Holding the center — foundational principles vs policy conflict

we-the-peopleAn election has been won and lost; a constitutional order remains intact.

We live in a world where words have become weightless, where lives feel adrift. The energy of  disaffection has been mobilized. Promises of restoration of greatness  have won the day.  Those promises, many of us feel certain, are false promises.

Policy actions with which we will profoundly disagree will follow. Sometimes, we will disagree with their underlying values. At other times, we will disagree with their proponents’  expectations as to what will be the consequences of their actions. For both reasons, we can expect what is to come to be painful.

However, so long as the constitutional order remains intact, the people will speak again in 2018 and 2020. The fact that actions have consequences – and thus that the consequences of the actions that follow from yesterday’s election will become evident – can be our refuge.  These, it seems to me,  are thus the tasks ahead:

  • To give renewed weight to words.
  • To clarify and communicate our understandings of the consequences that will follow from actions.
  • To clarify and communicate alternative courses of action; and, above all:
  • To protect the constitutional order that will allow the process of democratic renewal to continue, namely that:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (United States Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…..” (United States Constitution,  preamble, 1787)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. (United States Constitution, First Amendment  1789)

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition……If men were angels, no government would be necessary….In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions….. Contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places” ( James Madison, Federalist Paper number 51, 1788).

And I am adding for the record the text of a post I did on FB three days after the election:

What now? Here are three themes that are beginning to crystallize for me.

First, and most crucial, is to protect (and revitalize) our constitutional democracy. We have looked (and are looking) at what lies beyond the cliff — but we need not succumb to a downward spiral. For all of the parallels, the USA in 2016 & 2017 is NOT Weimar Germany in 1932/33. We need to act in ways that do not bring that nightmare any closer. (More on this soon.)
Second, “the dog caught the car” — and it is the dog’s problem as to what to do next. Two dogs actually: not only Trump, but the Republican party of ‘no’. Life — decisions and their consequences — have just become real for them. This process will be interesting to watch.

Third, some tasks as I see them for us as progressives/Democrats:
(i) Engage the Republicans through democratic processes (from policy discourses to mobilization of lawful protest, as needed, on the specific policy choices they propose to make). There is some ‘wait and see’ needed here — though one area which may require urgent action is in choices of officials linked to environment/climate change etc;
(ii) Revitalize progressive/Democratic activism from the bottom-up — state and local elections are a good place to start. There is a need for a new generation of activists (and public officials). There are elections coming in 2018 — a time when the consequences of the dog having caught the car will be evident to voters. A sweeping progressive victory is not impossible.
(iii) Create new loci for face-to-face conversation, at all levels of society, across seemingly intractably polarized divisions. (This has been central to peacebuilding around the world; we need it here, too.)
(iv) Look closely at the content of the progressive agenda. What is missing? What is not responsive to the transformed world we live in — both in terms of content, and our conceptions of how goals are achieved.
This last has been (and continues to be) where my work is focused, though I think that, in the immediate period (i) – (iii) matter at least as much.

3 responses

  1. Ross Douthat, New York Times, put the challenge well: “I retract none of the warnings that I issued about the likelihood of catastrophe and crisis on his watch. I fear the risks of a Trump presidency….. But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite. So we must hope that he has the wit to be more than a wrecker, more than a demagogue, and that his crude genius can actually be turned, somehow, to the common good. And if that hope is dashed, we must find ways to resist him — all of us, right and left, in the new chapter of American history that has opened very unexpectedly tonight.”

  2. This uncomfortable election and its result, together with those of the Brexit vote have highlighted a key point – the loss of hope and frustration by those who feel left behind in this changing world. I would posit that government has failed to understand the need to look to involve and help these people or to take steps to acknowledge the need for change in an non threatening manner and process (perception is everything).
    The points, remarks and quotes outlined by Brian above highlight the failure of current governance processes. While we may neither like nor support Donald Trump, he has awakened a sleeping giant. The question now is whether he or the Republican Congress are able to put the above principles firmly into place for all Americans. As per Franklin D. Roosevelt “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”

    • Thanks, Neil — there’s the old sixties saying “all politics is local”. My sense is that the revitalization of the (in US terms) state and local political space (and of face-to-face community more broadly) may be a key part of the way of rebuilding a sense of shared connection…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s