Saturday, October 01, 2016

Electile Dysfunction – Part I

“Do we have a living Constitution? Do we want to have a living Constitution? A living Constitution is one that evolves, changes over time, and adapts to new circumstances, without being formally amended. On the one hand, the answer has to be yes: there's no realistic alternative to a living Constitution. Our written Constitution, the document under glass in the National Archives, was adopted 220 years ago. It can be amended, but the amendment process is very difficult. The most important amendments were added to the Constitution almost a century and a half ago, in the wake of the Civil War, and since that time many of the amendments have dealt with relatively minor matters.

Meanwhile, the world has changed in incalculable ways. The nation has grown in territory and its population has multiplied several times over. Technology has changed, the international situation has changed, the economy has changed, social mores have changed, all in ways that no one could have foreseen when the Constitution was drafted. And it is just not realistic to expect the cumbersome amendment process to keep up with these changes.”

Yes Or No?

The above is a surprising statement from the website of the traditionally Conservative oriented Chicago School of Law. However, after promoting that thesis, it then reverses by stating, “On the other hand, there seem to be many reasons to insist that the answer to that question – do we have a living Constitution that changes over time? – cannot be yes. The Constitution is supposed to be a rock-solid foundation, the embodiment of our most fundamental principles – that's the whole idea of having a constitution. Public opinion may blow this way and that, but our basic principles – our constitutional principles – must remain constant. Otherwise, why have a Constitution at all?” The answer finally provided is very “lawyerly,” and is for another time.

The “Originalists”

Critics of a living Constitution are known as “originalists,” the most famous being two Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and the now deceased Anthony Scalia. “Constitutionalists” are also the most likely to consider the founding fathers of our nation as almost biblical figures, noble, dignified, transcendent. The Wall Street Journal writes, “In the American imagination, the founding era shimmers as the golden age of political discourse, a time when philosopher-kings strode the public stage, dispensing wisdom with gentle civility.” Perhaps that was true in the very early days of the Republic. However, in a very short time, politics, in the form of political parties reared its ugly head, and at the same time created the ugly election. When in the history of the Republic did this happen? – probably earlier than you think.

Political Part Poison

To put it mildly, several of the founding revolutionaries were suspicious of political parties viewing them as “factions” dangerous to the public interest. As early as 1780 John Adams wrote: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the nation that appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper in September of 1796, wrote of his concerns about the divisiveness of political parties as follows: “ However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people.”

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1787, James Madison wrote of political parties: “All civilized societies would be divided into different sects, factions, and interests, ...of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, ... the inhabitants of this district or that district, the followers of this political leader or that political leader, the disciples of this religious sect or that religious sect. In all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Ben Franklin took the floor at the Constitutional Convention as a skeptic. Franklin feared that greed-driven competition for the presidency would divide the new American government into factions. He warned, “There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. ...Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places ...renders the British government so tempestuous...[and is the true source] of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the nation [and] distracting its councils...” WOW! Was he prescient.

History shows that the Founding Fathers did not anticipate or desire the existence of political parties; the founders’ republican ideology called for subordination of narrow interests to the general welfare of the community; under republican ideology, politics was supposed to be rational and collaborative, not competitive; but despite this popular bias the first American political parties began to form while George Washington was still president.

This is how the library of Congress describes it. “Political factions or parties began to form during the struggle over ratification of the federal Constitution of 1787. Friction between them increased as attention shifted from the creation of a new federal government to the question of how powerful that federal government would be. The Federalists, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted a strong central government, while the Anti-Federalists, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, advocated states’ rights instead of centralized power. Federalists coalesced around the commercial sector of the country while their opponents drew their strength from those favoring an agrarian society. The ensuing partisan battles led George Washington to warn of ‘the baneful effects of the spirit of party’ in his Farewell Address as president of United States. ‘Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.’”

The newly created party system also helped recreate our image of our founding fathers (and for those that followed in their footsteps) from idealistic servants of “the people,” into (what has become all too often) at best a problematic word, and at worse a dishonorable one – “politician.” So what exactly is the definition of a politician? Here are some, let’s say, facetious descriptions:
  • Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason. – Mark Twain
  • Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word. – Charles De Gaulle
  • When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators. – PJ O'Rourke
  • Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president but they don't want them to become politicians in the process. – John Fitzgerald Kennedy
  • Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. – Plato
  • Statesmen tell you what is true even though it may be unpopular. Politicians will tell you what is popular, even though it may be untrue. – Anonymous (Does that remind you of anyone?)
  • A politician thinks of the next election – a statesman of the next generation. – James Freeman Clarke
  • Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress... But I repeat myself. – Mark Twain
  • In politics, absurdity is not a handicap. – Napoleon Bonaparte (This year’s election?)
  • Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. – Oscar Ameringer,
  • Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country - and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians. – Charles Krauthammer
It’s not as if that last comment is a new phenomenon. You might be surprised to learn that it is probable that the creation of the “party” system over 200 years ago is what accelerated the retrogression of the most famous of our founding fathers from the immaculate, flawless, almost deistic reputation that even now still exists in the minds of many (especially the originalists), into the less reputable status of “politician.” An indication as to how quickly founding fathers reverted to “politicians”––it happened in full-blown fashion during the presidential election of 1800.

Next month’s issue will expand on that election as well as the “Electile Dysfunction” headline above, describing some of the ugliest, most contentious presidential elections in the history of the republic. At the same time I must give credit for that headline to my new friend, the very popular lecturer, Myrna Goldberger, who actually suggested it to me after using it previously in one of her many lectures.


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