Ruminations in the wake of Kavanaugh
It is done.
Now we must pick up the pieces and move on. Why, I wonder, add more words at a time when so many seem so set in their beliefs that persuasion has become chimerical?
When faced with despair–and, given the manner in which our governance has broken down, despair is a mild reaction–I try to understand. Though that understanding is still gelling, I’m pretty sure that I’ve identified the problem. A solution, if any, may lie in the title I chose for this post.
Allow me to begin with an obvious but important statement: rhetoric is to politicians what oxygen is to the rest of us. Honest folks, even as they complained about elected officials not following through on what they said they would do, used to accept that on some level, along with the compromises that invariably accompanied the necessary switch from the language of campaigns to the long slog of governing.
Trouble arises when rhetoric is acted on as if it were policy. I like to think I tolerate human foibles, but I know what boundary I cannot abide crossing. To be intellectually dishonest–an arena in which the stakes are so small that to embrace it is, in effect, to embrace lying to yourself along with everyone else–is to cross into a moral void.
I submit that the rhetoric of winning has replaced reasoning and the only explanation for that is power.
When I drafted my undergraduate thesis I airily dismissed the worries of Madison and his contemporaries on the subject. They suffered, I stated in my own attempt at a rhetorical flourish, from Acton‘s paranoia. How wrong I was.
Power corrupts not just those who wield it. Power corrupts the decency of those who covet it and those who desire it to be used in pursuit of aims they personally support. In that service all else–facts, manners, norms, consequences–is meaningless.
Language itself becomes abased in the process.
Take, for example, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConell (R-KY). I know not what lies behind the Senator’s powerlust. What I know, from his words alone, is that he is either ignorant or enthralled with his ability to dissemble without facing any consequence for torturing the truth.
Here’s the Senator, in USA Today, on March 16, 2016, defending his obstruction of Merrick Garland‘s nomination to the United States Supreme Court: “The American people elected a Republican Senate in the last election. “
When a self-serving claim is made, I like to turn to the data.
Let’s unpack that claim. The Senator cast an unusually wide net in his statement. Unlike pollsters or political scientists, the niceties and restrictions of eligible voters are not mentioned at all. That makes life easier from a methodological perspective although it won’t garner me an invite to speak at APSA.
Here’s how to look at that. The spreadsheet pictured nearby (downloadable so you can do your own analysis) contains the US Census Bureau’s Population Estimate for each state as of July 1, 2016. It indicates the party affiliations of each state’s senators. And it simply allocates the state’s entire population to each major party in proportion to the party affiliation of the Senators.
To be sure it’s a crude methodology. It has the merit, however, of being consistent with Senator McConell’s rhetoric (“The American people…”). Moreover, because Senate races are winner-take-all statewide contests, where the peculiarities wrought by gerrymandering are effectively controlled for, it’s as reasonable approach as any. At least as I see it.
Total up the populations allocated to each party and the Democratic senators represent 56% of the total population while the Republicans represent only 44%. Narrow your focus to the top 10 most-populous states (sort for yourself and see) and the picture is even less rosy: 61% for Democrats and 39% for Republicans.
The only thing that Republicans actually represent more of is square miles.
We saw the same thing in reporting the 2016 Electoral College results as though the popular vote did not favor the Democratic candidate by over 3 million ballots cast.
My partisanship is non-existent but when given the alternative, I prefer the truth and honesty. Those seem lacking in one of the parties. Nor is consistency among their other virtues. What was deemed a “… fair and reasonable approach” (in early 2016) was cast aside in an effort to quickly fill a vacancy just over two years later.
So let’s drop politesse and call out the Senator and his party’s rhetoric for what it actually is: lying.
Though many across the spectrum will disagree with me, though, I don’t think change will come from marching in the streets or from dressing up in historical costumes and pronouncing fealty to a cartoon version of the 18th century.
As a nation, the United States is particularly resistant to wrenching change, even when necessary. Activists on the left, who honestly believe the time has come to make one man, one vote explicit in the structure of our government, have no viable explanation or plan for how that would happen. The Great Compromise of 1787 favors the status quo, so much so that its aftereffects can be substituted for fact by the leader of the US Senate.
Change, if it is to come, will be the hard work of retail politics and, as Mark Illa might have it, a less-romantic version of how political change comes about. Those whose politics are more communitarian will have to persuade voters of why that’s a better route. Awaiting demographic destiny is its own form of abdication and intellectual dishonesty.
It will also require compromise along the way. On both sides, compromise has become an evil word because we have allowed ourselves to brand those with whom we disagree on policy as evil.
Over the past month I’ve been called names and even been told to leave the country. Amusingly, the folks who have done so are unaware that my family’s oldest North American roots date to 1688. My long-suffering wife’s go back to the Mayflower. Neither of us is going anywhere.
And I, for one, refuse to let the American experiment–an experiment I believe in–fail.