The Common Good, Today’s GOP, Morality and Democratic Politics

The unfolding GOP presidential nominee selection process and its related politics have surely taken some unexpected turns in recent days. But together, these events point to a deeper truth about the character of democratic politics and the perils of the Republican Party’s current approach to governance that are worth pondering. I here treat three recent episodes featuring two leading Republican Party presidential nomination seekers and the Senate Majority Leader to illustrate the fact that neither democracy nor democratic politics can long survive when its officeholders forget that it must first and always be morally freighted. This, Abraham Lincoln surely understood as he stood amidst the aftermath of the carnage at Gettysburg and, in now fabled lines, celebrated the moral good the Union represented by observing,

… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[1]

This, Franklin D. Roosevelt also understood as he rallied the nation in his First Inaugural Address to confront the widespread unemployment, misery and fear created by the Great Depression:

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely         take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.[2]

Each of these celebrated leaders saw in democratic politics and governance the possibility that only democratic politics and governance can represent, the preservation of freedom and the common good for all of the nation’s people, and the compelling need to aspire to that end as a united citizenry bearing the burdens demanded by that shared hope. For both of these statesmen, democratic politics was far more than mobilization strategies and fear mongering, or pandering speeches in a quest for personal power. Instead, it quite literally represented the collective dream of the nation. Democratic politics, in short, was for Lincoln and Roosevelt the vehicle by which a free people’s hopes could be articulated, realized and preserved. In this vital sense, democracy, rightly practiced, is inevitably and ineluctably a deeply moral undertaking.

Consider, in sharp contrast to this conception, the following examples from the current GOP nomination race and politics. In recent days, Donald Trump has seen fit to lecture Pope Francis that Trump’s disparaging treatment of immigrants and those of the Islamic faith in fact qualifies him as quite “Christian,” despite two thousand years of that faith’s teaching to the contrary. In particular, Trump defended his promise to have the Mexican government build a wall to prevent ‘rapists’ from that nation’s citizenry from coming to the United States to take American jobs and attack U.S. women. He likewise contended, in those same remarks that, unlike the current occupant of the White House, he would protect the Christian faith from losing its esteemed place in American culture.

As is typical for this candidate, his comments bore little relationship to reality. First, his observations were and are profoundly antithetical to the faith he professes. Second, there is no evidence of either immigrant hordes taking American jobs, to which he often refers, or to any assault on Christianity in this nation. He may lament changing norms and values in the country, but those are not the product of a sustained public attack on Christianity or any other specific faith tradition. Indeed, as much as anything they reflect a thoroughgoing cultural marketization that his career and personae represent. Furthermore, there is no indication of any companion unwillingness to address the same by President Obama. Unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, or the current Pope for that matter, Trump not only has sought to mislead the American people on these concerns, but to play on their collective restiveness and fear amidst roiling economic and social change and international conflict to gain power. Far from calling for the nation to unite to confront its future challenges, Trump has sought to divide citizens against one another and to exploit their fears while scapegoating a very weak group, in political terms (immigrants), for concerns for which they are not responsible. That he has apparently done this with malice aforethought deepens the moral travesty that his bombast represents.

If anything, Trump has only sharpened the case against him as a decidedly amoral, if not immoral, and anti-Christian (his often professed belief) actor, by his recent repeated calls for a U.S. return to torture. I will not reiterate here all of the arguments against American use of these heinous practices, but will note that the United States is signatory to a major treaty banning them, that they are antithetical to our Constitution and tradition, and that they contravene the most basic tenets of Trump’s supposed faith and of democracy. It is difficult to view his remarks concerning torture as anything other than an obvious, ugly and patently cynical attempt to signal to voters that he will be “tough” on terrorism. There are many ways to take such a position without undermining human rights and freedom, but Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, among the remaining GOP nomination seekers, have taken this approach, even as Trump hypocritically invokes God and the greatness of the nation at each campaign stop at which he calls nonetheless for torture.

Perhaps the example that best illustrates how far the current Republican Party contenders and leaders have strayed from an interest in preserving the regime’s moral legitimacy and in pursuing the common good, however, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement a little more than an hour after news of Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, that he would work to ensure that the Senate would not consider any nominee the President might send forward to replace the justice, as the Constitution requires. Indeed, McConnell went further to suggest that the President not nominate anyone and leave the seat vacant until after the November 2016 election and transition, implying that the post would be open for more than a year. The Majority Leader’s declaration and suggestion are obviously partisan and just as clearly counter to the Constitution’s requirements. It is unclear whether McConnell can actually make this position reality, as the President has announced his intention to nominate an individual for consideration, which will make it difficult for Senators not to go on record in favor of this transparent ploy to circumvent the Constitution. Whatever else might be said, it is clear that the Senate Majority Leader had nothing more in view than party politics and in retaining his own role as a leader in taking this stance. Here is how author Alec MacGillis has described the Senator’s orientation in a recent insightful analysis:

There was an obvious cost to this approach [to implacably oppose anything President Obama proposed throughout his Presidency]. Withholding any support for President Obama’s agenda meant giving up the chance for more policy concessions on big issues like health care and financial reform. But for Mr. McConnell, shaping policy wasn’t the goal. Winning was. When he said, notoriously, just before the 2010 election that ‘the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,’ it was less an expression of personal animosity than it was a simple reflection of the permanent campaign ethos.[3]

In short, each of these examples capture a party and its leaders that, far from demonstrating an interest in the continuing legitimacy and efficacy of the regime they would serve or are serving, instead practice costly, demeaning and divisive politics for the sake of gaining and retaining power at any price. For the three GOP leaders cited, the cost of this orientation has included deliberately misleading voters, sacrificing common claim and governance legitimacy for partisan gain, and adopting positions plainly at odds with human rights and the Constitution. It is hardly news to report that democratic leaders have historically often been tempted to exploit human frailty in the electoral process, but this nation can ill afford one of its primary parties not only embracing a share of its leaders adopting such practices, but going further to institutionalize such aspirations and to practice them with impunity, irrespective of their implications for governance and for their regime.

The current moment in this electoral cycle illustrates afresh the axiom that a free nation cannot endure if its leaders forget that they serve the moral claim of human rights, freedom and the common interests of all of their country’s citizens, whatever their partisanship. Our present politics suggests the Republican Party’s leaders now run a real risk of forgetting that elemental imperative. The end result of such occurring can only be negative for freedom, and for the Union that Lincoln and Roosevelt so powerfully evoked and served.

 

Notes  

[1] Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm Accessed, February 21, 2016.

[2] Roosevelt, Franklin D. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/ Accessed, February 21, 2016.

[3] MacGillis, Alec. “Why is Mitch McConnell Picking this fight?” The New York Times, February 21, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/opinion/sunday/why-is-mitch-mcconnell-picking-this-fight.html?nlid=40087534&src=recpb Accessed February 21, 2016.