Principles And Politics

A couple of days ago, Democrat pollster Pat Caddell, who has become a fairly frequent guest on various Fox News programs, decided to offer Republicans and conservatives his advice on how to get things turned around:

As readers know, I have been extremely critical of the current Democratic Party, which I see as having fallen far from the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Indeed, on a few occasions, I have even been willing to work against my party on certain selected issues….

I am a Democrat who thinks that the Democratic Party has lost its way. Badly. But again, if Republicans can’t heal themselves, the Democrats, warts and all, will continue to win. And yet if the Democrats stay as they are, the country will continue to decline.

But what substantive recommendations does Caddell offer?

[1972] was the year that my candidate, George McGovern, won just 37 percent of the vote against Richard Nixon. So McGovern lost. Yet he assembled a new vote-coalition–of the young, of minorities, of environmentalists and other activists, of post-industrial knowledge workers.

The McGovern Coalition was too small, of course, to win in 1972. But if we fast-forward 40 years to 2012, we can see that the same group gave Obama almost 51 percent of the vote. In other words, a 14-point improvement. Those 14 points spell the difference between a landslide defeat for Democrats then and a comfortable victory for Democrats today.

So how did the McGovern Coalition lose in 1972 but win in 2012? What was the difference, then and now? The difference, of course, is demography.

Demography, eh? That sounds to me like a prescription for pandering to identity groups. Are we about to read yet another claim that the GOP must alter its position on this or that issue to regain the majority?

Apparently not…or at least, not yet:

So let’s fight for an America that asks us for our values and our ideals–not for our price. And if we do fight for that better America–the one that persists brightly in our imagination, even amidst the dreary present-day–then I am confident that we can achieve that better America.

That’s all Caddell has to say in what he styles the opening segment of a series.

It’s to be expected that a pollster and Democrat operative would be more focused on winning elections than on making policy. It’s to be expected that he’d look for the reasons for electoral defeats in the distribution of support among identifiable groups. It’s to be expected that he’d make such distributions and their impact the meat of his commentary in a political forum.

But what of it? What are such a focus, and the analysis that follows from it, worth in terms of principles that should guide the policy makers and executives of our nation? The point of the electoral process is to put men into such positions, is it not? Does any sort of coherent vision of the policies and enforcement approaches appropriate to a free society emerge from an electoral / demographic approach?

Put a bit more bluntly: Why does anyone care which party holds the White House or the majorities in Congress? Why should anyone care?

Give that a moment’s thought.

Politics is the pursuit of power over others, nominally by non-violent means. Why would free men — men who want to be free and who think of themselves as free — prefer one group of power-seekers over another? Why would they want anyone to have power over them? Freedom is the antithesis of political power.

The usual response is that even the most freedom-minded man will agree to tolerate a certain amount of political power — a certain amount of government — as a “necessary evil.” A military to defend the country and protect its overseas interests; a penal code to enumerate offenses no one will be allowed to get away with; a judiciary to oversee prosecutions and civil disputes: these, if kept passive and prevented from expanding to elephantine dimensions, would be tolerable as “labor-saving devices.” They obviate private armies and private justice, which most persons are inclined to distrust.

The Constitution of the United States expresses precisely this understanding: This far you may go, and no further. It does so in plain, unambiguous language that virtually all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, prefer to ignore.

But the Constitution is a series of words on parchment. How could it possibly be more authoritative than other writings, many of them by men of great wisdom and compassion, that differ radically from its prescriptions and proscriptions?

The answer is principle.

A principle is a rule that divides some subset of the universe of human actions into two non-overlapping zones. On one side are those actions that are acceptable regardless of anyone’s preferences; on the other are those actions which cannot and must not be tolerated. The usual shorthand for this partition is right and wrong.

The marriage of the principle to the applicable subset of actions is critical. Few principles have unbounded, universal applicability. (The Ten Commandments do, but I’m unable to think of any others.) What principles are applicable to law and power is the question at the center of our contemporary political discourse — a discourse in which politicians are disinclined to involve themselves, for fear of losing votes.

Few politicians, whatever lip service they give to the Constitution, are happy to be constrained by it. This is because by its very existence the Constitution expresses a small set of rules which together constitute the principle of republican government:

  1. There must be a Supreme Law;
  2. It must be easy to refer to and to comprehend;
  3. All other law must conform to it.

Compare that to the principle of democratic / majoritarian government:

  1. A majority can make and enforce whatever laws it wishes at any time.

…and to the principle of authoritarian government:

  1. What the Fuhrer decrees shall be the whole of the law.

The typical politician who owes his office to a democratic process, and who wants to remain in that office for as long as possible, will chafe under the constraints of the Constitution. He’ll seek ways to circumvent it in matters that permit him to pander to his constituency. If pressed, he’ll make excuses:

  • “This is something the Founding Fathers didn’t foresee.”
  • “The amendment process takes too long and doesn’t always work.”
  • “The crisis is far too urgent; we have to act now, regardless of Constitutional constraints.”

Those are the most popular excuses. No doubt there are others.

The republican principle, of which the Constitution is the American expression, is the only protection Americans have from tyranny, whether majoritarian or autocratic. What freedom we still retain is ours because our politicians haven’t yet worked up the collective courage to defy the Constitution in certain particulars. However, they get closer to discarding it completely with every passing day.

I’m massively uninterested in partisan politics. It exists; I must admit to that. Now and then it functions to retard some specific encroachment on freedom, or to remove some revealed scoundrel from office. But given the convergence of the two major parties around a principle-free, only-winning-counts ethic, I question whether there’s any value remaining in either one.

It’s true that the Republican Party platform expresses vaguely Constitutional ideas, and a general regard for the aims of that document, if not for its explicit constraints. But given that the platform is only of interest during its biennial conventions — that GOP politicians raised to office are under no obligation to conform to its dictates — why should I care that a particular contender for office is a Republican?

When one such as Pat Caddell deigns to tell us how to “do better,” I immediately ask, “But what are your principles?” Don’t talk to me about demographics. Voting blocs tell me nothing I want to know. Don’t talk to me about “problems” and “solutions.” Those things are purely subjective; one man’s “problem” is another’s golden opportunity. Don’t talk to me about “what works.” Such cogitations routinely omit consideration of costs and second-order effects. Worse, they require that you implicitly accept premises — in particular, premises about the standards by which the outcome will be judged — that are seldom articulated in full clarity.

If you won’t make an unambiguous statement of your principles, I’m changing the channel.

Inasmuch as the entire political class of the United States has rejected the republican principle, I can no longer find a reason to support any particular gaggle of them over the rest. Perhaps Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is an exception, but I can think of no others. Presidential politics is notably principle-free. The Democrats have nominated only one principled man for the presidency: Grover Cleveland. The GOP hasn’t nominated a principled candidate for the presidency even once in its entire history.

When I published a novel about a fictional presidential candidate who swore to abide by the Constitution as written, I brought the house down:

    Sumner emerged from Portland’s City Hall at exactly noon, as Louise Farrell had advised him. He strode to the lectern at the top of the steps, looked out over the throng before him, and staggered backward.
    The broad thoroughfare that ran past City Hall was packed with human bodies, in both directions for as far as the eye could see. He could not begin to estimate the numbers. It had to be a six-figure throng at least…and perhaps rather far up that range.
    “Dear God,” he breathed. His expostulation was barely loud enough for the lectern microphone to catch, but nevertheless it was relayed through a battery of speakers to the crowd below.
    “No,” someone near the forward barricades shouted. “He was just the opening act!”
    Sumner laughed helplessly, and the crowd cheered. They filled the air of their city with a din no celebration had approached since its founding.
    Sumner righted himself and returned to the lectern. Christine hung back half a pace, as if unwilling to split the immense crowd’s attention.
    “How many of you are there? Never mind, I don’t expect you to count your own noses. But are you here because you’re hoping a superhero has come to free you from bondage, or are you here for me?”
    The cheers redoubled. They might have gone on indefinitely had he not raised a hand in acknowledgement.
    “You know,” he said, “I’ve been giving one speech, over and over, with only the tiniest embellishments as I go from city to city. Your fellow citizens at my other campaign stops have all liked it, and it’s tempting to give it here, on the rule of not messing with what’s already worked. But I can’t get over the sheer number of you. I’m having a really hard time believing that you’re here to see and hear from me. Who am I, after all?”
    A voice near to the base of the steps immediately began the chant from Albuquerque. The crowd picked it up at once.
    “Sumner! Sumner! Sumner! Sumner! Sumner!…”
    He let it continue for a few seconds before he raised his hand again. The crowd immediately fell silent.
    “Maybe you should hold that for later. You might not want to cheer that cheer after I’ve told you what I’m about to tell you. It won’t be my usual speech.”
    He panned the crowd left to right and back again.
    “America is in bad shape.
    “Washington and the state capitals have spent us broke. Our credit is gone, our commerce is uncertain, our jobs are shaky–if we have jobs–and our confidence in the future is at an all-time low. Those of us who have children fear that we’ve had it better than they ever will. Those who don’t have children worry about aging alone in solitude and squalor, with no one to care for us as we grow feeble, or hold our hands at the end.
    “In large part, we’ve collaborated in it. We demanded freebies that we hoped someone else would pay for. We should have known better. Some of us did. But what we got suggests that far too many of us let our wishes do our thinking. So we voted for executives and representatives who were happy to encourage us to do so.
    “We should have known the bill would come due. Maybe we did. Maybe we just hoped we’d be safely and cozily dead before the time came to pay for our sins. But this sort of game can only have one ending: someone has to get stuck with the Queen of Spades. Turns out it will be us: the generation of voters you represent, to whom I have to make the bleakest campaign pitch in all of American history.
    “I’m going to tell you what I told a reporter in New Orleans,” he said. “You might have heard it already. It’s been made into a campaign commercial. All the same, I want you to hear it again, from my lips: I’m not here to kiss babies, to eat your signature dish, whatever it is, or to lie to you about my undying love of the Trail Blazers. I’m here to persuade you of two things: that a return to strict Constitutional fidelity is the only way out of our mess, and that if you’ll put me in the White House, I will see to that for you. If you want a candidate who’ll pander to your local pride, the other parties will happily supply you with as many as you can swallow.
    “You’ve been pandered to for decades, for more than a century. The panderers were experts. They knew exactly what to tell you to take your eye off what they really wanted to do. They promised you free stuff, free cash, freedom from care, and you chose to believe it. They told you that other people would solve your problems for you, even your completely local problems, and you chose to believe it. They told you to relax, kick back, let the good times roll, that the future could take care of itself, and you chose to believe it. And here you are. Your occupations are unstable, your savings are nil, your streets are unsafe, your futures are bleak, your profligacy has left your children neck-deep in debt, and your trust in government is down to zero. That was the price for disdaining uncomfortable truths in favor of oily smiles, unfulfillable promises, and comforting lies. You can still have all the smarmy deceits, if you choose. But you won’t get them from me.
    “I can’t promise you a miracle. I can’t promise a swift or painless return to security and abundance. In the words of a great Englishman who had to lead his own country through a terrible crisis, I can promise you nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat…hopefully, really light on the blood.
    “Other candidates for the presidency have campaigned as if the office itself would make them omnipotent. That they would acquire absolute and unbounded powers, powers that would enable them to cure all of America’s ills from sea to shining sea by the wave of a hand. By now you should know better. I think, by your presence here, I can safely assume that you do. But I want you to hear it from me.
    “I will not lie to you. You ought to be suspicious of such a promise. You’ve been given more than enough reason. Other candidates for high office have made that promise and have gone on to lie through their teeth, to say anything and everything they thought might win them a few more votes. So I’m nailing my pledge down by making the harshest, least pleasant campaign promises any candidate has ever made.
    “If you elect me president, I will put an end to every federal activity not explicitly authorized by the Constitution of the United States. I will shut down as much of the federal government as that requires, consistent with my duties as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and chief enforcer of federal law.
    “This crowd is large enough that some of you probably work for the federal government. Nearly five million Americans do. Be sure you’re willing to take the risk that your job might not be really essential before you go into the booth and pull the lever next to my name.
    “If I can swing enough of Congress behind me, I will put an end to federal borrowing. I will put an end to the reign of unelected regulators. And whether Congress likes it or not, I will insist that the Tenth Amendment—the one that says that the powers not delegated to the United States are reserved to the states or the people—be observed strictly and explicitly.
    “You should think about that. Some of you will need new ways to earn a living. Some of you will lose subsidies or programs that have helped you to pay your way through life. All I can promise you in return is that from that point forward, you will know what federal law demands of you, and you won’t be expected to read the United States Code to know it. But that’s where my promises to you end.
    “It will be your job to discipline your state and local governments. They’ve raped you in their turn, often by conning you with the same lies and empty promises you’ve heard from politicians at the federal level. But unless they violate a constitutional restriction on their powers, I can’t help you with that.”
    He pointed a finger into the mass of the crowd. “You must call them to account. You must hold them liable. And some of you must put down the tools of your trades, possibly trades you love and have practiced for many years, and go on campaign, as I have done, to replace them.” He paused, gathered all his forces, and leaned close over the microphone. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

Mark Butterworth’s “Tales of New America” series is eliciting a comparable reaction, for similar reasons. Those are our recommendations for how “we can do better.” Nodding to demographics — to pandering for votes — is not among them.

Though I yearn for principle in politics, I know it won’t be returning any time soon. Too large a fraction of the country is addicted to government in one way or another. The fraction of the economy Washington controls, directly or indirectly, is staggering. And as I said above, our politicians are principle-averse…and almost unbearable to listen to.

But that doesn’t make me any more interested in placating identity groups, or buying off “stakeholders” in the Omnipotent State, or listening to the vermiculations of a Pat Caddell about “an America that can imagine itself.” I’d rather just clean my guns one more time.