could have been used to remind all citizens of the importance of the document without reducing it to a political statement. The point could have been made that the Constitution is not something to be worshiped; rather, it establishes a framework within which the people can pursue the common good. The point could have been made that the Constitution is about constitutionalism and not about Republicans and Democrats.