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Politics Between ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’


Speculating about President Obama’s legacy will keep political pundits busy over the next two years. It’s likely that no one will run out of things to say, least of all the president, whose years in the White House are but another chapter in a personal memoir always in composition and whose audacity (e.g. “I’m proud of saving the economy”) is always on full display to anyone willing to take seriously his Olympian pronouncements.

Last week Joy Pullman suggested President Obama’s narcissism is emblematic of a current within American culture that emphasizes self-importance to the detriment of honest personal accounting, correction and improvement, nevermind consideration of reality. Ill-suited for self-inspection, today’s leaders, like their flock, are “I’s” who “follow” rather than “shape public opinion.” The Selfie Age (“I see and share my image, therefore I am”) portends a flat-souled politics in which fewer are able to participate in a discourse that ‘refines and enlarges’ the opinions of individuals and political communities.

It is tempting to search for an American political arcadia ruled by cultural forces that might be revived if we simply could figure out its essential features. As we close our series of essays on The Federalist, might a rousing conclusion, a heroic vindication of the Constitution, provide the necessary spark that brings back into focus what we’ve lost, where we are, and where were are tending? If one was hoping for such an ending, Alexander Hamilton’s tone and argument in Federalist 85 disappoints.

As we wrote last week, he begins the essay by defending his own (serious) treatment of the subject and calling upon his readers to be equally serious in their judgment of the text. More modestly, Hamilton summarizes his case for the Constitution: “I am persuaded that it is the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit, and superior to any the revolution has produced.” He continues, a little further down:

No advocate of the measure can be found, who will not declare as his sentiment, that the system, though it may not be perfect in every part, is, upon the whole, a good one; is the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit; and is such an one as promises every species of security which a reasonable people can desire.

Hamilton’s case, then, is three-fold:

  • it is adequate to the needs of the people;
  • it is consistent with the character and circumstances of the people;
  • it is good–and better than the available alternatives.

Hamilton enlarges on the last point in the paragraphs that follow, demonstrating the improbability of getting a better result from a second convention and the certainty that it will be easier to amend the Constitution after ratification than before. Some of his arguments, at least, suggest reasons to doubt that an Article V convention would improve the Constitution or, more fundamentally, strengthen our republic.

This is more, however, than a case for the Constitution or a warning to eager amenders: it is a fundamental lesson in political prudence that would-be presidential candidates would do well to learn from as they assemble their policy agendas and advisory teams.

As Hamilton’s measures suggest, political prudence requires uncovering the present point of intersection between the particular and the universal, the subjective and the objective–between what is possible and what, ultimately, ought to be.

Late 18th century Americans were wisely jealous of their liberty, but feared executive power too much and legislative power too little.

We would do well to note the difference between his orientation to politics and our own. Today our politics (among other spheres) jumps between the hyper-particular, subjective is (“life begins and ends with me”) to the aspirational hyper-universal, objective ought (“elect us and America will once again be exceptional, prosperous, secure, and free”). In this setting, political imagesmiths develop and encourage within the multitude the optical illusion that both paradigms are simultaneously and exclusively true. Yet reality is the complex, and often messy, confluence between these pairings.

Statesmanship rightly understood aims for the best possible along the continuum of is and ought.

In Hamilton’s day, that meant taking into account a mix of political prejudices that didn’t always correspond to political wisdom. Late 18th century Americans were wisely jealous of their liberty, but feared executive power too much and legislative power too little. They were wisely committed to local self-government, but were too little mindful of the factions it empowered or the threats that required an energetic national government to complement it. They were quick to defend their natural rights and interests, but much slower to defend the rights of others (like slaves) or appreciate the diversity of interests that required mutual forbearance. The Constitution accommodated, at least in part, many of these prejudices; the effort to defend it in The Federalist and elsewhere sought, at least in part, to educate and, perhaps, transcend them.
What would it mean to attempt to do the same in our day? Consider how one might apply Hamilton’s defense of the Constitution to our present concerns. What do we need? What, in other words, are the most pressing dangers to our “safety and happiness”? Three immediately come to mind:

1. Our insolvent entitlement system: We wrote fifteen months ago that the “great and radical vice” (Federalist 15) of our entitlement programs is their dependency on an unjust and unsustainable intergenerational transfer of wealth–on young people paying for the old, rather than each generation (and, for those of normal capacities, each individual) paying for itself. Rather than addressing this, the present administration has exacerbated and extended it with an Obamacare program that depends on the young and healthy overpaying for “insurance” to subsidize the old and unhealthy. One should not wonder that it takes selfie-stick videos to get millennials to consider signing up.

2. Our imbalanced separation of powers system: President Obama has significantly accelerated the transfer of power from the legislative to the executive branch. Occasional judicial rebukes aside (like last week’s executive amnesty ruling), there has been little effective resistance to the president’s efforts to fulling institutionalize the hegemonic presidency. The Congress’s own efforts to use the judiciary for this purpose are a day late and a dollar short–and, in their own way, further undermine the separation of powers, as the Congress asks the judiciary to restore a balance that it has every power and duty to achieve itself.

3. Our neglected and disrespected national security: Last week, the Ayatollah Khamenei had to take it upon himself to instruct his foreign minister to stop shouting at the American Secretary of State, Russian planes probed, again, the limits of Western air defenses, ISIS continued its murderous barbarism (attracting even more recruits to its banner)…and the US hosted a gathering of the world’s community organizers to combat “violent extremism.” In an unnatural inversion of Thucydides’ dictum, the weak do what they will and the powerful suffer what they must.
What does our current character and circumstance allow? What might be advanced that is better than the available alternatives?

No political magic wand can be waved that will produce within the citizenry a full accounting of our national economic, constitutional, and foreign liabilities. Were there such a tool, the resulting images might be too troubling to show to even a mature viewing audience. Perhaps even more problematic is that very few of us would be willing to admit culpability for our common estate.

And yet broadly speaking Americans still care and want the best for their own. The Selfie Age has not precluded Facebook moms (and some dads) from filling their profile pages with pictures of their young with the same intensity that cocktail party conversations once encouraged. And Americans remain, if yet somewhat more autonomously, interested in their local estates.

Those attempting to refine and enlarge the public views relative to our entitlement, governance, and national security regimes might draw out a picture of how course corrections on each of these fronts would promote the private and public good. But to truly gain a type of political traction that makes things better, it is essential that leaders draw Americans toward an alternative that while not perfect, is available. Such a pivot certainly will require honesty and humility among our political set. Most of all, it will require within the American people a willingness to face political realities that are not blurred and distorted by the messianic and apocalyptic political language so common to our age.