American democratic politics has always been messy. In fact, the political system was designed that way—to be a bit scrappy and quarrelsome when it comes to making new laws of the land. The institutional fragmentation that is codified in the constitution results in many avenues to make policy but just as many brakes to block it.
While the Founding Fathers certainly wanted checks and balances in their new nation, they also believed in honoring what the Declaration of Independence called ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’. The Founders believed that any person of good will and common sense will be reasonable enough to understand the justice of the so-called American Cause.
But looking at Washington politics today, it feels like elected officials are preoccupied with ideology and have forgotten that compromise, based on a shared understanding of what is morally right, lies at the heart of the system.
Compromises and political bickering
In American democracy, the executive and the legislature both have responsibilities for making law. This means that good policy making is made through untidy compromises, political bickering and incremental policy advances. Because the two branches are not forced into the kind of cooperation that tends to be ensured in a parliamentary system, they often compete with each other. Even when the president’s party has a majority of seats in the legislature, he or she cannot control what happens in Congress. Such a fragmented system means that large comprehensive policy, like heath care or a new tax system, is more difficult to accomplish in the American system.
This inherent competition between the branches of the American government is certainly in evidence today. In the current climate, there are many who will be relieved by the fact that Trump’s executive branch is stymied in its lawmaking powers. But, if the American system is ever to work well again, its citizens must recall that sharing core values and a common sense of justice provides the capacity for acceptable collective action on which the republic was built and still stands. This means that the current inclination to politicize justness is rather distressing.
Party affiliation determines justice
The politicization of ‘morally right’ rips apart the fabric that makes good governance possible. Today, what a Republican or a Democrat finds unjust has more to do with party affiliation than a set of shared views on legitimacy and fairness. Whether it is Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi not initially applying her own policy of ‘zero tolerance’ against sexual harassment to fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Representative John Conyers or Alabama Governor Kay Ivey admitting that she believes Senate candidate Roy Moore’s accusers that he assaulted them when they were teenagers and girls, but still thought that securing a Republican majority in the Senate outweighed his crimes.
Perhaps these politicians are merely reflecting the political demands of their base voters. After all, Americans who voted for Trump were not deeply troubled by revelations of his own sexual harassment and problematic views on women. Sadly, Trump’s every day behavior in the White House contributes to the lowering of norms and standards of decency for all elected officials. Those that excuse his behavior put it down to vain but basically meaningless alpha-male swagger or facile locker-room talk.
Perhaps this is what women in Alabama, where 83 per cent of Republican woman backed Moore, and evangelicals all over the country tell themselves. Rather surprisingly, given that Trump forces them to discount their religious tenets, 81 per cent of white evangelical voters supported Trump in November 2016. In the year since, evangelicals have increased their support. Surely, these staunch family-values Christians are not condoning Trump or Moore’s behavior, but it still feels uncomfortable that they so easily embrace him. As recently as September last year, Trump met with evangelical leaders to reassure them that he would still pursue their agenda, in particular praising their positions on abortion and Planned Parenthood.
No impeachment without moral consensus
The politicization of justness means that party affiliation unfortunately further conditions how citizens feel about each other, with Republicans and Democrats holding their fellow citizens in contempt. The politicization of what is morally right also enhances the polarization, the legislative gridlock and the tribalism found in Washington today—a tribalism that was not present in such divisive times as during Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Readers of this column will know that I wrote about a conversation that I had with the journalist Ryan Lizza (who has been fired from The New Yorker for his own unwanted behavior). In our coffee pause conversation I asked Lizza about the chances that Trump would be impeached for any of the three areas of inquiry that are being pursued by former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation, in particular the charge of obstruction of justice. Lizza said that impeachment could never happen in today’s Washington climate because there is no moral consensus on Capitol Hill about what constitutes an impeachable offence.
A former colleague of Lizza’s in the December 11th issue of The New Yorker quotes President Gerald Ford, who said, ‘An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.’ For better or worse, impeachment is a political process, meaning it requires lawmakers to possess the same understanding of what is unjust or morally unacceptable behavior.
In an era of fake news, when we might ask whether Democrats and Republicans will ever again be able to agree on a commonly accepted set of facts, it is still more troubling to wonder whether Democrats and Republicans will even again believe in the same sense of justness. The end of the first year of Trump’s presidency finds us distressingly far from any “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” that the Founding Fathers implored all persons of good will and common sense to honor. Instead, the politics of division and hate have moved to the center stage. For my part, I hope that in 2018 a common reasoning that counterbalances the politics of division and hate emerges. A reasoning that once again recognizes a sense of shared citizenry based on a united sense of what is just.
Want to read more on America? Sign on to the free and weekly American Dreamers newsletter!