When did “We the People of the United States” turn into “We the people who need government and politicians to validate us?” More importantly, how do we stop it?
How did we get to this polarized place, where political discourse seems to revolve around my-side-v-your-side, and voters sound more like fans cheering their favorite teams, than informed concerned citizens, supporting candidates who will “preserve, protect and defend” the constitutions of their states, and the nation.
I don’t recall oaths of office being rewritten to say “I solemnly swear to protect teachers’ union contracts,” or “raise the minimum wage, and provide free college tuition,” or “bring prayer back to the classroom and overturn Roe v. Wade.” Nor do I remember any additions of language like “I promise to share your opinions about every hot-button issue of the day, whether or not there’s anything whatsoever I can do to affect change based on those opinions!”
Do you remember any amendments to any constitution—US, or state–that guarantee new “rights” requiring government to do anything other than protect the rights we already have? I sure don’t.
But that hasn’t stopped the voting public from demanding that candidates for offices at every level of government, from the smallest town’s mayor, to the presidency itself, state their opinions about issues that fall way outside the scope of their job description, and their power.
Why, for example, does it matter how the Mayor of Charlotte—where I live—feels about abortion? She has no authority to change state or national abortion laws. The same goes for laws regarding gun rights, school choice, and immigration. Nevertheless, voters last fall demanded to know where she stood on these “issues,” and she obliged them with answers, not one of which was “My opinion doesn’t matter, I can’t do anything about any of that!”
That’s how it works in American politics today. You don’t hear voters, or the media, asking “Is this even your job?” Worse than that, they seem to react with hostility when an honest politician volunteers the answer “No, it’s not.”
Americans today seem hell-bent on voting for people who validate their strongly held opinions, who share their “feelings” and subjective values, about “issues” that, in too many cases, aren’t even the purview of government at any level, never mind their own.
For example, does the President of the United States, or the candidates for that office, or any elected official for that matter, really need to have an opinion on how NFL players behave when the national anthem is played? Since when is it the President of the United States’ job to even care about, much less do anything about, how private citizens behave at work for private corporations? What federal law are they violating? Whose civil rights are being infringed?
There once was a time when we might laugh out loud at a reporter asking a presidential candidate about this, but that time is a distant memory. Today, it’s front-page news, right up there with stories about pressure-cooker bombs found in two states. We ask them about the bombs too, but again, it’s the side-by-side equivalence of the two, and the focus on their opinions, that’s the problem.
When voters think it’s as vital to know how a candidate thinks or feels about an issue, as it is to know what he or she plans to do about it, the line between the two gets blurred in a big hurry. Why should I care what someone’s opinion is if they don’t have—or are not supposed to have—the power to affect change based on that opinion? Shouldn’t my only concern be keeping the power of that office right where it is, so those opinions remain private?
In other words, we’ve lost sight of the role of political philosophy in our debates. Everything is about “issues,” and opinions about those issues. We litmus test our candidates, rather than vet them. Imagine if, for example, we concerned ourselves less with what Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump think or feel about issues, and focused more on what they think or feel about the proper role of government in general? Would either of these candidates have received their party’s nomination if voters had wondered, and the press had felt compelled to ask, whether each of them felt it was the federal government’s responsibility to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and whether they agreed that all citizens — elected officials included — are, or should be, held accountable to the same laws?
Would either of these candidates have withstood scrutiny of their records, in public service and in business, if we demanded to know their political philosophies, or core political values? Can a candidate who admits to buying political favors claim — with a straight face — that he supports the Constitution’s checks and balances? Can a candidate who’s just been exposed as someone who has sold political favors claim — without cackling condescendingly at the questioner — that she does?
I don’t think so.
When we stop asking “if” government should do something, or “why” they should, and just demand that they do, we lose sight of what elected officials are lawfully capable of doing. When we forget what’s legally possible, it’s a lot easier to fixate on, and even demand that politicians “feel” our pain, and validate our opinions, rather than serve as the law allows. The logical progression of all this forgetting, and fixating on the wrong questions is that we end up with personality contests. We aren’t interested in whether or not a wall across the Mexican border is physically, or financially feasible, never mind lawful under the Constitution. All that matters is that Trump wants to build one! He agrees with the scores of people who want “something done!”
Similarly, Hillary voters aren’t interested in whether or not universal preschool, or free college tuition falls within the purview of the federal government. All that matters is that she wants to give it to people, and these same people want it!
When all that matters is that someone agrees with us, that our wants are appropriate, and that our emotions are valid, the question of how, or even if they can make good on their promises ceases to be important. Likewise, their records cease to be important, because what difference does their record of accomplishment or character (or lack thereof) matter if what matters most is how they feel or think about something right now? You’d have to actually care if I could achieve what I’m promising to achieve to scrutinize my record of past achievement, right?
The net result is that politicians who succeed today are the ones who focus on voicing the “right” opinions about issues and problems, rather than explaining if, or how, they can address them. We haven’t yet gone so far down this path that politicians can get away with never proposing solutions, but we are at a point where voters no longer seem to care how specific, viable, or consistent those proposals are. Donald Trump could probably propose “comprehensive immigration reform” tomorrow, and not lose any voters, as long as he keeps telling his supporters how right they are to be angry, and how wrong (and dangerous) Hillary is for disagreeing with them. Likewise, Hillary Clinton could probably admit to being very ill, and not lose any of her supports as long as she keeps telling her supporters how unfair, sexist, and dangerous it is that her opponent and his supporters disagree with their opinions.
On this, the occasion of the re-launch of Practical Politicking, I would like to appeal to you, our readers, to start asking the right questions again. Start demanding that government justify its role in addressing, never mind solving the problems of our time, and most importantly, start scrutinizing candidates’ records to see if their core philosophy of government aligns with yours. Stop demanding that your representatives feel what you feel, or share all your opinions on every issue, and start looking at whether they have the right ideas to do the jobs they’re asking to do.
John F. Kennedy famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Well, today, as Managing Editor of this site, I’m suggesting an edit to that. To help us most right now, it should read: “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Period. Full stop.