Fearful Politics
By A.D. Freudenheim  

21 August 2005

American politics are a mess, but no one has yet figured out how to straighten them out. It is not just the mess of pork-laden energy and transportation bills, bad as those are. Or the mess that comes from thousands of lobbyists meddling with the political process on behalf of those with the financial heft to pay them, bad as those problems are, too. Instead, the American political mess stems from a fundamental mis-alignment of aims and beliefs, much of which is mired in parties, and alliances, that have changed too little in nearly 40 years, and perhaps longer. The world has changed, interests and “special interest” groups have grown, but the nation is still largely subject to the whims of two (theoretically-opposed) parties.

A number of issues reveal how confused we are as a nation, and of these, few are as powerful – politically or emotionally – as our long-standing muddle about “preserving” life, which typically pits elusive rights to privacy against spuriously-imposed “moral” judgments. On a political level, this has long allied (evangelical Christian) anti-abortionists with (evangelical Christian) pro-death penalty advocates, against the combined group of “pro-choice,” anti-death penalty voters. Each side has their own set of justifications for their positions, none of them particularly well-grounded (at least, by the logic of facts). For example, the anti-abortionists often root their “moral” perspective in the bible and the Constitution; but the bible permits many things to which these same people would be opposed (such as polygamy and slavery; see also this internet classic, posted on Snopes.com), while calling for activities most Americans shun, such as a devout observance of the sabbath. The bible does call life sacred any number of times, but it makes no explicit mention of abortion at all; neither does the Constitution. Perspectives on these issues are essentially interpretive. Similarly, death penalty advocates often base their perspectives on the bible and the Constitution, where the same issues of biblical and Constitutional restriction and permissiveness apply: the bible strongly suggests an endorsement of capital punishment (though one wonders about this, in the context of Christianity and the punishment applied to Jesus himself), while the Constitution is, again, mum on the subject.

Yet if we are to interpret the Constitution far enough to outlaw abortion and permit the death penalty – for, in fact, under a conservative, non-activist interpretation the starting position of Constitutional law should have been to allow each state to permit or restrict abortion and the death penalty as they see fit; these issues are outside of Federal jurisdiction – why then can we not interpret it further to allow state-by-state decisions about the use of medical marijuana? Medical marijuana, however, was recently deemed by the Supreme Court to be contrary to Federal law, on the basis of violating so-called “commerce clause” of the Constitution. This same clause is called into action to justify a range of Federal controls over state actions.

Conversely, why are anti-death penalty people pushing for a nation-wide ban on that practice, while their pro-choice allies are largely satisfied with a Federal decision that allows state-by-state restrictions to abortion, based on community norms? Again, the Constitution refers to neither practice. The “pro-choice” crowd bases their beliefs in a right to privacy (as does the Roe v. Wade decision), which also does not explicitly exist in the Constitution in this context, while claiming that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual,” and therefore prohibited. (As if abortion were not also “cruel and unusual,” for the woman no less than the fetus – regardless of whether one considers the fetus to have the status of an individual.) And again, looking back to other, biblically-sanctioned practices: these same people would be similarly opposed to efforts to legalize polygamy, even as many of them believe that homosexuals should have the right to marry. Are the two things analogous? Maybe, maybe not.


The opposing moral and legal philosophies underlying these two issues reflect a frustration with the American political process, and the tension between a (perhaps necessary) Federal structure with oversight for a massive nation in terms of landmass and population, and the essentially small-town or neighborhood-driven nature of most norms and values. The same communities that are often frustrated with the size and imposing elements of the Federal government – e.g., in permitting abortion (the judicial branch); or in restricting access to guns (the legislative branch); or in calling up reserve service personnel (the executive branch) – are often those that seek solace in Federal decisions (e.g., trying to secure a Constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage), rely on Federal largess (e.g., Social Security payments or farm subsidies, both paid out of Federal tax revenues), and have supported aggressive Federal power (e.g., George Bush’s war in Iraq) as applied to other people.

These people are often called “conservatives,” though the label is weak and imprecise; many are religious, and therefore socially conservative, but (in practice) inclined towards whatever fiscal position sounds best, while opposing many social changes simply because they fear them. Many American conservatives also preach a mantra of “smaller government,” for any number of reasons – most having to do with the belief that this will give them great control over community morals and norms – but are not above accepting help from the Federal government when it seems beneficial. For instance, some American conservatives want the Federal estate tax and income tax repealed, but they are happy for their communities to receive as much Federal support as possible for roads and other infrastructure or energy projects, without concern as to where or how those Federal funds are generated. In fact, they are like most people: they will take money that is given to them without asking too many questions. Conservatives consider Federal involvement in social policy to be an over-reaching of legitimate powers, yet, as noted above, when it suits their purposes would be happy for Federal authorities to ban formally any behavior with which they take issue – even if the behavior is not formally a matter of Constitutional law. The rise of the neo-cons, and their current strength within the Republican party, is indicative of the confusion and limitations of our two-party system.

Similarly, the liberals (also a weak and imprecise label; certainly, they tend not to be “liberal” in the full, Locke-ian sense of the term) have relied on Federal power to support their interests ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Often, they have had their way, and often, that has been to the benefit of the country as a whole. Programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a Federally-mandated minimum wage – while expensive, complicated, and in need of change – have helped sustain numerous low-income families in the U.S.; laws from the Civil Rights Act, Voting Act, and decisions about Title IX laws regarding equality for women have all helped improve the quality of America by strengthening the implied and accepted freedoms of our citizens.

However, the liberals, much like the conservatives, are fickle: they believe in change, but only some change; and they believe in government, but only when it makes the right decisions. Therefore, American liberals have tended to fear local and state governments, seeking change through the Federal superstructure, although there is no logical reason why this should be the best approach. Perhaps this has its roots in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which began as a series of actions and protests within specific communities, but evolved into a movement for Federal redress; or perhaps this is because liberals find it difficult to base their belief in change in anything “moral” (true religious liberals being all too rare), and so winning “converts” at the local level is more challenging than “proving” a flaw in the legal order through the Federal courts and Congress. It may be simply that for much of the 20th century, Federal politics have been dominated by liberals, while state and local politics have tended towards the conservative – thus, the best outlet for any liberal action has been Federal.[1] That said, the American left has more recently taken the initiative at the local level, particularly in the fight for gay marriage. From San Francisco to upstate New York to Massachusetts, the battle for equal marriage rights is being waged locally – and there is a palpable sense of fear that at a national level, the likelihood exists for limitations on marriage only to grow stronger – even though, yet again, the U.S. Constitution says nothing about this subject at all.

As with so much political activity, then, the actions and beliefs of the conservatives and liberals often come down to opportunism: where and how can they most effectively achieve their aims, and what aims are best within that specific context. But opportunism as a political philosophy is extremely limiting, leading to short-term decisions with long-term impact – and forcing a continuing series of struggles over political party leadership because the issue-of-the-day continues to change. Instead of being fearful of the growth of American political perspectives, we should embrace this diversity; more parties can lead to more active political voices, and to a more thoughtful and thorough public debate of important issues. Instead of shying away from one set of power structures or another, instead of retreating behind lobbyists or large-scale ad campaigns, or financial power-brokers, American politics would improve with a more effective opportunity for real dialog, for real openness and debate, of which there is precious little.

[1] The series of court cases, legislative actions, and local protests over gay marriage in the last few years are a counter-point to this tradition. Instead of seeking a “gay marriage” law through the conservative, Bush-dominated Federal system, advocates have fought a series of battles within the states – forcing the conservatives to look for Federal redress.   Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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