Monday, March 23, 2009

Federalist No. 1 and Political Discourse

When John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison first began writing the series of broadsheets that were to become known as The Federalist Papers, they first thing they did was to try to set the tone for political discourse. In one of the most serious and far-reaching debates that the early United States was to face, the form that the national government would take, it was important to these men to not only address the central question but to also highlight the manner in which the debate should take place. This was so because, in a way, the terms under which such debates would occur was the central question to the founding fathers. In the words of Hamilton who penned Federalist No. 1, the question was stark, ``whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.'' Or is it more the case that we humans are ``forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.'' Hamilton's question is still very relevant. Is society capable of coming together to work out differences in civil discourse or is the resolution of such disputes only to be found through either one side bullying the other and the whims of fate?

The position of the Federalists, while not precarious, was certainly contentious. They were embroiled in an effort to replace the US national government under the Articles of Confederation with a stronger, more-centralized federal government. Factions opposed to the newly drafted proposal for a new constitution frequently accused Federalists of being would be tyrants who wanted to impose a coercive form of government on the people. Hamilton's response was that the Federalists were not going to stoop to making the same sorts of allegations of the other political parties. He put forth two primary reasons taking the high road. On the one hand, he alleged that his interlocutors were not necessarily bad men but perhaps either had poor judgment or were not cognizant of all of the facts at hand. On the other hand, he conceded that not everyone on his side of the debate was arguing with pure motives. Consequently, he argued that the question of adopting the new constitution should be decided on its own merits rather than on allegations of despotism against either side. But this is an uphill fight in Hamilton's eyes. Human nature, after all, seems to tend towards absurdity on the matter.
Nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.
Unfortunately, the truth of Hamilton's observation about the eternal tendencies of political parties is still evident two hundred years after he penned Federalist No. 1. On one side of the field pundits such as Ann Coulter and Michael Savage do not hesitate to label those who disagree with them with descriptors such as traitor, faggot, slanderer, appeaser, mentally-ill, godless, and the like. Meanwhile on the other side of the field, Keith Olbermann has regular apoplectic fits of rage on the cable news magazine he anchors as he routinely condemns, not just the actions, but also the motives of his political enemies in segments called ``special comments.'' Worse, hyperbolic and unconstructive remarks of this sort are not restricted to those in the media. Senator Charles Grassley said of AIG company officers that ought to either ``resign or go commit suicide.'' The president of the College Democrats at George Washington university speaks of College Republicans as, ``conservatives who seek to destroy our country.''  Rather than discussing the relative merits of this idea or that idea, conservatives and liberals seem increasingly concerned about impugning the motives of those who disagree with them and crowding out the opinions of those who disagree. 

When, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did when she was the First Lady, we attributes our political woes to a ``vast conspiracy'', there is no room left to debate the substance of the issues at hand. The discussions shifts from the facts that pertain to the case to the motives of the people arguing for this side or that side irrespective of the merits of this side or that side. This makes it exceedingly difficult to discuss important issues at the level of seriousness and nuance in which they should be discussed. When, as at present, the US is facing one of the most severe financial crises since the Great Depression, it would behoove all politicians and editorialists to discuss the pros and cons of various economic theories in light of the historical evidence rather than discoursing by publicly hoping one side fails or tarring one side as socialists. But there is remarkably little discussion over what history can tell us about Keynesian economics, monetarist policy, supply side economics, marginal tax rates and so on. 

The closest thing to a silver lining in this particular cloud is that Hamilton's pessimism seems to not have panned out quite as badly as he suggested it would. Speaking directly to the idea of discussing public policy only in relation to the public good and not getting sidetracked by special interests, he claimed that such was close to being a pipe dream.
Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.
While it certainly is the case that our mass media tends to be more focused on sporting events, the untimely deaths of starlets, and escapades of Paris Hilton and Christian Bale. Sometimes, it may seem on the surface that no serious discussion is going on. But the fact of the matter is that as reprehensible and insincere as some of the political discourse is in the US, judged by historical standards, things are far better than they were. While the RNC may have tried to give the Democratic party a black eye by credentialing Michael Moore at the 2004 national convention in order to try to make him the public face of the Democratic party, a favor which the Democrats are currently trying to return by making Rush Limbaugh the public face of the Republican party, the abrasive and hateful rhetoric being used to day is an order of magnitude less than it was in the early days of our republic. One need only consider the venomous campaign between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams with allegations of pimping, whoring, bigamy, adultery, and drunkenness on the parts of the candidates and their spouses on both sides to see just how far things have come. While there are certainly still partisans that use that sort of rhetoric, those that do tend to be marginalized by their respective parties. 

Whatever progress has been made, however, it has not been enough. Politicians and pundits all along the spectrum are spending far too much time playing to the camera to encourage book sales, Arbitron ratings, and campaign donations rather than fostering a real debate on the pressing issues that face the US. The news media, which makes its money by selling our eyeballs to advertisers, generally plays along because controversy serves up more eyeballs than a staid presentation of a multi-faceted policy debate. We as a nation still have quite a ways to go before we can say that we've reached maturity and, with that maturity, have attained the ability to speak with one another about contentious issues in a manner becoming adults.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a pragmatist who loves to read intelligent articles as opposed to sound bites. Please continue your good work. This is a great time to study history in addition to ecconomics to learn from our past mistakes. It is time to risk moving forward.