Growing up, my generation was taught the principles of Right and Wrong, concepts grounded in the belief that there exists an objective Truth that differentiates between them. Never perfect in human observance, that Rule served to form and illuminate a manner of living, a type of society, a form of government, best suited for domestic tranquility, peace, order, and the individual and collective pursuit of self-realization and happiness. It worked passing well for quite some time. But now it seems quaint and outdated.
So what in the Sam Hill happened?
Some blame the ascendency of Relativism, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute,” or put more succinctly, “the belief that there’s no absolute truth, only the truths that a particular individual or culture happen to believe” (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/). The shifting nature of that standard, particularly its potential for unlimited personal interpretations of truth, is antithetical to the maintenance of societal stability. It is like building a house on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27)
Its most insidious use is as support for the mindset that “the end justifies the means,” which promotes the proposition that, if a desired result is so good or important, any method, even a morally bad one, may be used to achieve it. Note the inherent circularity in this reasoning: if I in my own unlimited discretion can determine what is good or important, I am perfectly free to do anything and everything I want to pursue it, regardless of any negative consequences that might have on others, especially since I am also free to disregard those consequences as unimportant, at least as to me and my (justifiable) pursuit of my self-defined “good.” I am simultaneously lawmaker, judge, jury, and executioner, and I may actually consider my actions virtuous and deserving of public praise.
The ultimate (and perhaps inevitable) expression of this is what I would term “Political Relativism,” the mindset that whatever is expedient for achieving some (even short term) political objective is justifiable, provided simply that one has the power to undertake it.
Does any of this sound familiar?
It is not an act of political argument to note a few current examples:
* “Open border” policies that prioritize political and business objectives over the safety, security and economies of border states, national security concerns and the principle of national sovereignty.
* Intentionally lax or absent prosecution of crimes against persons and property, and efforts to defund and otherwise obstruct law enforcement capabilities, all of which undermine the safety and jeopardize the security of local communities.
* Silencing, through “cancelling,” deplatforming, and even criminalizing, the constitutionally guaranteed exercise of free speech.
* Targeting for enhanced governmental scrutiny citizens and groups for their religious orientation or political views.
* Unequal application of the rule of law, particularly in circumstances where the unequal application appears to be driven by political partisanship.
* Attempts to exert influence on Supreme Court decisions by personal intimidation, threats of restructuring and other means of unconstitutional control of one separate-but-equal branch of national government by another.
The danger in all this is as predictable as it is obvious.
There is an old saying: what goes around, comes around. If this behavior is permitted to continue, the pattern will surely repeat itself, with the only difference being the political orientation of those then holding the reins of power.
This result in and of itself would merit the title of this essay. But in my opinion the most unacceptable aspect of Political Relativism is the corrosive effect it has on the very foundations of our society and the sustainability of our nation as a federal democratic republic.
The charge of “threat to our democracy” is bandied about these days in a very casual (and, to my mind, cynically disingenuous) manner. In my opinion, the real threat to our democracy lies in the systematic and seemingly coordinated attacks on our basic constitutional protections against the abuse of governmental power, particularly those enshrined in the Bill of Rights:
* the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and government petition;
* the Second Amendment right to bear arms;
* the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and issuing warrants without probable cause;
* the Fifth Amendment protections against trial without indictment, double jeopardy, self-incrimination and property seizure;
* the Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy trial, to be informed of charges, to be confronted by witnesses, to call witnesses, and to legal representation;
* the Seventh Amendment right to trial by (an unbiased) jury of peers;
* the Eighth Amendment protections against excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment;
* the Ninth Amendment clarification that the list of rights granted by the Constitution is not meant to exclude or infringe on other rights possessed by the people; and
* the Tenth Amendment’s clear and unambiguous self-limiting decree that “the powers not granted to the United States [Government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The Constitution is our greatest civic gift. It was always intended to be our shield and protection against the timeless tendency of human nature to abuse the power of position and seek to impose upon the governed the will of the governor. The Founders understood this at the time, having personally experienced that abuse and fought a bitter war to be freed from it. But they could never have imagined the scale of their nascent nation’s future success, or the growth in scope and reach of the governmental institutions accompanying it. My guess is that they would be astonished by the degree and extent of power held by the federal government today, and horrified by the realization that, in contrast, human nature has not measurably improved since their time. I suspect that to a person they would not hesitate to commit themselves wholly to the effort once gain to reassert the primacy of the governed over the governors.
What then are we, the beneficiaries of their wisdom and inheritors of their design, to do? Are we to be the generation that meekly watches without objection the disintegration of our society, the betrayal of our political patrimony? Or shall we take to heart these words of Ronald Reagan:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
Time is not on our side. Considerable damage has already been done to our body politic, and more is in the works. The status quo is completely unacceptable. It is time we heed Edmund Burke’s famous warning that “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing.” Doing nothing is no longer an option.
Herewith, a modest proposal or plan for action:
* Speak up. While there are many forces engaged in the effort to stifle debate and suppress opinions contrary to the preferred narrative, employing tactics that impose real costs on those who resist that control, it is necessary for all voices to be heard. The Founders were prepared to risk their “lives, liberty and sacred honor” in a kinetic struggle in which the likelihood was they would lose all three. We do not face such risks, and are blessed with many more forms and means of communication at our disposal. We have every right to speak our minds, peacefully but forcefully, at every opportunity, utilizing every mode and every available outlet. True debate requires the open sharing of ideas, opinions and positions in a forum in which the concepts are at battle, not their proponents. Bullying tactics such as ad hominem attacks and intentional mislabeling of non-politically-correct views as “…isms” and their holders as “…ists” cannot be allowed to win the day. We must speak plainly and clearly, letting our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.” (Matthew 5:37). There will be opposition, and there will be cost, but to remain silent is to submit to the domination of the loudest voice. There is a reason freedom of speech was enshrined in the first amendment.
* Petition government. Another First Amendment right, but one that is likely underutilized. As elected officials, our political leaders are by their very nature closely attuned to public opinion. But the typical means by which they receive information consist of media reports (which can be biased, in either political direction) and polls (the results of which are significantly dependent on the substance and manner in which questions are posed). As a result, it is all too easy for a vocal minority to appear to represent the views of the majority. While the “silent” majority can exert its influence later at the polls, in the meantime, damage is done via action influenced by the earlier misleading impressions.
Politicians are constantly bombarded with special interest appeals, usually very well-coordinated. Without a true sense of their constituents’ views, it is all too easy for them to default to accommodating those appeals. In order for opposing views to be heard and have influence, those views must similarly be coordinated and delivered in equal measure. Politicians pay attention to the nature and volume of communications they receive, if only to help justify the actions they take or decline to take. Regardless, it is imperative that they get a true and complete picture of the actual views of their constituent population.
* Protect and exercise the right to vote. This may seem self-evident, but it deserves some commentary. The means and processes for voting have changed in recent years in a number of states. Early voting, electronic tabulation, ballot “harvesting” (legitimate and illegitimate) and differing electoral supervisory practices have brought both the benefits of voting convenience and some additional risks of impropriety. To the extent that we value our right to suffrage, we should do all we can to ensure the integrity and reliability of our voting procedures. Without voting integrity, we the people lose our ability to keep our government subservient to our will as the true sovereign power of our nation and director of its destiny. However organized and implemented (and there can be many different yet acceptable approaches), we must insist that the processes and procedures utilized support the objective of “one person, one vote.”
The changes noted above are here to stay. Accordingly, voters (and their political parties) must adapt to them and make the most of all their opportunities to ensure their voices are heard.
It is fair to note that these actions do not address all of the more immediately pressing problems of Political Relativism noted above. Specific aspects thereof require more particularized, tactical action beyond the scope of this short essay. The more strategic actions proposed could be considered the necessary preconditions to ultimately “righting the ship [of state].” The key, I believe, is to acknowledge that the current state of our national political behavior is unacceptable, to commit to taking appropriate and nonviolent action to defend and restore our Constitutional form of government, and to get started doing so, post haste.
For now is the acceptable time.