The Right, The Good, and The Ugly
There is an ugly anger simmering just below the boil in our land. Its manifestation is an apparent disgust of everything associated with our federal government and the resultant election of new representatives, whether that change is of a Democratic or Republican flavor. Democracies discontent is seen in elections everywhere, its impact an increase, if that be possible, in our countries political polarization. Our nation is on the edge of the dangerous precipice of passion divorced from reason as each side in the political debate seeks to stir the brew and agitate their favored flavor of discontent to the top of the mixture. The result will be an over-boil which will scald us all if it is not contained by some moderating influence.
That our politics is perhaps as polarized as it has ever been in times of domestic peace seems evident. Of course, and by definition, the period of our civil war is excepted. We have entered a period of ideological confrontation, however, not seen since that war. The seeds of the confrontation were planted long ago, but social change is slow, and ideologies, though they have practical effects, take time to manifest themselves in custom, law, institutions, and social reactions to those changes. The tendrils of these reactions have attained a grip and are providing the foothold for fresh shoots of discontent, now with firmer footing.
There is an angry right, its pedigree steeped in the firmly held belief in the good which, they believe, they can define. There is an angry left, its blood line firmly fixed in individual right which, being a Constitutional right, must be federally defined and enforced, regardless of the individual state’s and community’s definition of the good. The sociopolitical transition to a national judiciary which defines what is constitutional, and therefore, legal, and the definition of what is legal being interpreted in terms of individual rights versus the good has been in the brew since Marbury vs Madison, establishing the principle of judicial review, and has inherited its individualist flavor from Marshall. These are long standing legal traditions. Long standing legal traditions, however, do not necessarily translate into socially accepted norms, especially when they transgress and attempt to supplant these norms. The disregard for societal norms and their subordination to the sacrosanct principle of individual rights has created the ugly, a situation in which there seems to be no middle ground for debate and compromise.
States as venerable as The Old Dominion have re-raised the issue of states rights. The return volley has struck at the chord of shame which was slavery in our not too distant past where states defined the good unencumbered by an activist federal judiciary which maintained the rights of the individual against a minority abusive of those rights. In the process, however, we have lost our definition of the good, or our ability to understand how it is currently defined in practical and moral terms, and that sense of control of our futures which came from knowing, on a personal, if only a superficial, level those political powers which shaped our moral and legal frameworks defining our bounds of action.
An old philosophical debate has now transformed into a volatile social phenomenon. Such is often the case. Actors often can not foresee the long term social impacts of their actions. Marbury and Madison may be long settled legally. Their social impacts, however, are still being debated. Hopefully those political actors stirring the pot realize the potential for discontent and social discord which they are creating for short term political gains. It is not particularly difficult to stir the passions of a people. It is much more difficult to control them once they are stirred. The distancing of our government from pronouncements of the good, in some cases, is understandable. A wholesale denouncement of their ability to define the good except in terms of individual rights is not. There are some goods which can be known. The sum of all goods, in fact, a whole life lived achieving all of those things which one really needs, is the end result of our individual pursuit of happiness. Those things which we really need are those required to fulfill our potentialities as human beings. These are real goods which can be defined and, in fact, their definition is the foundation of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” We seek to form a more perfect union because we know that we, as individuals, cannot attain all which we need to live a good life solely through our own means and without association with our fellow man. For this reason governments are instituted among men. Government is good, contrary to the view of many of our Congress. Justice is a good which we all need, which consists, in an individualistic sense, of one not depriving another of those things which they need to live a good life and, in the political sense, of the government actively promoting the conditions whereby individuals can attain those things they need to attain a good life. Peace is a real good, for without it we are all deprived of the conditions required to pursue a good life. Promotion of the general welfare is a good, some now debating the extent of this promotion with the recent health care bill. Regardless of how it is specifically defined, it is a real good enumerated in our foundational principles. Government can, in some limited sense, define the good. Where it cannot, communities, local, and state governments should be left to define it for themselves consistent with the federal government’s limited mandate to establish justice, else our federal government does, in fact, overstep its bounds to its own peril as local norms and ways of life are declared unlawful. This is what, over time, starting from a slow boil, eventually becomes a cauldron of discontent, distrust, and antipathy towards our federal government.
Unfortunately, state and local government lost some of their legitimacy, in a sense, when they failed to carry out their responsibilities to defend the right, the civil rights revolution being the historical consequence. Having failed to defend the right, they also lost their authority to define the good for their local communities. The struggle and evolutionary loss of local autonomy continues as state and local communities continue to believe, in many cases, that they can refuse to defend the right, opting instead to turn a blind eye in the name of political expediency and favor on local abuses of power and authority, making the law of none effect and capricious. We are a nation of laws, and all are equal under the law, or so we are taught. Anyone who has fought city hall, or even the local liquor board, knows that this is only partially true. Having not learned the lessons of the past, democracies discontent is likely to fester as the passions of the people continue to be enflamed by the national political parties within a federal government which cannot know the good on a local level and refuses, rightly, to attempt to define it concurrently with state and local authorities who refuse to enforce the right, their authority to define the good therefore likely to continue to diminish. The problem does not lie with a federal government which refuses to define the good. Rather it lies with local and state governments which refuse to defend the right and therefore have lost their authority to carry out the dictates of what localities know to be best for their communities. At a deeper basis, the problem lies with individuals who simply do not do the right things for the right reasons and communities which, having abrogated their responsibilities and authorities, leave their polity without a guide for the good or an enforcer of the right, an ugly circumstance for all.