12 Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart
As can be easily gleaned from my posts, I am a liberal. So it’s probably inevitable that this post will lean left. Nevertheless, there are appalling sins that I’ve seen people on both sides commit (as well as Libertarians), and so to the extent that I am able to overcome my bias, I intend the suggestions below to apply to all across the entire political spectrum. To be more precise, I can’t hope to change the quality of our society’s political debate, but there are a few things I’d like to get off my chest. Things like:
1. The U.S. Constitution is not the same thing as the Declaration of Independence. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read someone’s thoughts on the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” followed up with a claim that this comes from the Constitution. Folks, the stuff about “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence. That’s a different document. Please memorize that. Better yet, read the Declaration of Independence beyond that one quote, and think about what the document really says. Because clearly, when it mentions the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it means that those rights exist within the bounds of the law. That law is the Constitution, which is not the same as the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, the Constitution empowers both the federal government and state governments to make more laws — so anyone who claims that a law is unconstitutional because it deals with something that’s not specifically mentioned in the Constitution (e.g. seat belts?) is just being all kinds of stupid.
2. Don’t beat yourself in the chest about how much you love the Constitution unless you actually know and understand what it says. The Constitution is not like Jesus. Your duty as a good citizen isn’t to believe in it, or to love it. Your duty is to know and understand it, and thus be aware of how it impacts your life and the life of this country. The Constitution is a law, and law isn’t based on faith; it’s based on reason, experience and wisdom, or at least should be. In light of these facts, please, pretty please, read the damned thing. Then read the commentaries. Then read case law. Make sure you really understand it, especially as applied to facts. I am not saying you have to agree with every interpretation ever made. I am not saying people have to agree on which interpretations are good and which are bad. But please, respect the Constitution by familiarizing yourself with it in-depth, and when you dissent from someone’s interpretation, make sure your opinion is an informed one. Don’t just waive the Constitution around like it’s a crucifix or a string of garlic. It’s not magic.
3. “Limited government” does not mean small, underfunded or impotent government. Once you familiarize yourself with the Constitution, this will become clear. The Constitution limits the reach of the Federal government by enumerating its powers. To translate this into lay, it’s a “glass half-empty is glass half-full”-type situation: the Federal government does not have the general police power (that’s reserved to the States), but the Constitution does explicitly grant the Federal government certain specific and very important powers. Attempting to curtail those powers in the name of “limited government” makes no sense and betrays a profound lack of understanding of the Constitution.
4. People who want to be our leaders must be better than “all of us”. Every time a politician gets caught with his pants down, it’s the same old song about how none of us are perfect. Yes, we’ve all made mistakes (though parenthetically, I would object to characterizing ongoing deliberate conduct, such as serial affairs, as “mistakes”). Yes, we’ve all “had pain” (though I daresay being cheated on and dumped is probably a tad more painful than cheating and dumping). But, being just as fallible, mediocre and damaged as everyone else doesn’t qualify a person to govern. A leader may never be entirely perfect, but voters have the right to expect him to be a lot closer to perfection than the average Joe. Public figures are held to a higher standard than ordinary people; that is simply the price of power.
5. Personal stuff is personal — unless you make it political. Yes, yes, yes, this is about Newt Gingrich. I don’t pry into people’s private lives. If a man is cheating on his wife, it’s between him, his wife, and his mistress. The problem in Gingrich’s case, however, is that he is running on behalf of a political party that makes moral conservatism a major component of its platform; a party that denies that consenting adults have a right to reproductive or sexual privacy, even within marriage; a party that intends to use the coercive power of government to regulate and punish people for private, consensual conduct that it deems “immoral”. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with these aims. The fact that these are aims of the Republican Party makes Gingrich’s own lack of moral character highly relevant to the issue of his fitness to govern this country as a moral conservative. Or have our standards fallen so low that we can’t even expect our leaders to make personal sacrifices for the sake of their own political careers? It’s simple, really. If you are contemplating a career as a right-wing politician, develop some bloody discipline: don’t cheat on your spouse and don’t collect trophy wives. Seriously, folks, is it THAT hard, given the stakes? And if you really can’t keep your dick in your pants, after all, don’t then get all huffy when people call you on your hypocrisy. Seriously, we should enact laws that penalize homosexuality, but a politician’s affair is none of our business? If bare shrewdness and consistency are too much to expect of a candidate these days, what then of actual competence or honesty?
Of course, Newt could just move to the left on issues of personal morality, and then his own would cease to have relevance, but he won’t, and his supporters won’t stand for it, because as I’ve written previously, political moral conservatism is all about OTHER people having it too easy and needing to be cut down to size. In any event, whatever your political stance, at least agree to this much: that a man who is openly, indignantly unapologetic about breaking the very rules that he would impose on others through force of law cannot be trusted to govern humanely or equitably. And the support that GOP voters show him exposes their position in our regrettable culture wars as one that can be summarized as “fucking whomever you want and flaunting moral rules should be the exclusive prerogative of powerful white men.” And these people want respect? For real?
I really wish we didn’t have culture wars. But they are, unfortunately, an integral part of the present-day American experience. And in light of this fact, it only makes sense for private lives of politicians to be scrutinized and put on trial. Perhaps if conservative politicians stop so viciously attacking the idea of privacy and personal autonomy when it comes to other, ordinary people, I will be a little bit more sympathetic to the idea that the media should stay the hell out of the putrid mess that is Newt Gingrich’s personal life. But not until then.
6. The differences between conservatives and liberals have nothing to do with the size of government. People who want the police to investigate every miscarriage as a possible homicide do not argue in good faith when they claim that they want “the government out of our business”. People who want to amend the Constitution to define “marriage” — despite the fact that domestic relations have NEVER been the province of federal law — do not argue in good faith when they claim that they want to stop the federal government’s encroachment on state power. Here is the real distinction between liberals and conservatives: Liberals want the government to extensively police commerce, but not to police private, consensual conduct, artistic expression or scientific inquiry. Conservatives want the government to police private consensual conduct, artistic expression and scientific inquiry, but to leave commerce alone. Both sides are more than willing to have the government spend oodles of money getting all up in people’s business, depending on what kind of business it is. An excess of anything is bad, but if I had to choose the lesser of two evils, I would say that we as a society have less to fear from an excess of liberalism than from an excess of conservatism. I don’t expect everyone to agree, but I really wish more people would appreciate the real distinction here.
7. Even between people arguing in good faith, some things cannot be resolved through discussion (or at all). You can’t have a meaningful debate unless both sides agree on definitions of key terms and certain starting assumptions. We can argue, for example, about the role personal responsibility plays in poverty. But I would never agree to the proposition that the sick and elderly should be abandoned to die, or that children of the poor should be put to work for pennies an hour, all in the name of “fairness”. Here, we would have a disagreement on the basic meaning of “fairness”. I would like our society to be a humane one, one whose meritocracy is tempered with mercy and compassion, rather than one driven by some brutal Randian notion of social justice. Similarly, being a secular person, I will not entertain any political argument based on Scripture. Things like that aren’t matters of logic; they are matters of values. And more often than not, it’s pointless to argue about what someone’s values should or shouldn’t be. (I talk some more about this in my post about Democracy.) This segues into my next point, which is that
8. Everyone has a bias. EVERYONE. In this context, having a bias is a neutral phenomenon. It simply means everyone has a set of values on which he or she is basing his or her opinions. Claiming that you have no bias and look at every issue in a complete empirical vacuum makes no sense and insults one’s intelligence.
9. Don’t talk about “communism”, “totalitarianism” or “Nazi Germany” unless you know what those terms mean. I grew up in a totalitarian communist state. I cringe every time I hear liberalism being equated with communism. Communism can only function in an authoritarian regime, and today, conservatives are the pre-eminent supporters of authoritarianism in this country. It might interest you to know that in Russia today, communists are placed on the right side of the political spectrum, and customarily referred to as ultraconservatives. They have a lot in common with American conservatives: the same yearning for authoritarian rule, the same preoccupation with symbols, the same prioritizing of ideology over practical considerations, the same hostility towards civil liberties, the same obsession with people’s private lives, especially their sex lives, the same “freedoms for me, but not for thee” attitude towards restrictions on private conduct, the same belief in Manifest Destiny, of sorts, for their country to lord over the entire world. The only difference is communists’ attitude to private property, but considering all the ways in which Russian communists and American conservatives are nearly identical, it is a minor one.
But, some of my fellow liberals are not blameless in this one either. While I will be the first one to acknowledge that there is pressure on civil liberties in this country, America is not a totalitarian state, and it isn’t Nazi Germany. To even suggest that is insane.
10. Don’t use the term “real Americans” or any equivalent thereof. Just don’t. Every American is a real person and a real American. Wall Street executives are real Americans. College faculty are real Americans. Big-city elitists are real Americans. Gays are real Americans. Atheists are real Americans. Religious people are real Americans. Non-Christians are real Americans. Non-whites are real Americans. Naturalized citizens are real Americans. Ragingly vulgar country bumpkins who embarrass us in Paris are real Americans. There is nothing more delusional or dismissive in public discourse than insinuating that people who don’t fit your specific standards for what you would like Americans to be either don’t exist or are counterfeit. So don’t do that. Please.
11. Being formally educated doesn’t mean detachment from “real life”; lacking formal education isn’t the same thing as being street-smart. People have a natural tendency to think in binaries, which is only reinforced by the fact that we have two major political groups. Plus, we are living through a period of extreme hostility towards education and the educated. One of the most pervasive myths in political discourse, therefore, is that anyone who’s read lots of “serious” books and speaks in grammatically correct English is detached from “real life” — because that’s what academic knowledge does to a person. So you can be only one of two things: a disgusting, escargot-eating, Plato-quoting aesthete who doesn’t understand how the world and this thing called life really work, or a folksy, grizzled, earthy person-of-the-people, whose linguistic irregularities are a clue to his profound knowledge of things that really matter and his ability to survive without valet parking. The unfortunate truth, however, is that there are entirely too many people in this country who are neither educated nor street-smart. Moreover, education does not separate people from “real life”. People who can talk good live in the same world as those who can’t — but education certainly helps one to develop the ability to step outside of one’s own narrow perspective and look at an issue from multiple angles. Incidentally, to anyone who decries education as a form of “indoctrination” — technically, any transmission of information can be characterized that way. So please don’t treat education like it’s something to be ashamed of.
12. “Giving more money to business creates more jobs” is a lazy and nonsensical argument. I am sick of this ridiculous presumption that more jobs is what logically follows from cutting taxes on business and deregulating industries. That’s like saying that if you give me $300, I’ll spend it on shoes and not, say, on eating out. Businesses having more money may create jobs, but if you are defending a policy that places a greater financial burden on the vast majority of Americans, or exposes them to unsavory business practices, by claiming that it will create jobs (especially jobs that pay a decent, livable wage), you have to be a hell of a lot more specific than that in order for it to be convincing. How do we know businesses will use the extra money to hire people? How do we know businesses will not use that extra money to hire people in China? How do we know they won’t hoard the extra money or invest it where it has no benefit to the American people? How do we know they won’t distribute it to their executives to spend on luxuries? (And please don’t tell me that giving the jet-set more of the public’s money to spend on luxuries is a way to create jobs; because ordinary people would be just as capable of creating those kinds of jobs if they had more discretionary income.) Look at it this way: businesses hire more people generally when they are looking to provide more of their products or services. And they are looking to provide more of their products or services if they have a reason to believe there is a greater market for them now than there was before. And here is where you have a big, gaping Grand-Canyon-sized hole in the classic job-creation argument: the economy doesn’t just consist of wise and benevolent “job-creators” on the one hand and the lazy job-consuming hoi-polloi on the other. The economy needs consumers — of products and services. And when the bulk of the American population have less money in their pockets due to having to make up the tax revenue short-fall or compensate for the loss of government programs and services, they are likely to consume less, not more. And less consumption means fewer jobs. Unless Congress drops the pretense and starts straight-up requiring us to buy stuff, that is, which wouldn’t surprise me at this point. But how free would that kind of “free market” really be?
That is all.