Our devotion to the underlying ideal

We like to curse “politics” and “politicians,” and no doubt some of the bastards deserve it. But the simple truth is we’re social beings, which means we’re political beings, and that means politics is always part of the equation. It’s just part of who we are; it’s part of how the world turns for humanity. So look in the mirror: politics and politicians are just reflections of us, of you, of me. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “Our leaders, our government is us, all of us, so if they’re venal and weak it’s because we are.”

The Founders of this country, especially Madison and Hamilton, were clear-eyed about our deeply flawed (i.e. pathetically self-interested) human nature and so they helped design a Constitutional Republic that’s institutions provided checks on individual and/or party ambition. Power was purposely diffused. This process encouraged coalition building, another word for bipartisanship, among legislators as they try to reach a deal. In a liberal democracy, like the United States, where individual rights and the rule of law are sacred, this is a critical element in successful democratic self-governance.

The underlying ideal of liberal democracy is that differences are settled by laws, by process, by ballots not bullets, by elections not wars. The southern states broke faith with the ideal in 1861 and it cost the nation over 600,000 lives and the destruction of the southern economy and many southern cities. The underlying ideal, at its core, is the belief that after all the arguments and rhetoric and shouting and nonsense, in the end, we settle the contest by law, by process, by elections. There’s no appeal to the results of a free and fair election. The people have rendered their verdict…for now. Those who lost have the next election for an appeal to the voters.

The underlying ideal means if you want to enact a public policy or a change in public leadership you have to engage in the tough work of persuading the voters. That IS democracy in action. Intimidating and threatening election officials, lying about election results, enacting voter suppression laws, aren’t acts of people trying to persuade, but of those betraying the underlying ideal for their self-interested ideology, for raw power. These acts are anti-democratic and are meant to be so.

I’ve struggled with maintaining a positive attitude given incredible breach of faith in the underlying ideal by many on the political right these days. Nothing good can come of it for them, their constituents, or our democracy. And yet! I do believe there are enough people devoted—on all sides—to the underlying ideal that we’ll slowly work our way through these turbulent times, preserve our great democracy, and, I pray, our continued faith in the underlying ideal.

Bruce Catton has an excellent quote about politics and democracy that I think says it very well:

Politics works at a high price and operates at the lowest common denominator of what exists in the hearts of the people—which means the hearts of you and me. There is cowardice there, often enough, and meanness, and petty selfishness, and politics has to take them into account. Yet those same hearts contain courage and nobility and faith, and in the last analysis the good outweighs the bad. We live by politics. We do various hopelessly inefficient things, we waste enormous amounts of strength and energy, we compromise everything but the underlying ideal—but because at bottom there is an underlying devotion to that ideal, we keep on living.

The Blessings of Liberty

Recently I came across this great sentence in a book by Timothy Synder:

Our politics are too much about the curse of pain and too little about the blessings of liberty.

There is so much in that short sentence to unpack. Our politics is filled with too many grievance mongers and selfish, dishonest applause seekers instead of people trying to solve real problems and improve the lives of our citizenry. The blessings of liberty are about a free people coming together, working together, through their natural disagreements, finding compromise, and finding solutions through the democratic process. History reminds us that oligarchy, autocracy, chaos, and civil strife are the rule and democracy, peace, and the blessings of Liberty the exception.

What we need right now is more humility, grace, intelligence, and compassion and less of the dark, greedy, selfish, tribal hatreds from the curse-of-pain crowd that are always seeking attention and stoking fear. In this brief moment of history we have the blessings of Liberty and self governance and a way of life only dreamed of by millions of souls who came long before us across the great span of human history.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this.

Sowing the Wind

Bruce Catton:

He liked to say that he was in morals, not politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong. . . .

Yet angry words were about the only kind anyone cared about to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to. . . . Men saw what they feared and hated, concentrated on its wide empty plains, and as they stared they were losing the ability to see virtue in compromise and conciliation. The man on the other side, whatever one’s vantage point, was beginning to look ominously alien. . . .

A philippic, as he had promised. No single vote had been changed by it; the Senate would decide, at last, precisely as it would have done if he had kept quiet. But he had not been trying to persuade. No one was, these days; a political leader addressed his own following, not the opposition. Summer had been trying to inflame, to arouse, to confirm the hatreds and angers that already existed. In the North there were men who from his words would draw a new enmity toward the South; in the South there were men who would see in this speaker and what he had said a final embodiment of the compelling reasons why it was good to think seriously about secession.

These excerpts are from Catton’s book, This Hallowed Ground. Though he is describing something that happened 165 years ago, it feels eerily contemporary.

In the opening pages of his book, a section aptly subtitled “Sowing the Wind,” Catton is describing the mood of the U.S. Senate (and the nation really) as Senator Charles Sumner prepared and delivered a speech on the Senate floor denouncing slavery and calling for the territory of Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state.

A few days later, on the Senate floor, as a result of that speech, Sumner was attacked and almost beat to death with a cane by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina, and a strong advocate for slavery and states’ rights.

It was May, 1856. The nation was just 5 years from the opening shots of a bloody civil war.

Remembering John Warner

Senator John Warner of Virginia (photo credit: wikipedia)

All I had known about Senator John Warner I’d heard from my mom and dad before I came to Capitol Hill to work. I knew the Senator had been a Secretary of the Navy. I knew he’d been married to Elizabeth Taylor. I also knew my parents had a very high regard for him as our Senator from Virginia and, of course, because he was a Republican….back when, I think it’s fair to add, being Republican was something somewhat different than it is today.

All of these things went through my mind when the Senator approached me one evening in the Senate subway of the U.S. Capitol Building. This would have been around 1994, and it was my first personal encounter with Senator Warner. I was standing watch (it was my job as a U.S. Capitol Police Officer) over the senator and a small crowd of visitors on the Senate subway platform. They were waiting for a subway car. There was a reserved subway car for senators and an area marked specifically for senators to stand while waiting for the subway car. But on this day the crowd apparently didn’t see the sign and stood in the area reserved for senators waiting to board.

I started to walk over to kindly ask the visitors to move to the visitor boarding area, but before I could say something Senator Warner began speaking to the crowd. They were, as the senator happily discovered, Virginians. As the senator spoke to them he observed me off to the side waiting for him to finish. He gave me a hand motion and a nod that signaled “I got this.” The crowd was excited. They hadn’t expected to see their senator in person during their visit to the Capitol. The crowd laughed and asked questions and then took pictures with the Senator. The subway car pulled in just as the pictures were done and the Senator guided the crowd onto the reserved car. He didn’t get on, however. He said something that made the crowd laugh and then waved as the doors to the car closed and the car pulled away.

That left just the Senator and I standing there on the platform. The Senator turned and with his hands grasped behind his back, and a look of interest on his face, walked over to me and asked where I was from. I told him I was a Virginian and that my wife and I had recently purchased a home in Centreville, VA. The senator smiled and said: “Nice area. I own a farm not too far from you called Atoka Farm. Beautiful country out there.” I agreed with him about the beauty of that area and added jokingly, “If we get out that way again maybe we’ll stop in and see you.” The senator smiled and said, “Well I don’t get out to the farm as much as I use to, but if you do get out that way again please do stop in and take a look at the farm. Check on it for me. If anyone asks you tell them I sent you.” About that time the next subway car arrived and he left.

And so sometime over the next few months my wife and I made our way west again to explore more of Fauquier County, Virginia. We first pulled into what we thought was Atoka Farm. A lot of the farms in that area of Virginia are massive; they’re hundreds, in some cases thousands, of acres in size. And they don’t look like what most of us would think of when we think of a farm either. It’s more accurate to describe them as “estates.” Atoka Farm, as I recall, was about 400 acres in size at the time.

As my wife and I drove down the main entry road we were suddenly startled by a low flying plane on our immediate right. He was on final approach to a runway. I knew the Senator was a wealthy man, but the idea of him having a runway and airplane didn’t register. I stopped the car looked around. We were near a set of smaller homes on the estate and I happened to notice a small sign. We were on the wrong farm. We had pulled into Paul Mellon’s massive estate, Oak Spring Farm.

So eventually we found Atoka Farm and we drove around the grounds and took some pictures. The gardens and the scenery were beautiful. The barn, we found out, didn’t have farming equipment and other such stuff in it, but a swimming pool. One of the most noticeable features of this part of the country are all the low stones walls that crisscross the countryside. They’re everywhere and most estates are ringed by them and many of the roads are lined on both sides with them.

Months later, back on Capitol Hill, Senator Warner approached me near the Senate Chamber. I don’t recall the initial part of our conservation but I told him I’d visited his farm and I hoped he’d gotten out there to enjoy the beautiful countryside. “Oh I sold the farm” the Senator said. Surprised I said, “That was a beautiful place. What made you want to sell it?” The Senator paused for a moment and said, “Well, my daddy always told me you should never keep anything that eats while you sleep.”

Senator John Warner had an old world charm about him. He was a gentleman, an institutionalist, and a compromiser. He wanted to get things done and solve problems. He served this nation with integrity, honor, and decency.

John Warner died this past May 25th. He was 94.

Book: First Principles

When Thomas Ricks woke up that gloomy Wednesday November morning, after the Presidential election of 2016, he began asking himself some searching questions about this country. “What just happen? What kind of nation do we now have?” “Is this what was designed or intended by the nation’s founders?” And probably, How do I move to Canada!? Like the majority of Americans, I had similar thoughts that same morning.

Ricks dealt with this terrible turn in America politics by writing a book. He decided the best way to deal with his angst was to try and understand the American experiment at its founding. What was it all about? What were the principles this nation was founded upon? And so in First Principles Ricks examines some of those core principles around which this nation was originally founded upon.

This is the second book of Ricks’s I’ve read. He’s a good writer and if you like history and politics I highly recommend you pick up a copy of First Principles.

For me, I could summarize the main point of the book as follows: The belief that the “public virtue” of the citizenry and public officials could be counted on to sustain our Republic was dismissed as a complete fantasy by our founders. History and personal experience demonstrated this over and over. People are hopelessly self interested and so to avoid the concentration of federal power—and its abuse—it was purposely divided up among the three branches of government. These branches—executive, legislative, and judiciary–were supposed to function as separate institutions that put a check on the power of other two. The founders feared the rise of people exactly like Donald Trump, and so they purposely built separate institutions to ensure characters like Donald Trump were checked by the power of other institutions.

Some people feel our institutions worked as they were suppose to during Trump’s 4 year term, but I’m not so convinced. We survived in my view…for now. There is a growing authoritarianism on the political right in this country that resembles the authoritarian movements of early 20th century Europe. And just like many Europeans then, many Americans now, don’t seem to realize what’s happening right in front of them and how quickly we could potentially lose our democracy and our way of life.