Reviving a Conscientious Conservatism

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In regards to Christopher DeMuth’s piece in Imprimis, titled “Reviving a Constitutional Congress,” I propose the following analysis and evaluation. I find this brief essay to be wrong in many ways, but not in its reasoning. I write a lot from an admittedly “liberal” point of view, so I am attending to a conservative writer who makes some good points, for a change. I shall give no summary, rather, I will assume my reader to be one who has read his article.

DeMuth makes some assumptions at the top of this piece regarding the nature of preference for Americans: We have a “distrust of power,” and a “taste for competition.” I squint at both of these assumptions, because I can think of everyday examples where we worship power–or at least covet it–and cases where we wish competition would evaporate–for selfish reasons. I don’t think these two qualities are generalizable like DeMuth wants them to be.

He writes that “A well-led government can present, at least for a time, a unified, dignified, self-confident public face.” I circled “well-led” here because, at the present, virtually none of our congressional representatives have any integrity. They are often bought-and-paid-for clowns in suits, vomiting vacuous rhetoric. Despite this, I, personally, have faith in the ability a “well-led” government can play. DeMuth, on the other hand, seems to have a suspicion of government entirely on principle.

I agree with him that we need to increase the visibility of political competition. In fact, this is one of my gripes with the fact that most Americans only vote once every four years. When I voted for Mayor this past year, there was virtually no depth, substance, or difference between the two candidates for office. One had an R, one had a D. If government is to have the optimistic role I wish it to play, then DeMuth is absolutely correct that we need to “expose” competition for all to see.

Furthermore, I think DeMuth is correct in that “checks and balances are important means of policing the corruption and abuse that arise whenever power is monopolized.” Of all politicians, I think Bernie Sanders pays most lip service to this issue, particularly in his incessant perseverations on the urgency with which we need to overturn the disastrous Citizens United supreme court case (allowing unlimited lobbying and money in politics). Unlike DeMuth, my view is that money in politics is what has effaced the checks and balances system. Power is now monopolized by the top 1%–I really believe this–and, thus, our political system has been transmogrified into an oligarchy. We can bicker across the political aisle all we want, but until that legislative embarrassment is rectified, nothing truly integrous will follow.

I diverge again with DeMuth’s assumptive tendencies when he asserts that Americans especially care about “limited government” and “humble leaders.” Again, obvious counterexamples arise: Limited government translates to lower taxes, a concern of the Republicans. But a single-payer healthcare system, for example, run by the government is extremely more cost-effective than the current mayhem we have (and had before Obamacare). Take the UK, for instance; they pay 33% of what we pay and report better health outcomes. Privatizing healthcare is, ethically and economically, as bad an idea as privatizing police officers, to my mind. DeMuth’s second assumption, here, is that we praise humility in our leaders. If this were true, we would not see Tuesday night’s GOP debate full of war cries and threats to “carpet bomb ISIS…to see if sand can glow” (Ted Cruz). Donald Trump would not be dominating the presidential field and the news media if we loved “humble leaders,” as DeMuth assumes. Thus, I think we have reason to ditch the generalizability of his claims, once again.

I agree that we are losing a balance of power. But, unlike DeMuth, I think civil liberties are only exercisable insofar that economic security is achieved. By that, I mean retaining jobs in America with higher wages, stronger unions, and pay grades reflective of production-progress. That being said, we are the richest nation in the history of the world for a reason: We can outsource labor for the jobs we don’t want to do. I don’t know how to solve this seemingly aporetic economic issue, but I don’t think concentrating the top 90% of wealth in the top 1% of earners–who mostly either inherit it or just move it around to make more money–is a good idea.

I’ll assent to DeMuth’s criticisms of the “executive usurpations” of President Obama. Though I agree with the main thrust of the Affordable Care Act, it is cumbersome and not Obama’s place to be installing. I would agree to this much, but again I am coming from the position of considering healthcare to be a fundamental human right, as FDR once did. I look back to the New Deal with relish. That was the path I wish America was still treading.

DeMuth’s distrust in government betrays ignorance of the significant work the EPA and OSHA are doing in American Society. They are not perfect, but they are necessary. I would not agree with his snide criticisms that these organizations are not involved in “real policy.”

I agree that we are in an era of congressional “self-enfeeblement” in which nothing is getting done. I regularly watch C-SPAN’s live coverage of various voting decisions and debates in congress, which reveal the incredibly capricious arbitration and clunky system we have. Instilling seniority in Congress is an interesting proposal that DeMuth makes, but I maintain my suspicions. We have seen, too often, threats of government shutdown over petty, fatuously misguided issues (Planned Parenthood comes to mind, which is an issue in which DeMuth is obviously ignorant).

A vast number of congressional representatives run unopposed and, thus, remain in office, largely because most people don’t even know when to vote. Most Americans can’t name their home state’s own representatives. That is a scary reality. Not only are our politicians bought out, they actively gerrymander voting districts and precincts, insulting democracy. At every turn, politicians make it harder and harder for democracy to be enacted. I consider myself to be Independent or, more specifically, a classical liberal/libertarian. It is an outrage that we have become a two-party system in which smarmy slimeballs such as Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, are seriously being considered for office. As DeMuth is pointing out, this is a fundamental, across-the-aisle issue.

Given this, I think the Senate has no role in regulating the internet, for example, nor even slightly veering from the constitution to justify their lobbyists’ ends. I think, like DeMuth, I am a civil liberties fundamentalist–a constitutional absolutist. If you throw away basic rights when they’re inconvenient, then you never really believed in them. That being said, I think DeMuth is wrong in arguing that the Internet is something we should have regulatory policy over. If our politicians were integrous, virtuous, and wise, I might change my mind; but, in the pockets of big business, I don’t trust them with my freedom of expression on the Internet.

When DeMuth criticized the admittedly abysmal approval rating of Obama (low 40s), I think he was unwise to ignore the fact that Bush, for instance, had an even lower approval rating (low 30s). Both parties are disappointing the majority of everyday Americans. But the heavy-handedness in which DeMuth uniquely besmirches Obama is hard to swallow.

 

The Five Step Plan:

  1. Congress retrieve its delegated powers, subjecting them to annual appropriations.
  2. Congress should exercise its appropriations power.
  3. Congress should relearn the art of legislating
  4. Congress should reconstruct an internal policymaking hierarchy
  5. The Senate should cut back to near abolition the filibuster and the hold.

 

1) I think my digressions above adequately address this point. Cure corruption, fix the news media, and then we’ll talk. Until then, this only treats the symptoms, not the illness.

2) Agreed.

3) Agreed.

4) I am suspicious of this premise, but I will grant that, if DeMuth’s proposal were to be implemented, we need to reestablish “devotion to broad political principles…and skill at articulation, debate, and the arts of legislative negotiation.” There, I could not agree more. We have lost democracy in this country precisely because of people’s unwillingness to be vigilant in the democratization and problematization of societal issues and structures. It is now socially acceptable to be politically uninformed and apathetic. One does not breach the topics of politics, sex, and religion, at the dinner table. I think this is unfortunate; they are cavernous topics. Given this, a true democracy would not need representatives and gradations of hierarchy. A truly democratic society would have legislators who simply carried out the wishes of the people. We somehow have abandoned the conversation and left it up to the echo-chamber of congress. That is a shame, to my mind. Thus, I don’t know if a “reconstruction” is what is needed, so much as a revitalization of Critical Pedagogy in public education, and a reinvigoration of political philosophizing among the general public.

5) The filibuster is something I don’t know enough about to claim anything authoritatively. I have seen a few filibusters–some long ones, I might add–and they are sometimes ridiculous. Sometimes they are important and dense with data, however. I’d have to read more into the filibuster to say more. But I agree with DeMuth that “government growth [has been reduced to] executive lawmaking, punctuated by spasms of legislation.”

 

Funnily enough, DeMuth calls attention to the criticism I would offer his piece, which is that our government functions so poorly precisely because of “extreme partisanship and Republican disarray.” But he tries to defend conservatism from a historical lens, which I think isn’t reasonable to add to his argument: our government structure is inherited by a long line of tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, etc. That’s a red herring if I’ve ever seen one; not to mention the fact that the Greeks would not recognize our government as “democracy.” It has evolved quite a bit from 2,500 years ago.

I think the importance of secular, peaceable, legitimate, representative government, reflexive to all citizens, is far too understated in DeMuth’s piece. He resists the merits of compromise, which, fairly, give neither party what they truly want. I have more faith in the good nature of compromise.

There is indeed a power imbalance between “identity over locality, rationalism over representation, and decision over deliberation.” I think this goes back to education, again. Politicians are appealing to everyone, including the least educated, most credulous of us all. That is a little scary when stepping back from our place in society. I try to fact check every claim made by a political candidate. The failure to both politically and morally triage issues is egregious in America and, thus, the problems DeMuth is illuminating arise. I would object to his piece on principle: There is a reason European socialist countries report happier lives; I am not so arrogant as to disavow something because of the “infallibility of democracy and capitalism,” echoing Cold War propaganda and red scares.

I think the fundamental disagreement I’d have with DeMuth’s argument is that it is one from tradition: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I deplore all insipid, lazy deference to something because of tradition alone. Tradition is the mechanism through which Progress is shackled. We, in our society, are terrified of being wrong–it’s embarrassing and leaves us vulnerable–but making decisions, especially political and ideological ones, based on fear, is an awful idea.

But, this being said, DeMuth also is advocating for a “classically liberal” government, which I am, in some sense, in favor of. I am currently reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which is a foundational philosophical-political text for classical liberalism and libertarianism. I find myself agreeing far more with Mill than with DeMuth. But, I don’t think DeMuth is coming from an unfair place or making a bad argument. I happen to have different assumptions than him about the role of government, but I think we are both trying with each breath to ensure democracy and liberty.

 

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