As 2015 comes to a close, I wish each of you a wonderful new year in 2016 and hope that our country comes through the coming elections in better shape than what I fear may be the case given our experience over this past year.
I am normally an optimistic, the glass is half-full kind of guy, but I am discouraged by the political discourse of the last few months. I am concerned that it will only get worse in the new year. The rhetoric is depressing and may become more so as some candidates find that it works to their advantage to vilify others, and as some candidates become desperate to be noticed before they fade away.
I also learned long ago to stay out of the prediction game. With the right knowledge and experience, it used to be feasible to make a meaningful, if not always correct, educated guess as to the direction of certain events and the resulting policy decisions that follow. I do not feel that way anymore. Additionally, as I have expressed in previous pieces, I think that it is too early to begin discussing which candidates from which political parties will be our choices in November. I have no idea who will make it through the spring and summer and emerge as a viable candidate. Therefore, at this point in the process, I have no idea who I will vote for and I will try to keep my mind open as the campaigns progress. That said, I have already decided who I cannot vote for no matter their popularity or the alternative candidate from the other party. Out of the roughly 15 candidates combined in the Republican and Democrat parties still running (and sometimes it is hard to keep track) there are at least five that I know that I cannot vote for, no matter what. Some fall into that category because of their hateful rhetoric and others because in my view, they are just plain unqualified to lead this country. Some fall into both categories. Hopefully, they will not end up running against each other.
Logically, and historically, I know that we have experienced shameful demagoguery in campaigns past. I know also that our nation’s history has had shameful periods of racism and bigotry that were considered main stream. And as much as I would like to think that as a nation we have moved past those misguided beliefs, I know that some racists and bigots still exist in our country.
So the politics of racism, bigotry, hatred and fear — dealing in the mysterious “other” who are not like us and do not belong in our country — is, unfortunately, not new to this nation. We now have at least two leading candidates, Mr. Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that are experts at exploiting the fear and hatred of others and who also have little use for the truth should it not coincide with their narrative. They seem to be very popular — although it is difficult to know whether that popularity will translate at the voting booth. While I am deeply disappointed in their campaigns, it is really nothing new in our history. What has truly discouraged me is the number of people who pollsters of all stripes tell us support their campaigns. I knew there were bigots and racists out there, what is discouraging is the number that seem still to exist in the year 2015. And before someone gets their hair on fire, I recognize that not all supporters of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are bigots or racists. I know that. However, too many seem to fit in that category. By a lot. Anger and fear are powerful motivators, but when exploited for purely personal gain, it becomes dangerous. Both Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are well polished exploiters of those emotions. I see their hateful ways reflected in all sorts of social media and other outlets. Although I am never sure if the anonymity of social media creates more salacious comments “just because” — “trolls” that enjoy stirring things up — or if the anonymity of social media allows people to expose what is really in their hearts without fear of being considered haters, but whichever is the case, Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz through their speech and actions, make it okay to be anti-social.
Please spare me the accusations of “political correctness.” For these two candidates (and others) claiming that they do not have to be politically correct has become a crutch. It is an anti-intellectual and facile claim that assures that no substantive discussion of the issues is needed and that to be polite and not rude in political discourse is not necessary. We are the worse for it. Bigots and racists are given free rein to malign others.
Before Christmas, Danielle Allen wrote an interesting opinion piece about “political correctness.” (It can be found here.) The term, according to Professor Allen was first coined by James Wilson in 1793. James Wilson was a representative to the Continental Congress and an influential member of the committee that gave us the Constitution and was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court. The first substantive case heard by the new court was Chisolm v. State of Georgia which established that individuals could sue states. The decision was later effectively over-turned by the Eleventh Amendment. (I am not a legal scholar, but should one want to read an interesting analysis of the case, it may be found here.) What is pertinent to this discussion, is that the rhetoric following a lazy interpretation of “politically correct” has subverted the original use of the phrase. In some ways it may be better said as “correct politically” or Justice Wilson’s emphasis on “We the People” and his belief that sovereignty rested with the “people of the United States” rather than individual states.
This interpretation was presaged by a speech of his on July 4th 1788 following the achievement of the minimum number of states needed to ratify the Constitution. In his speech he laid out the vision of the crafters of that great document, its importance and how it is up to us, the people, to vote for good leaders. He emphasized how each vote was important (perhaps because his was the deciding vote for independence in the Pennsylvania delegation). Or as he said in part in his stem-winder of a speech (original spellings used below, italics and bold are mine):
Allow me to direct your attention, in a very particular manner, to a momentous part, which, by this constitution, every citizen will frequently be called to act. All those in places of power and trust will be elected either immediately by the people; or in such a manner that their appointment will depend ultimately on such immediate election. All the derivative movements of government must spring from the original movement of the people at large. If, to this they give a sufficient force and a just direction, all the others will be governed by its controuling power. To speak without a metaphor; if the people, at their elections, take care to chuse none but representatives that are wise and good; their representatives will take care, in their turn, to chuse or appoint none but such as are wise and good also. The remark applies to every succeeding election and appointment. Thus the characters proper for public officers will be diffused from the immediate elections of the people over the remotest parts of administration. Of what immense consequence is it, then, that this primary duty should be faithfully and skillfully discharged? On the faithful and skillful discharge of it the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution, must, in a very great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men. You will forgive me, I am sure, for endeavouring to impress upon your minds, in the strongest manner, the importance of this great duty. It is the first concoction in politics; and if an error is committed here, it can never be corrected in any subsequent process: The certain consequence must be disease. Let no one say, that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket will be but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the election.
In other words, no government, no matter how well conceived and designed, can function properly unless good, educated, and competent people — not “ignorant or vicious men” — are elected. The government is only as good as those elected to it. In my view, we lost that principal and fundamental element to good governance with the likes of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz.