The Rise of the Pubic Police

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            Serious students of American politics understand that the United States is confronted with a number of domestic problems that have imperiled the "American Dream." They range from a dysfunctional political system that has been largely purchased by the I%, to extreme economic inequality, a miserly social safety network, crumbling infrastructure, banks too big to fail, rampant gun violence, and severe weather episodes caused by climate change, to name only a few.

 

           

 

            In this election year, however, not even one of those concerns have been addressed by the leaders of the Republican Party or by any of its presidential candidates. Instead, the GOP establishment continues to march in lock-step with Ronald Reagan's nonsensical argument that government is the problem and not the answer, and that reducing burdensome government  regulations will expand the freedom of all Americans to make personal decisions in their own best interests. Notably missing from discussions of that received article of faith is any recognition of Isaiah Berlin's observation that "freedom for the wolves has often meant death for the sheep." 


            In the past two years, GOP legislators in Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Mississippi have introduced and supported sweeping and intrusive legislation that would require transgender people, under the penalties of prosecution, to use public bathrooms that are consonant with the biological sexual identity with which they were born. In the face of strong opposition - particularly from corporations - GOP Governors in Georgia and Indiana reluctantly vetoed the proposed legislation  Still undeterred, GOP state legislators in Tennessee, Kansas, South Carolina and Minnesota are now trying to enact similar legislation in their states.

 

            In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory signed into law legislation that became effective April 1 st.. The statute in North Carolina, besides regulating the use of public restrooms,   bans all common law actions that raise claims of discrimination based upon age, sex, race, sexual orientation or disability. 

 

            "I do believe in our high schools, in our middle schools, in our universities, we should continue to have the tradition that we've been having in this country for years. And we have a women's facility and a men's facility. You know, it's worked out pretty well. And I don't think we need any further government interference," Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said on "Meet the Press." 

 

            In Mississippi, GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed a law last month that allows government employees to refuse to issue marriage licenses or perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples and that allows businesses and faith-based groups to deny housing, jobs and adoption and foster-care services to people based on their sexual orientation. The bill overwhelmingly passed the Mississippi House by an 85-24 vote and by a vote of 31-17 in the Senate. 

 

            Among Democratic legislators who opposed the bill, Democratic Senator John Horhn insisted that the bill was inherently discriminatory and he urged his GOP colleagues to examine their consciences and to show empathy. "I have experienced discrimination, as many African Americans have - can't you see how this legislation might be seen as discriminatory?" he asked.

 

            The GOP supporters of Mississippi's self-styled "Religious Liberty Accommodations Act" claim that the act is meant to protect people, businesses, and organizations with "sincerely held" religious beliefs about the sanctity of traditional marriage. The newly-enacted law also proclaims that gender is determined by "an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth."

 

            Last month also, Indiana GOP Governor Mike Pence, after having cravenly capitulated to corporate pressure over the transgender legislation, signed into law a bill that made Indiana the second state in the nation to ban abortion because of a fetal abnormality. The measure also criminalizes the procedure when motivated solely because of factors such as the fetus's sex or race. Pence described the law as a "comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of all human life" in a statement.

 

            The head of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky condemned the bill. "It is clear the governor is more comfortable practicing medicine without a license than behaving a responsible lawyer, as he picks and chooses which constitutional rights are appropriate," Betty Cockrum said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

 

            NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports that, "North Dakota was the first state to pass such a ban, in 2013, although abortion providers say it's difficult to enforce. The law depends on a woman declaring the anomaly as her reason to abort. Indiana's law is much more expansive since it also bans abortion based on race, sex, national origin, ancestry and color." In addition, the bill holds doctors legally liable for such abortions. Additionally, according to The New York Times "the law restricts fetal tissue donation and requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital or to have an agreement with a doctor who does."

 

             How then does one reconcile the paradox?  If, as the GOP contends, government minimalism in all levels of economic and social life is the antidote to what ails the United States, why then should any of the fifty states be given carte blanche to intrude into the pelvises, uteri  and vaginas of every American man and women?

 

            Part of the answer to that paradox may be found in this country's legacy of extreme individualism. Well documented by Harvard University's Robert Puttnam and by other researchers, the effects of that legacy have exacerbated a sense of social isolation, fear, and vulnerability among many Americans and contributed to a precipitous dease in community and civic involvement.

 

            In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm noted that as "the individual became more alone, isolated, became an instrument in the hands of overwhelmingly strong forces outside himself; he became an 'individual' but a bewildered and insecure individual." The result, as Fromm put it, is the temptation for the self to surrender its autonomy "to give up his freedom, to try to overcome his aloneness, to eliminate the gap which has arisen between the individual and the world." Hence, the danger increases that, as individuals feel more alone, more isolated, more alienated, and more vulnerable, they will succumb to the blandishments of demagogues and snake-oil salesmen who are only able to wield power by appeals to divisive wedge issues that play upon our innermost anxieties, worries and prejudices.

 

            The attendant fear, that forces more powerful than the self pose a greater threat to personal autonomy, may, in large part, explain the anger, frustration, and vitriol first exemplified by the Tea Party movement, that first came to prominence in the summer of 2009 and which continues to dominate political discourse to the present. It is also a truism that bewildered and insecure individuals are easily manipulated.

           

            So long as ordinary Americans remain collectively fearful, distracted, incensed by social issues that have no relevance whatsoever to the their unmet needs, and persuaded that they are powerless to change the status quo, those who control the levers of American economic and political power will continue to shape the narrative and control the outcomes of public policy debates.

Soiled Politics

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           The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community that is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with the  American political tradition. Aristotle taught that "man...is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low on the scale of humanity or above it...inasmuch as he resembles an isolated piece at draughts..."



            In fact, the root of the English word civilization is derived from the Latin civitas. The Roman notion of the civitas was endowed with the same mystical meaning which the Greeks attributed to the polis: As a member of the civitas, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed that a man fulfilled himself and achieved his destiny - which was to discharge his responsibilities in the life of the republic - as a citizen. Through the civitas, therefore, one became a sociable, functioning human being and thus distinguished oneself from lower forms of life or from barbarians, who because of their lack of knowledge of politics could not create political institutions which would enable them to emerge from their servile state.

          Because the classical conservative tradition emphasized obligation as a correlative of right and insisted that citizenship required conscious and willing deliberation and participation in the political process, it was not uncommon that all of the male citizens of ancient Athens often spent days as members of the Assembly deliberating issues of war and peace and the merits of proposed laws. 

            More than two millennia later, here in the twenty-first century United States, notions about politics, citizenship and the obligations of citizens in an ostensibly democratic society stand in stark contrast to the ideas of the ancients. In 2004, a mere 55.7% of this country's citizens were able to find the time or summon the effort to even cast a vote in the presidential election. In the  2008, the number of U.S. voters increased only slightly to 57.1%, but decreased again in 2012 to a only 54.9% of the citizens eligible to vote. The numbers were even worse in the two most recent off-year Senate and Congressional elections: 36.4 % cast votes in 2014; that figure was down from the 37.8 % of voters who cast ballots in  2010. Voter turnout in the United States was thus among the lowest in the developed world.

          As a result of the failure of young voters, women and minorities to vote in those off year elections, the control of the United States Senate and House of Representatives reverted to the GOP. At the state level, the figures were even more daunting: Republicans were able to gain control of both the governorships and legislatures in 24 states; 70 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers were now controlled by the GOP; both chambers of the legislatures became  GOP controlled in 30 states; and 31 GOP governors were elected across the country.

           The indifference of so many Americans to the political process only underscores the observation that politics - whether through active participation or abstention - has consequences. President Obama and the Democratic Party platform on which he was originally elected have been essentially neutered during the last six years of his presidency while the GOP has been empowered to wage unremitting war at the state and federal level against women, the LGBT community, minorities, the poor, labor unions, voting rights, regulatory reform, student debt, economic inequality, climate change and a host of other issues.
  
          Compounding low voter turnouts, a recent Gallup poll reports that 43% of those Americans who are registered to vote have declared themselves be Independent or unenrolled. The effect of that decision is that these unenrolled voters are unable to participate in the formulation of party platforms and issues. In addition, because they are unwilling to participate in party politics at the ward, county and state levels, they have ceded the power to choose candidates for public office and to advocate for policies to those voters who are enrolled and do participate actively in either of the two political parties.

          There are a number of plausible explanations for the current gridlock and dysfunction that characterize current American politics. Undoubtedly, the torrent of private money unleashed  by the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, the suppression of voting rights, and the continued success of wedge issues to divide a very low information and distracted electorate have all contributed to the trivialization of U.S. politics. So, too, has the disappearance of journalism as a serious, independent profession and its replacement by pundits and talking heads who endlessly prattle on about who is up or down without any effort to seriously analyze the underlying issues. But they bare only a share of the responsibility.
 
           The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maintain, echoing Thomas Aquinas, argued that  that  "the primary purpose of which men, united in political society, need the State is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the critical need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

           Social justice can never be achieved in apolitical culture where voters are so preoccupied with their own private needs and the acquisition and accumulation of things that they are unable to find any time to participate in the political process. U.S. politics - as exemplified by the current GOP Presidential campaigns - has devolved into to a food fight that is devoid or substance or any acknowledgment of the real problems that bedevil this country. 

           Americans who refuse to perform their civic duty to become informed about the issues and to actively participate in the political process have no one to blame but themselves.

Why Bernie Sanders Is a Moderate

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           In this Sunday's "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe, Jonathan Schlefer  wonders whether Bernie Sander's ideas are unpalatable to a majority of American voters because of the residual  liberalism that is embedded in the American ethos. He invokes Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, for the proposition that our politics are derived almost wholly from the classical liberalism of John Locke.