Sovereignty as the Law of the Land: What Good is it?

Sovereignty of the people is still the law of the land, but it has become somewhat of an illusion.

I hate to cry wolf, but the continuing failure of ideological politics and the resulting disappointment of ideological government is a reality that really deserves greater recognition by those ultimately responsible for it, the American voter. Perpetuating our present political alternatives seems only likely to prolong our dissatisfaction and to frustrate the American dream for too many.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s mid-twentieth century tome The Nature and Destiny of Man, A Christian Interpretation is a sweeping review of philosophy, religion and politics. Mapping the complex moral realities that shape our politics and history is the primary task of the first part of this opus. Attentiveness to these powers and interests that shape events was central to what Niebuhr and a few other social ethicists called “ Realism.”

During the twentieth-century’s inter-war period this small band that had ties to Yale Divinity School lost faith in the belief that moral exhortation (such as the Social Gospel) would lead people to work for justice. Niebuhr examined the cherished beliefs of middle-class morality and exposed the self-interest behind its moral commitments to law and to the protection of property rights. But he took an equally skeptical view of the ethics of the poor and powerless. He viewed the conflict between proletarian and middle-class morality as a contest between hypocrisy and brutality, and between sentimentalism and cynicism. A more realistic understanding of causation behind events seemed needed

Niebuhr came to use the term “Christian realism” for this attentiveness to all of the realities at work in social change and conflict. Christian realism begins with political realism, identifying the forms of economic and political power at work in history. This is our jumping off spot to look closely at what Political Independents represent and why Political Independents may be so critical to our country’s future, our history to come. As a barometer of political faith-worthiness, they represent disapproval, and their numbers continue to grow past a plurality. This is a realism that the political parties are disinclined to acknowledge.

Following his logic and understanding of realism, one cannot, by definition, determine where and when an inequality of nature or history must be accepted as inevitable fate and where it must be defied (Niebuhr was speaking here primarily about the world political scene of the mid-twentieth century, but his point is just as valid today). Yet it is better to make these distinctions—to raise or fold, so to speak— however arbitrary, than to dispense with them entirely as modern (secular and Christian) utopians do. They do not recognize to what degree justice in a (sinful) world is actually maintained by a tension of competing forces, which is always in danger of degenerating into overt conflict, but without which there would be only the despotic peace of the subordination of the will of the weak to the will of the strong. In today’s modern and interconnected world, that’s a highly unstable peace.

As a society we have long accepted or at least tolerated this perceived dependence on competing forces to keep the specter of despotism or tyranny at bay. Politically these competing forces take the form of parties, and while they vie, one against the other, for power, the nature of our two modern parties is such that, to date, open civil conflict has only once been a part of our 225 year history. This can be attributed to the fact that today’s political parties are what we might call “small parties.” In Democracy in America, Alexis deTocqueville described great and small parties as such:

                . . . great political parties are those more attached to principles than to consequences, to generalities rather than to particular cases, to ideas rather than to personalities. Such parties generally have nobler features, more generous passions, more real convictions, and a bolder and more open look than others. On the other hand, small parties are generally without political faith. As they are not elevated and sustained by lofty purposes, the selfishness of their character is openly displayed in all their actions. They glow with a factious zeal . . .  but their progress is timid and uncertain. The means they employ are as disreputable as the aim sought. . . . ”

Between Niebuhr’s realism and Tocqueville’s now 179 year old diagnosis and conclusion that certainly seems to speak to today, we need to take a good hard look at our present national situation. From there, we need to ask ourselves where as a nation we want to go, politically and socially, and can our existing “small parties” get us there; when and how and at what overall social costs to us. Reinforcing the urgency of this need  is retiring Congressman—the longest serving lawmaker in US history— John Dingell’s assertion that the current Congress has “a disregard for our country, our Congress and our governmental system.” His (sadly) apt description of the Congress he loved is that it has become “obnoxious.”

This good hard look is not a call for utopian thinking and planning. It is a call for contemplation; for rethinking ideological politics as the best (or only) vehicle to keep the specter of tyranny  and despotism at bay or to move and enable our government to govern for at least most of the people most of the time. Contemplate this: As one ponders the base aims of today’s “small parties,” be they our two principle ones or the agglomeration of outliers, one, and only one, basic ideological division exists: they are either working to restrict the use of public power or to extend it. It’s really that simple. Do most voters understand our political world as presently that black or white? Unlikely.

“There is,” wrote Washington in his farewell address—which is read in Congress each year on his birthdate— ”a fatal tendency to  replace the national will with the will of a party. . . to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction.” Increasingly in their mutual efforts to gain advantage in this respect, the Parties have become extreme (hyper-partisan) in their zeal to, if unable to move their agenda forward, assure that their adversary isn’t able to advance his, even when majorally elected to do so. There seems no end of this scorched-earth political thinking. The result is elected government, responsible for the State that is obstructed from governing in the interest of all of the people almost any time. Blame here, such as it is, is shared by both Parties. And this takes us back to Reinhold Niebuhr:

Where and when is an inequality of nature or of (our) history to be accepted as inevitable fate, and where must it be defied? Is today’s ideological nature of our politics an “inevitable fate?” Is this all there is?  Is American society, and its possible preeminence, doomed to suffer the ineffective and unbalanced political management of the State because two opposing ideological views of the correct way to govern cannot, we are led to believe, be reconciled? Is it forever to be an either or situation?

Power is purpose in politics. Politics draws its purpose from the well of self-interest. In today’s world, self-interest is allowed a wide range of influence, politically.  Much of this influence takes the form of money, the mother’s-milk of politics. Thus, the more money you have to “influence” politics, the more power you have, politically. Is this bad? Yes it is, democratically. If not properly addressed, this power of self-interest may well lead to another of Niebuhr’s points: “the despotic peace of the subordination of the will of the weak to the will of the strong.” P.298 And just what might this look like in today’s America? Tocqueville, way back when (late 1830’s), suggested a scenario that’s depressingly uncomfortable, but worthy of current reflection (This is not the first time his thinking here has been referenced).

                A democratic  state of society similar to that found there [United States] could lay itself peculiarity open to the establishment of a despotism. . . . But if despotism should be established among the democratic nations of our day, it would probably have a different character [from ancient despotism]. It would be more widespread and milder; it would degrade men rather than torment them   . . . in such an age of education and equality. . .  rulers could more easily bring all public powers into their own hands alone, and they could impinge  deeper and more habitually into the sphere of private interests than was every possible in antiquity. But the same quality that makes despotism easy tempers it. I do not expect [such] leaders to be tyrants, but rather schoolmasters.

Tocqueville goes on to describe his vision as one of “a multitude of self-centeredness; men generally alike milling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each is almost unaware of the others. Mankind for him consists of his children and immediate family. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he hardly notices them.”

Over this kind of myopic citizenry Tocqueville sees “an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for. . .watching over their fate: The State. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident and for the most part, gentle. . . . It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances.”

Why, asks Tocqueville, should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living? Governmental expansion combined with a citizenry’s passivity promotes a level of apathy to government control that can prepare men for all this, predisposing them to endure it and even regard it as beneficial. The State, over time, extends its embrace. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform. ”It does not break men’s will,” Tocqueville continues, “but soften, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.”

Should you be inclined to dismiss Tocqueville’s vision as past crystal-ball gazing of no real-life relevance, allow me to quote from a Letter to the Editor in our local paper this past Sunday:

“EDITOR: After reading Thursday’s front page article about soda (“Drinking problem?”), I am convinced that Americans have finally capitulated and given over all decision-making to the government. What has happened to this country when parents cannot or will not tell their kids the difference in good nutrition vs. bad or a whole list of other lifestyle issues?

Why should they? The so-called nanny-state politicians will make laws and rules that will absolve parents and other adults of any semblance of responsibility for their actions or control over their live       . . . .”

Certainly not conclusive, but reading this makes one wonder:How close are we to the point of no return?

People in a liberal democracy are prone to two conflicting passions: the need of guidance (the rule of law) and a longing to believe they have freedom (the rule of law). Unable to wipe out these two contradictory instincts, we attempt to satisfy them both; we conceive a government which is protective, and powerful, but ultimately under the control of us, the people. Centralized guidance is limited, we assure ourselves, by the sovereignty of free people. That relieves us from worry.  Many of us console ourselves for being under schoolmasterly rule by convincing ourselves we have chosen them. Each of us individually accepts the soft-collar of control for we perceive that it is not a person, or a class of persons, but society itself which holds the end of the chain. Everyone is perceived as equal; everyone is in the same boat. This is a questionable reality.

Tocqueville seems distressingly provident even if somewhat one-sided in his now 179 year-old concern. Today too much of the American public tolerates an increasingly intrusive and controlling administrative State while depending upon its de jure sovereignty over an obviously dysfunctional political mechanism— two warring opposing ideological political parties— to protect its freedoms ( Is this an inequality of nature or history that must be accepted, or is it one that can and should be defied?).  Reinhold Niebuhr’s mid-20th century concerns about the despotic peace of the subordination of the will of the weak to the will of the strong only reinforces Tocqueville warning and brings it into present day focus. Both of today’s “small political parties” seem corrupted by the will of the strong; by self-interest(s) intent on getting its way. Justice is reduced to influence. Where will this lead?

True, the sovereignty of the people is still the law of the land, but it is has become more an illusion, a ritual of voting we go through regularly—because it is the law— that appears to keep ultimate authority over ourselves with the people themselves.  However, when electoral choice is restricted to two equally unappealing options for so many, sovereignty seems handicapped, if not subverted; undermining what cannot be directly overthrown. When political choice is restricted—and it is restricted—to those who favor either more public power, or less public power and both options have demonstrated they are incapable , if not unwilling, of governing for at least most of the people most of the time on a consistent basis, what is the result? Dissatisfaction with that political mechanism and disappointment with the resulting government for a large part of the citizenry;  a State seemingly estranged from elected government; one less responsive to the political control that sovereignty, the vote, is supposed to guaranty.  Dissatisfaction if not outright distrust of the citizenry: check out the polls.

So how can we now avoid both Tocqueville’s and Niebuhr’s dismal future prospect, keeping in mind Niebuhr’s admonition that justice is maintained by a tension of (today, obnoxious) competing forces? How can we employ Niebuhr’s “political realism,” assuming we want to, to this end?  In truth, we may not be able to; many may not want to. They may prefer to have others provide for them and make their decisions, yet still consider themselves “free.” If you have little, and less prospects, the trade-off between personal economic and social security and liberty may not be that difficult a choice (public safety nets vs. no safety net). These largely represents the “ethics of the poor and powerless;” the weak, politically.

On the other side of the coin of liberty are those who have more and, more importantly, have prospects. A promotion of so-called middle-class morality and its moral commitments to law and to the protection of property rights is the hallmark of his side of the coin; that’s easy to understand, though Niebuhr points out the self-interest, even hypocrisy behind it.  It is the more powerful; the strong, politically.

But This then is the rough and tumble political playing field for at least the past hundred-plus years: two opposing forces, politically organized and committed to winning their vision of the future: More public power vs. less public power. The political winds blow in one direction, and then in the other, continuously, while the growing State administers the affairs of the country in complex and restrictive bureaucratic fashion; more and more of our everyday activities coming under the control, supervision and regulation of some governmental institution.

This state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Both political parties realize, I’m sure, that they cannot hope to get everything they want—and in fact shouldn’t. But compromise has become a dirty word.  In their efforts to “win” (power) both spend as much time in blocking the efforts of their opponents, understandably, perhaps, but with the effect that progress, defined as an improved standard of living with economic opportunity and social security  for at least most Americans—the so-called American dream— seems a diminishing aspiration.

Neither Tocqueville nor Niebuhr spoke of a rich or super-rich class in America. Wealth certainly existed. Today there is concern that the upper-middle class and those economically even more fortunate are the primary beneficiaries of that American Dream. More importantly, their prospects seem increasingly favorable while the prospects of those of the middle and lower middle-class are struggling; you might say stagnating. Prospects for those at the bottom of the economic ladder look even worse.

Considered in in this light, the political playing field seems more intramural than intermural. This bodes ill for justice, if you accept Niebuhr’s position. Given our either-or, winner-take-all electoral set up, the struggle for political power rests, numerically, in the hands of the broad middle class of voters.  But this seems countered by an unbalanced power of self-interest, i.e. money, to influence both elections and the considerations of politicians in the struggle for either more or less public power. Given the significance of this self-interest power, and its long-term view of “winning”, it may be difficult to truly identify just who is really representing whom in the halls of government, regardless their political affiliation. To the country as a whole, what does the vote mean in such circumstance?

So long as this political situation prevails, progress as above defined seems improbable, as does social tranquility and any semblance of balance for the prospects for all Americans.. That many are tired of the political strife seems self-evident when one looks at the rolls of the Parties. They are in long term decline. We see the rise of political Independents and those declining to nominate a political party of personal choice. That, as mentioned, in itself is an evident expression of disapproval. But, what is its significance, electorally? Very little at the moment inasmuch as, like it or not, those are the options when facing the ballot.

Until America has a political option, an approach to governing that is neither for more or less public-power, nothing of substance is liable to happen. The wills of the Parties will continue to overshadow the wills of the nation.  Politics will continue to under-serve the people and the State will continue to expand in its efforts to manage everyone and everything for the supposed good of all. That’s a rather distorted vision of liberty and freedom. That sounds more like the tyranny we discussed above, schoolmasterly or otherwise. Both proponents may end up losers.

Is that how most of us really want this railroad run, as the saying goes? I hope not.

We need a change!

Thomas Richard Harry

February 2014

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