There is perhaps nothing so indicative of an increasingly oligarchic trend in government as language from politicians signaling their actions are oriented around what is most convenient to others of their ranks.
By way of example, a recent story in Roll Call detailed how, in the waning hours before the government shutdown took effect, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) attempted to broker a three-week stop-gap spending measure.
Though one might hope his motivation was some respect for citizens, who deserve a Congress that seriously deliberates political solutions in context of whether they respect civil liberties and doesn’t try to strong-arm minorities in Congress by offering policies amenable to their central tenets, Graham was actually preoccupied with how a subsequent shutdown showdown would impact Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
From Roll Call’s article:
“I don’t believe it’s fair to [Trump] to have the CR run out the day before his speech,” Graham told reporters. “He doesn’t need to worry about that when he addresses the nation.”
From a purely political standpoint, Graham’s concern is valid. It would be disastrous, particularly for a president as undisciplined as Trump, to have the shadows of Congressional dysfunction hanging like a veil over his speech. The current divisions between various Republican caucuses, as well as those between Democrats and Republicans, hearken to similar rifts that ultimately derailed healthcare reform and seemed temporarily poised to destroy the tax bill. As the all-important midterm elections approach, this is precisely the kind of imaging the right needs to avoid if it wants to maintain its exclusive hold on power.
At the same time, however, sentiments such as Graham’s smack of oligarchic sympathies. What are in-the-moment inconveniences to political leaders in contrast to the protracted impotence of government’s law-making organs? It is not that the partial shutdown of the government impacts citizens in any meaningful way, but that the attitudes taken by those doing the deal-brokering speak of a culture of passivity and callousness where respect for civil liberties are concerned.
Regardless of whether one believes DACA or CHIP are beneficial policies or whether they are within the purview of Congress, they deserve serious debate on their merits; they should not be used as bribes or cudgels in an effort to force the partisan other to come along, particularly when the deal Congress is attempting to broker is only another in a seemingly unending chain of stop-gap continuing resolutions.
When Congress acts in such a way, when it displays contempt for the effect its actions have on the long-term welfare and interests of citizens at the same time it wrings its hands about the impact of a political calamity entirely of its own making on its public perception, it’s easy to understand why so many believe government is dysfunctional.
No one likes politicians; there is a pretty universally accepted archetype of the politician as a self-serving liar who’ll coo and preen and adopt just about any position to get their way. And the rhetoric of shutdowns certainly doesn’t do anything to dispel this stereotype, particularly when the parties make debate not about long-term fiscal wellbeing but pet issues. Now, intransigence in politicians when rooted in principle is surely a boon to efficacy. The problem is, this is an absolute and the rhetoric of shutdowns is entirely relativistic. If Ted Cruz’s actions in 2013 were positive, Republicans ought to respect the Democrats’ refusal to budge over DACA. Minority government is in large part about forcing government to slow down and deliberate. Conversely, Democrats who descried Ted Cruz’s behavior as contrary to the spirit of compromise necessary to democratic legislating cannot now paint their own stubbornness in a positive light.
So what’s the solution to this cavalcade of moralizing orations? Quite simply: the divorcement of politics and ideology. This might seem odd, as the two are generally conflated. But, properly considered, ideology should be nothing more than a statement of personal beliefs; it should not be tantamount to a set of actions. Rather, it should inform action.
Certain natural rights philosophers, namely Thomas Jefferson, recognized that, if government was to function, the sort of acrimonious attitude the public now holds towards its public officials could not exist. Harmony between politicians and constituents needed to exist. Jefferson’s answer to this effectively took politics out of the equation by making rulers and the ruled one and the same entity. His particular view of republicanism, which espouses a hyper-localized form of federalism, removes the warring drift of partisanship from politics by making the standard of government the successful securing of rights. It does this by making citizens governors of themselves and their communities through direct and participatory local democracy. When politicians are your friends and neighbors, political ideology is a much less important litmus test; good-faith negotiators who work towards solutions to public problems in ways that do not infringe on those with disparate viewpoints become desirous.
When politics is national, when it is removed from the localities affected by various legislative actions, the people not only become disinterested, but rulers become emboldened, and, worse, oligarchic. Politics is fused with ideology not as it should be–as a reflection of a set of ideals– but as an ideology of us-versus-them partisan gain. A rift between ruling and ruler begins to form; even the actions politicians take on behalf of the nation become tinged with gain. One need only look at the current shutdown rhetoric to see this: the fiscal future of the nation is not even part of the conversation. The question is which party’s clinging to policy prerogatives can more convincingly be spun as worthy of support. Each party is interested in strong-arming the other into compliance; this is about power, not merit. This is the inevitable end of federal expansionism.
The alternative, to make government hyper-local, may seem impractical, but consider the alternative. Is the hyper-federal system practical or efficacious?
Also published on Medium.