The best of sovereign nations evolve institutions and laws to provide their citizens tranquility, via order, security, liberty, justice, and opportunity. Order means ensuring predictable outcomes. Security means ensuring outcomes that do no harm. Liberty means ensuring outcomes that do not infringe on a citizen’s lawful freedom of activity. Justice means ensuring equal outcomes for all citizens under the rule of law. Opportunity means ensuring equal access for all to the resources for wealth creation.
Here we will report on American governance. America, a republic, numbers among such sovereign nations. Governance is the process by which such States carry out these promises to their citizens. Competent governance depends on the quality in the State’s institutions and laws, measured by the degree to which the citizens place their trust in these institutions and laws, a product of the degree to which citizens are enabled to participate in institution-building and lawmaking. Politics is the term we assign to such citizen participation.
We derive the bulk of our laws from our heritage, our common law (aka case law). Common law is created bottom-up via the judiciary over the generations. Common laws are mostly congruent with the traditional customs of the culture from which the State is born. Common law depends on setting and obeying a hierarchy of precedents, to ensure justice in the form of predictable legal outcomes. American common law derives, via our English heritage, from English common law, except as restricted by our Constitution (and excepting Louisiana). Our common law is unwieldy for its bulk, so it has been codified to facilitate access to appropriate precedent.
America has a dual judicial system, one for the federal government, and other at the level of the states. The Federal judiciary only deals with law in areas explicitly assigned to it by our Constitution. All other matters are adjudicated in the state having jurisdiction. Our legal system has six levels of hierarchy. For both the federal and state judiciaries, there is a three-level hierarchy consisting of lower courts, appeals courts, and a Supreme Court. State law must be congruent with federal law and with our Constitution.
Our representative form of government, via its legislatures, enacts federal and state statutory laws. Taken in total, the law of our land consists of our hierarchy of case law and statutory law. Politics provides the means for citizens to influence and effect governance policy and the laws of the State. While case law is influenced mainly by history, judges are selected directly or indirectly by the citizens, and their judicial interpretations can effect shadings of case law. Statutory laws are directly provided by citizen-selected legislators, a more direct and visible arena for politics. Government expenditures and revenues are controlled in this venue, making it of great political import. The federal legislature is even the gestation place for our wars. (But that’s a subject for another discourse.)
Atop our entire system sits a chief executive. This office of President is the ultimate political prize, for the executive sets our course via policy decisions, the power to appoint federal justices, and the power to accept or reject federal statutes. Similarly, each state has the office of Governor as its main political prize.
Our politics is concerned with preservation of our blessings, guaranteed to us in the Preamble to our Constitution: union, liberty, justice, tranquility, welfare. Whatever our voting decisions, we should first ensure in our hearts that our vote will do no harm to the guarantee of these blessings we enjoy. Of these blessings, our common welfare is by far the most open-ended and most divisive promise we have made to ourselves. Much of politics deals with finding a common definition of our common welfare and a unified approach to ensuring it.
One area where our founder’s explicit promises to citizens were remiss concerns the very definition of republic. Republic derives from Latin res publica; in English, the term commonwealth means the same. By our foundational conceit, the land and its bounty belongs to the people. And early in our history, our government did a competent job of making our lands available for public ownership to all who were willing to live on the land.
But our governance has been since lax on this point. Extraction industries have absconded with great wealth from the land, at considerable harm to the land, with little or no return to the people. Leaders of these industries, together with our traditional financial barons, our de facto royalty, have historically been strong in buying influence to preserve their exclusive rights to commonwealth riches. This is the true wealth re-distribution of our history, the concentration of much of the entire citizenry’s common wealth in the hands of a few, our robber barons.
One may think of ideal politics as a debate, some refined discourse to determine a set of future actions according to logical persuasion. We operate ever further below such a lofty ideal. But we do drop an occasional ‘debate’ into our political campaigns. Their value is mainly to help us determine if any of the proferred proxies can express even a single coherent thought on a subject. Rarely are we pleasantly surprised by the outcome, which is both startling and no big surprise, since the debates are largely scripted according to their team’s vacuous talking points.
The scope of American politics is increasingly national. Our sense of identity with Union grows stronger every decade. Our new reality is increasingly global and complex, and thus our federal government expands in scope; only it has the resources to cope with the new global forces and ensure our continued hegemony in a shrinking global environment dominated by a few big players with conflicting ambitions, further rendered unstable by chaos-seeking non-State actors and a multitude of marginalized and failing States.
In the good old days, it was said ‘all politics is local’, and that was mostly a good thing. And it is still the only route to influence for minority positions. Minds and hearts must be won at the local levels to build a voting block capable of winning larger elections. Some of these battles are fought over what should be taught to children, since that is where true converts can be created.
The practice of American politics has always been unruly, unethical, unclean. It is a no-holds-barred fight to the finish by two teams, generally in a winner-take-all environment. Our politicians are our civil warriors, our proxies in the constant battle to win over other hearts and minds, and so to collect enough like minds that our team wins. In the resulting war of words, our discourse has been almost entirely directed toward the debasing of opposing proxy warriors, belittling their experience, their competence, their ethics, their entanglements, smearing them with inuendo. There is increasingly little discussion of the underlying issues, the invisible prizes of these political wars.
While American politics has always been theater, it has recently descended to an unrepentant media farce played out on a national stage. Yet I am optimistic that we will rise above this distractive, staged noise and in doing so, better identify the manipulative powers at work behind the stage. Those phantoms of our modern political farce, the puppet masters, are motivated by the deadly sins of arrogance, avarice, power lust, and privilege. The ill-gotten spoils then feed the greed of our proxy warriors, our elected representatives and their staffs.
Our system of checks and balances has little defense against the payoffs of the deadly sinners, for our proxy agents are beholden to the most sinful players, and these very agents are the ones who write the rules. Further, when they retire from writing the rules, they go directly on the payrolls of the power brokers, to extend their influence over the next generation of rules makers. We await a white knight of the people (we used to call them newspapers) to out the back room boys, the phantom big-money players, from behind their cloaks of anonymity and phalanx of operatives. Then, voters might have a chance to ensure their candidates have not been tainted by payoffs (campaign contributions).
Buying votes by giving something away is always in vogue. But it is even better to promise something in a vague, abstract guise where no payoff will ever be required. The passive and cynical terms trickle-down and trickle-up are frequently bandied about to suggest the average voter might be getting some small access to the public trough. But those in the know understand that the only spoils of this war are won in political battle and carried from the field to be presented to the power brokers behind the scenes. Trickle through our hands is more like it.
Although politics as usual has been our long experience, the forces for change (not for the better) are gathering at the gate. Money and media are hardly new agents, but their inflationary spiral is taking the political fray to dazzling new heights of corruption. What is new is micro-targeting and psychological manipulation, adding a layer of sophistication to the rather blunt instruments employed until now.
While we think we exercise freedom of choice, we are increasingly being herded into two tribes, the blue team and the red team. The herd dog is increasingly cable and social media, playing on our basic need to belong to a group, the larger the better. Previously, these opposed voting blocks were called the left and the right, terms derived from the relative seating positions of similar blocks in the French legislative body in 1789. Not much has changed. At the time of the French revolution, the left comprised advocates for the republic, the common man, and a secular society; the right comprised supporters of the Monarchy, the Aristocracy, and the Church. Replace Monarchy with Oligarchy and one sees not much has changed in the intervening 225 years.
The prizes to be won are increasingly abstracted out of our view as the persuasion becomes ever more emotional and less rational. The polarizing media bombard their faithful with confabulations of their most extreme viewpoints, called the Narrative. Initially, the propagandists who create the Narrative are fully aware of its deceptive nature. But those who later embrace the Narrative as their mantra do not recognize its venal origins.
The Narrative is a facts-be-damned truthiness conduit, re-scripting reality in terms that bring ecstasy to its true believers. The result is divided, dysfunctional governance, substituting jingoism and platitudinous pap for rational discourse. This distinguishes older politics as usual from today’s politics. Before, campaigns mostly consisted of bald, ad hominem smear attacks. Now such smears are embedded as sound bites in the larger holy-war Narrative.
This inflation of the terms of battle also inflates the outcomes. The contest loser is no longer just disappointed and encouraged to work harder and smarter next time. The losers are emotionally crushed, despondent, laid low by demons, their entire reason for existence nullified. As an example of such despondence, it was recently reported that an Arizona woman ran her husband over with their car because he failed to vote and their red team lost the election. I can only wonder how apoplectic she would have become if he had voted blue. Then we hear that a Florida man committed suicide because his red team lost. So far, the reds are harming each other and not the blues, but the worst is perhaps yet to come.
One can further hope that a few of these hyper-inflated election cycles will be enough to convince the electorate that this is no way to decide the best interests of a state or nation. Rational discourse is sorely needed. From my side, the NY Times and PBS point us in the right direction. Sadly it appears, the red side only has taste for their own truthiness conduits. Until reason can prevail, I hope my team will continue to be successful in using its persuasion toolkit to get out the vote.