November 2010 Archives

Why Are American Conservatives Not Conservatives?

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      Today many Americans --including would-be members of the Tea Party and almost all who identify themselves as members of the Republican Party  -- insist upon describing themselves as conservatives, even though the core values that they profess, in fact, owe their debt more to the liberalism of John Locke rather than to the political ideas of Thomas Aquinas or Edmund Burke. Ironically, those whom these self-described conservatives often derisively dismiss as liberals are those who generally share the same commitment to Locke's ideas and his political legacy as they, although they may differ about specific policy prescriptions and the proper role of government. This confusion is so pervasive that Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush and his father, to cite recent examples, are invariably described as conservatives, although each of these individuals have expressed political ideas that have little in common with the tradition of conservatism as a political philosophy.
    By contrast, conservatism as a political philosophy has been exemplified by a set of values and ideas that have been transmitted down through the centuries of Western intellectual history since the time of Aristotle. One wonders, for example, what kind of sense Russ Limbaugh, George Will or other contemporary, self-proclaimed American conservatives would make of the following statements by Eric Vogelein in his book, The New Science of Politics:
   " The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of  
     politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history."


     "A political society [is]....a cosmion illuminated from within...the cosmion has its
     inner realm of meaning; but this realm exists tangibly in the external world in        
      human beings who have bodies through their bodies participate in the organic and
      inorganic externality of the world. A political society can dissolve not only through
      the disintegration of the beliefs that make it an acting unit in history; it can also be
      destroyed through the dispersion of its members in such manner that
      communication between them becomes physically impossible..."

    Prior to the Renaissance and Reformation, the politics of the Western world was governed by traditional ideas about the nature of man and society. These ideas were, at root, the provenance of the ancient Greeks and Romans and were subsequently nurtured and elaborated upon over a millennia by prominent Catholic thinkers, most especially St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. For Plato, who was Aristotle's teacher, knowledge of the Form of the Good was the ultimate object of dialectical inquiry and was the apogee of knowledge. "What sort of knowledge is there which would draw the soul from becoming to being? Plato asked, and he answered. "Until the person is able to abstract and define rationally the idea of the good...he apprehends only shadows." For St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas knowledge of the Form of the Good was identical to knowledge of God Himself and of His eternal law.

    In contrast to later philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, who developed an epistemology based entirely upon sensory perceptions and inputs, the ancients as well as the Medieval Catholic scholars were persuaded that the body and its senses were impediments to the acquisition of true knowledge; that knowledge, which was innate, was "discovered"or apprehended by rational reflection and discussion which, to use Plato's metaphor, enabled one to leave the shadows of the Cave and to enter into the sunlight.

    The glue which held the universe together--and which bound each of God's subjects to one another in this Great Chain of Being--was the concept of natural law. The Greeks simply described this set of precepts as Nature--or natural right. This concept of natural law is as old and venerable as Western civilization itself. As Cicero described natural right:

        "There is in fact a true law--namely, right reason--which is in accordance with  
         nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands
         this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it
         restrains them from doing  wrong. Its commands and prohibitions always
         influence good men, but are without effect upon the bad...To invalidate this law
         by human legislation is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict
         its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible."

    As a second core value, the Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community which is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with that the concept of society which most self-styled American "conservatives" accept. Thus, classical conservative political tradition denies that men are mere social atoms, that social and political arrangements are the result of mere contractual arrangements, and that society is merely the aggregate of individuals, each of whom seeks within its confines to maximize his own opportunities. Rather, as Aristotle taught, " 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. In contrast to liberal political philosophy, which questions the state and defends the individual's essential right to be left alone, and to participate or to not participate in the political process, the classical conservative tradition emphasizes obligation as a correlative of right. Thus, its emphasis upon citizenship, of conscious, willing deliberation and participation in the political process, is an essential part of this second core value.

    Because the Greeks insisted that man was essentially a social being, it was also axiomatic that the Greeks argued that the state preceded the existence of individual and that man had never lived in isolation as an individual. In contrast to Hobbes and Locke, Aristotle denied the existence of some mythical state of nature since man was never a solitary being capable of subsistence solely by himself: "...the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to the whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god."

      Expressed in a slightly different way, Miguel de Unamuno, in his Tragic Sense of Life denied that individuals could lead meaningful lives apart from society:

        "Human society, as a society, possesses senses which the individual, but for his
         existence in society, would lack, just as the individual man, who is in turn a kind
         of society, possesses senses lacking in the cells of which he is composed."

Unamuno asserted that the self is an abstraction and he rejects the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. If man is a reasoning being, his ability to reason is incontrovertible evidence that he is a social being:
       "But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of
        society. There is a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an
        abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as
        the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by
        the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the
        individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society,
        springs reason. Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective
        knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product. "

    To the Greeks, the state, as the organized expression of civil society, was a public good rather than something to be feared or reigned in, as liberals later asserted.This is a third core value of the conservative tradition. For Thomas Aquinas as for Augustine, the state is a part of a universal empire of which God is the ruler and maker: "since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must need regard properly the relationship to universal happiness..."

    To Aristotle and the medieval Catholic churchman also, the state (the polis) is an organic entity and not an artificial construct. As a consequence, government was viewed by the ancients and is still viewed today by adherents of the tradition of conservatism as a res publica, a public thing:
         "For what is government except the people's affair. Hence, it is a common affair,
          that is, an affair belonging to a state. And what is a state except a
          considerable number of men brought together in a certain bond of harmony?"

Since the state exists to serve the needs of civil society--and not, as liberals would have it, the needs of the individual--the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations.

     As a fourth core value, the ancients expressed a preference for public discussion, a commitment to understanding and continuing dialogue among citizens, to discover the "truth" of politics. Consistent with the teaching of Aristotle, conservative political philosophy views man as a social being who fulfills himself as a member and participant in political society--i.e. as a citizen. The object of civility is to discern by right reason the proper means to achieve the proper end, i.e. happiness, which, in the realm of politics, is the common good. "Every state is as we see a sort of partnership and every partnership is formed with a view to some good....It is therefore evident that the...partnership which is the most supreme of all...and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association."
    Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs, and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. It was Edmund Burke who contended that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny:
         "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with reverence; because
         it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership
         in  all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of
         such a  partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a
         partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are
         living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."   

    As a fifth core value, Catholic thinkers who followed in the footsteps of Aristotle asserted that, since God endowed each man in His own image and likeness, man became the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and bounty. For that reason the conservative tradition to the present remains deeply skeptical of the liberal arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth.

    Historically, Catholic social doctrine condemned aggrandizement and selfishness. Avitaria (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) were counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins. Because of their commitment to the concept of stewardship and hostility to the venal accumulation of wealth, the polemics in which Spencer and Sumner engaged in the nineteenth century to promote the doctrine of laissez-faire have continued to elicit only incomprehension or condemnation among adherents to this tradition.

     The views of the Catholic thinkers, especially, stand in stark contrast to Locke's views about private property and its individual inviolability: "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need..."

      As a corollary to this core value, Catholic social doctrine to the present emphasizes the importance of good works and Christian example. Charity remains one of the Church's three cardinal virtues. Over the past two millennia, inspired by the teachings of the Stoics, Catholic doctrine has also come to accept the proposition that all of us, as God's children, are entitled to equal worth and dignity of treatment. As Seneca so persuasively put it, "With a magnanimous disposition we have not shut ourselves within the walls of one city, but we have brought ourselves into communication with the whole world and have professed that the world is our native land in order that we may give virtue a wider field."

      Equally important, as a sixth core value, conservative ideology, in contrast to the individualism of Hobbes and Locke and solipsism of David Hume, insists that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum--i.e., the highest good, the ultimate end -- which is synonymous with justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. As Aquinas remarks, quoting Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."

     In addition, Aquinas asserts that, in contrast to the positive laws enacted by legislatures, which can be repealed or suspended, "...Natural law, so far as it contains general precepts, does not allow of dispensation..." Also, he observes that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality, "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

     Lastly, the conservative worldview to the present has consistently emphasized the importance of social stability. Alfred Zimmern, in his book, The Greek Commonwealth, quoted Aeschylus to the effect, "There is no 'Government' in Athens for the people are the government;" however, Zimmern adds, "But though he has no living master, it is not without control. The fifth-century Athenian did not yet know, either in his individual or his corporate life, what it was to live without control. With all the liberty he enjoyed, obedience was still the law of his being."

    Consistent with Plato, the conservative tradition accepts the reality of what politics is, but still seek to find the ideal--the ought--of what politics should be: "By the best political order the classical philosopher understood that political order which is best and everywhere. This does not mean that he conceived of that order as best for every community...But that does mean that the goodness of the political order realized anywhere and at any time can only be judged in terms of that political order which is best absolutely." For that reason, the pursuit of the ought requires prudence as well as wisdom. As Plato admonished, "Men are citizens of the polis, or freemen in it, only if they are wise; their obedience to the law which orders the natural city, to the natural law, is the same thing as prudence."
          Lamentably, since fervent beliefs, no matter how delusional, are permitted to trump knowledge of history and political philosophy in the current American political landscape, it is doubtful that the right-wing zealots who currently speak for American "conservatism" will ever understand that the their politics, at its core, is rooted in the eighteenth century anti-social individualism of John Locke and, hence, has little, if anything, in common with the tradition of conservatism.

      As eighteenth century liberals, the individualistic and anti-social worldview that informs their consciousness forces them to continue to live in the shadows, unable to comprehend that our needs as citizens-- as members  of a political community -- have changed fundamentally during the three centuries that have passed since John Locke's death and the two and a quarter centuries since this republic was founded on Locke's ideas. An ability to focus on the future and a receptivity to new ideas, while still drawing inspiration from the ideas of the past, will serve all of us far better than ritualistic and unthinking invocations of the American Creed.          

What Do We Owe To One Another This Thanksgiving?

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In his inaugural  address on January 30, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the "millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day...I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

         In this, the third year of the Great Recession, more than 14.8 million Americans adults are unemployed, many of whom have been without work for more than a year. At least fifteen million more are underemployed, and others have given up any hopes of gainful employment. These latter have become what Michael Harrington once described as, "The Other America."  In addition, at least fifty million Americans, conservatively estimated, remain without health insurance for themselves and their loved ones.

         A US Department of Housing and Urban Development report noted there were 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless nationwide on a single night in January 2008. Further, about 1.6 million persons used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program during the 12-month period between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008.That number, extrapolated, suggested that at least 1 in every 50 persons in this country needed to use shelter system at some point in that period.  Lastly, the US Department of Agriculture reported last month that, in 2009, 17.4 million U.S. households struggled to get enough food to eat because money and that in more than a third of those households - around one in eight US homes - at least one person did not get enough to eat at some time during the year.

         What caused this misery? The public policies of the Reagan administration and the successor administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 expressed the three verities of classical liberal economic orthodoxy (or, at very least, its libertarian strand): deregulation of business, tax cuts for the wealthy, and free trade that would enable businesses to seek the lowest costs for labor and to pay lowest prices for the purchase of goods and commodities anywhere in the world. Each of these policies was sold to a gullible American public on the basis of sonorous platitudes such as "A rising tide lifts all boats." 

         The cumulative results of these public policies, even before the onset of the recession in 2008, were a disaster for ordinary Americans. Among the thirty countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only the citizens of Mexico, South Korea, and Greece paid less in taxes than did Americans. As a result of Republican-sponsored tax cuts, as of 2006, the richest 1 percent of the U.S. population enjoyed the largest share of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), possibly since 1929, yet their average tax rate declined to its lowest level in at least eighteen years. The United States also ranked near the bottom on spending for social programs: 19 percent of the country's GDP in 2003 as compared to 29 percent in Sweden, 23 percent in Portugal, and almost 30 percent in France.

         What can we do as concerned citizens to address problems of this magnitude? Fifty years ago, in his only inaugural speech, John Kennedy emphasized that "here on earth, God's work must truly be our own." This Thanksgiving, in addition to our giving thanks, we need to reaffirm the conviction that our collective capacity to secure social justice is greater than the sum of reckless individuals and corporations who have chosen to pursue only their short-term, selfish objectives. If we commit ourselves to actively support, and to lobby for, public policies that will re-create the American economy and extend the hand of our government, as the expression of the shared duty to one another, to everyone who is in need, we will thereby  redeem the promise of America.

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When Will The Democrats Show Moral Courage?

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     Aristotle denied that courage, as virtue, was innate. He thought that, like other virtues, courage could be acquired, as a behavior. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argued that "one must not only know what he ought to do but he must also act accordingly."More than two and a half millenia later, Immanual Kant differed with Aristotle's notion about the locus of virtue and he proposed his famous categorical imperative: to act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Kant then defined duty as the necessity to act out of reverence for the moral law set by the categorical imperative.  From those postulates, Kant observed that virtue was "the moral strength of a human being's will in fulfilling his duty." And that one should always, act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

            Despite the differences between these two wise men as to the origin of virtue, there is little doubt that both agreed that courage, particularly moral courage, is among the highest of the virtues. Throughout his writings, Cicero, too, averred that one quality that characterized great leaders was their determination to do that which is right in the face of adversity. In the present, troubled political and economic environment, President Obama and the Democrats need to show that same kind moral courage and to take control of the political narrative on the issues of tax-cuts for the wealthy and on the arms control treaty with Russia ( new START ). 

            First, with respect to the republican proposal to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, it is important to remember that, in 1952, at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, the effective tax rate for corporations was 95%. According to an article in yesterday's Boston Globe, General Electric, while demanding tax cuts form the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, paid $0 dollars in corporate income tax in 2009, citing losses to its domestic operations, and despite posting as profit of $11 billion dollars, from revenues of $157 billion dollars, which included billions of dollars received from the Department of Defense.

             The Bush tax cuts - which the mathematically-challenged Republicans now insist upon keeping - produced a net loss of 1 million jobs in the period from 2002 to 2008. Their continuation, according to the Congressional Budget office, will cost the U.S. treasury a loss of one trillion dollars over the next decade..

            Trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the wealthy will lead only to more out-sourcing of  jobs, and more hunkering-down by the already wealthy. The refusal of our elected officials in Washington to support a second significant stimulus package as a way to spur growth through fiscal policy and to extend unemployed benefits for the long-term unemployed is little short of cowardly.  The Republican's desire to "starve the beast" has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs at the state and local levels. These lay-offs and the inability of   state governments to fund infra-structure has exacerbated the current recession. The actions of Governor Christie of New Jersey - which have been widely applauded by Beltway pundits and other right-wing Republicans - will further reduce New Jersey - and similarly-situated states - to a status as third world banana republics, not unlike Mississippi and Alabama.                                             

            There is something exceedingly obscene about the idea of continuing tax-breaks for millionaires, while the middle class continues to be hollowed out, and while jobs continue to be sent overseas, all in the name of efficiency, lower costs and maximizing short-term profits. All of the dividends of these ill-conceived policies - including our increasingly regressive tax-system - will not inspire growth but, rather, cause further stagnation and poverty.       

            Secondly, the opposition of Republican Senators to immediate ratification of the new START treaty with Russian is incomprehensible. The previous START treaty was allowed to lapse during the last Bush administration. As late as November of 2009, Senator Kyle publicly stated that the failure to complete negotiations and to ratify a new START treaty jeopardized American security. Every living Secretary of State and defense, irrespective of party, has urged that the Senate ratify this treaty. One can only assume that the desire of the Republican leadership to weaken President Obama has taken precedence over common sense and the public interest.  

             Why have we allowed the machinery of our government and the public discourse to be dominated by right-wing zealots who have little knowledge of history, science, economics, or the world outside the borders of our own, increasingly distressed country?

            Our highest court has permitted the promise of America to be plundered by corporations and super-wealthy while we have watched with open eyes. America is no longer the "shining city on the Hill," rather, we may be well on the way to becoming a Clockwork Orange culture in which Thomas Hobbes' dystopia becomes our daily nightmare. One recalls the words of W.B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity....

 Now, indeed, is the time of all good men- and women- to come to the aide of their country. As citizens, we need to insist that our President and the Democratic members of Congress show moral courage, irrespective of the political consequences they might fear to suffer.  

A Veterans Day Message

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          On this Veterans Day, it is important to honor all of our veterans for their service and sacrifices. Many people will not know that, prior to World War II, this day was called Armistice Day - in honor of the "war to end all wars" - World War I. Obviously, that designation was a misnomer.
           As we sit in our comfortable offices and homes today, we should also reflect upon the terrible toll that wars inflict upon a country and its citizens. Today, the United States spends more on defense than any other country, and about five times more than China, which ranks second on the list of major defense spenders . According to a  CNN news report by Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer [Defense spending: Slaying the sacred cow, July 11, 2010 ], at $689 billion this year, "defense spending it accounts for about 20% of the entire federal budget and  it consumes up to 50% of the so-called discretionary budget, which pays for everything but entitlement programs and interest on the debt. In other words, all federal funding for education, infrastructure, transportation, the arts, and scientific research, to name a few."
    We are currently fighting two misbegotten wars in which we are viewed as the invaders and in which we have little prospect of ending soon or achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Economists such Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz predict that these two wars will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

       Since conscription was ended after the Vietnam war,  and the idea of an "all-volunteer" military gained favor, increasingly fewer Americans have been forced to decide, from a very personal perspective, their support for foreign military adventures.  As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of Americans.The growth of the military-industrial  complex about which President Eisenhower warned becomes more ominous.   
    War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Veterans Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.
 Paul Nevins, conscript
United Sates Army, 1968-1970

An Idea Worth Revisiting

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Yesterday's election results persuasively showed that the power of corporations and other monied-interests to influence election results and to ensure the election of pliant office-holders who will do their bidding is a serious threat to American democracy. The existence of checks and balances and divided government the federal level, and of so many porous, overlapping units of government at all levels has already created an appalling lack of accountability. Unfortunately, nothing short of major constitutional changes to our political system- a virtual impossibility given the amendment process - can give us accountable, issue-oriented, transparent government.

   There is, however, a viable strategy which progressives can unite around. The current lame-duck Congress - through legislation - can undo the damage done by the five right-wing ideologues on the Supreme Court who gave us the Citizens United decision. There is nothing sacrosanct, and no constitutional impediment exists, to changing the size of the court. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the court was comprised of six and later seven justices. The current nine member court was created by the Judiciary Act of 1869. By increasing the size of the U.S. Supreme Court to eleven or twelve seats, the influence of unelected ideologues who enjoy life-tenure can be mitigated and our democracy rescued.

     Stalwart defenders of the status-quo will remind us President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a somewhat similar strategy in 1937 when he sought to appoint an additional justice for each incumbent who reached the age of seventy years and 6 months and declined to retire. Although Roosevelt's proposal was panned as a "Court-packing" scheme, it had a salutary effect: The Court became more receptive to New Deal legislation such as the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, as a majority of the justices reluctantly agreed to a more expansive interpretation of Congress's authority to regulate in the public interest under the interstate commerce clause.

    By contrast, the five current right-wing ideologues are not likely to be swayed by appeals to reason or by mere threats. Four of the current cabal were signatories to the infamous Bush v. Gore decision which was, given the Court's refusal to defer to the political process, a pre-determined, result-oriented judicial coup d'etat . There is something unseemly in a democracy about an institution that allows five judges who share an intractable commitment to nineteenth century Social Darwinism to thwart the will of the Congress or the people. Absent a change in the current composition of the court, President Obama's health care legislation will be the next piece of legislation on the executioner's block.
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