Politics by Principle, Not Polemic

There is a lot of emphasis these days on the idea of getting the money out of politics. I consider that an all-but-impossible dream. It’s like saying, “We have to get the politics out of politics.” We may be able to dampen the influence of some kinds of moneyed interests in the governance of our nation but we are too far down the road of money as speech now to turn completely back.

Frankly, I’m at least as concerned — if not moreso — by the escalating influence of raw, unreasoned, knee-jerk reactions and polemic speech as I am with the influence of money. I suspect — with admittedly no raw data to support my position — that it is the constant screeds from both ends of the political spectrum that turn more people off to the value of political participation.

All of us who really care about politics and governance have allowed ourselves to become emotionally engaged in the debates, in the analysis, in the predictions and in our own commentaries, public and private. The result is the nearly complete disappearance of Reason with a capital “R” from the political scene.

Progressives can’t find a single Republican they can stomach as a viable White House candidate. Conservatives think the sitting President is an illegitimate interloper and a Communist to boot, and they find all of the current crop of Presidential hopefuls to be ignorant, anti-American socialists or worse.

Meanwhile, all we actually produce is heat. There is very little light being cast on the American political scene these days.

It seems to me — and I’ve said this in different ways many times over the years here and elsewhere — that the problem is that politics ought to be about philosophies of governance and moral priorities. Those with whom we disagree need not be found to be universally unlikable and outright enemies. In other words, we need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. To that end, it might help if we had a rational basis for discussing our points of disagreement; even if we can’t resolve them in some mutually agreeable and acceptable fashion, we may well be able to lower our collective blood pressure and turn down the volume a bit to enable serious discourse.

Conservatives say that their strongest guidance comes from the Constitution, to which they owe loyalty above all else. But as a Progressive/Socialist thinker, I find the Preamble to the Constitution to be a pretty thorough-going description of the so-called Founding Fathers’ intentions.

The Preamble sets forth six overriding purposes that undergird the entire Constitution. These are the framework, the First Principles on which the rest of the document is built and according to which it should be interpreted, regardless of one’s political persuasion.

These six purposes are:

To “form a more perfect union”. Bringing greater unity, commonality of interests, solidarity of causes, and a better planned governmental system than that set forth in the Articles of Confederation which the Constitution superseded seems to be part and parcel of the plan for the document.

To “establish Justice”. In the late 18th Century, the term “justice” was widely understood to mean fairness, egalitarianism and the other other principles for which the American and French Revolutions had been fought.

To “insure domestic Tranquility”. In other words, to enable the nation and its inhabitants to live in peace and harmony.

To “provide for the common defence”. Provision was made for a military department whose primary responsibility was the protection of the nation and its people from outside attack or interference, though the text of Article I, Section 8, paragraphs 11-16 places some fairly severe restrictions on this “militia” and its scope.

To “promote the general Welfare”.  By this clause, it seems the founders meant to extoll the virtue of providing for the well-being of the citizens and residents of the nation. By the word “general,” they specifically did not limit it to the welfare of a specific class of citizen.

To “secure the blessings of Liberty”. This is the first word in the French Revolutionary sloganeering of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, which the American colonists had also adopted and adapted. Liberte implied freedom from oppression by a ruling class but also probably carried the connotation of freedom from oppressive government as well.

Whatever else might be said of these six purpose statements for the founding of our representative democracy, one thing seems clear: the provision of at least several of these promises would require the presence of a central Federal government capable of raising taxes and making spending decisions based on these priorities.

Establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare all seem to me to define legitimate functions of government as envisioned by our founders. To the extent that conservatives oppose government broadly or refuse to support specific programs designed to have these effects, they act counter to conservative philosophy and to the intent of the Constitution. To the extent that progressives are seen as willing to trade liberty for any of the other provisions of the Preamble or to prioritize any one of them over the others, they act counter to progressive thinking and to the intent of the Constitution.

The Founders had had the experience of the Articles of Confederation which provided for a terribly weak, decentralized form of government that really consisted of a very loose association of states, who retained all power to govern. The Constitution must be seen in large part at least as a counter to that experience, which clearly did not work well. The fact that the Constitution is framed as a set of carve-outs from those Articles is also not a coincidence, however. The founders were as leery of a too-powerful central government as they were of a too-weak one. So all of the powers that are not specifically allocated to the central, or Federal, government are reserved to the states and/or the people by the 10th Amendment.

Most of the arguments about the Constitutionality of a given law or executive action take place on this front. Strict constructionists take the position that any power not very specifically reserved to the Federal government should be left to the states. Progressives claim that the founders could not possibly have foreseen many of the changes in our society and in our culture and in our politics over the decades and centuries and that we should read the Constitution as preferring a single, national solution to problems that don’t clearly fall solely within the boundaries of a state.

There will never be an end to the debate and there shouldn’t be. But there needn’t be rancorous screeds bombastically exploding forth from proponents of either of these extreme positions. Perhaps what’s needed rather than a Constitutional Convention (which is being increasingly talked about as a solution) is a meeting of the minds on the First Principles of American Governance as set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution. Maybe then we could find ourselves once again in a position to govern this nation and move its agenda forward as we accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number consistent with these principles.

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