Thursday, October 29, 2020

 Day 5: Semiotics of the Donkey and Elephant


In the election of 1828, a political satirist characterized Andrew Jackson as a jackass, using the image of a donkey to depict the raucous Democrat politician, an image he co-opted and used to his advantage. Years later, the elephant was used by soldiers as a euphemism for war. Those having seen combat were said to have “seen the elephant.” During Abraham Lincoln’s election, the elephant was applied by a cartoonist to the Republican party. 


Jackson was the first person to be elected President as a Democrat. Lincoln was the first person to be elected President as a Republican. While I suspect this is little more than an interesting historical footnote, a conspiracy-minded person may find greater significance in this parallel. Have fun with that!


Semiotics, as defined by Daniel Lucid in his book, “Soviet Semiotics, An Anthology,” “is the science of sign systems transmitting information inside some social group; it is the science of communicative sign systems.” A sign may be one of three types: icon, index or symbol. An Icon looks just like the actual thing for which it stands. An example might be the padlock you see when you visit a secure website. It indicates that your information is being locked or protected. An Index is a sign that is tied to or easily inferred by the function of the sign. An example might be a circle with a diagonal line through it, meaning don’t, for example don’t smoke. A Symbol has no apparent connection to the concept it is conveying and must be taught and learned. An example might be the cone-shaped marker used to indicate a position on a GPS-enabled map. We must learn that the cone means “you are here.”


Over the years, the donkey and elephant have become engrained symbols in our social group, specifically as they relate politicians and voters in our political system.


While never officially adopted by the Democrat party, informal use of the donkey is widespread and has come to represent for Democrats intelligence, strength, loudness, bravery, humbleness and stubbornness. Some of these characteristics may be indices, which is to say natural traits of the donkey. Others may be symbols that have been taught and learned over time.


An official sign of the Republican party, the elephant was adopted to represent the Republicans as strong and dignified. As with the Democrat’s donkey, the elephant may be both index (strength) and symbol (dignity).


As time passed, the donkey came to be a symbol of progressive ideals, which rely on greater government involvement in the regulation of citizens’ lives and governmental control that is, to a greater and greater degree, centralized. The elephant came to be a symbol of conservative ideals, which rely on limited government involvement through de-regulation and control that is pushed to state and local governments or to the people themselves.


I recall a time when candidates’ banners and yard signs almost ubiquitously included a donkey or elephant, indicating party affiliation. As I drive around and see candidates’ banners and yard signs today, almost none has one of these familiar images. I’ve wondered why. Perhaps you, kind reader, have also pondered this curious shift in communicative sign systems.


Might it be, perchance, that the symbolism of the donkey and the elephant have lost their meaning…that no difference between the two may any longer be discerned? Under both parties, government has grown in terms of cost and intervention. Under both parties, we have become entangled in foreign conflicts that cost the lives of our young men and women. Under both parties, we – the citizens of the United States, have become the daily targets of our multiple overt and covert spy agencies.


It may be this lack of distinction between the two major parties that causes politicians to omit these images from their banners and yard signs. There is no longer any meaningful semiotic differentiation between the donkey and the elephant, save one...


This difference may be one of index. Specifically, I’m talking about the rate of growth in government and government intervention. Both parties seem intent on growing government, perhaps because it grows their power, as we’ve discussed over the course of the past year. A donkey’s average top speed is approximately 40 miles per hour. An elephant’s average top speed is approximately 12 miles per hour. Both are moving forward, but one is doing so at a faster rate than the other.


If a voter desires a greater involvement in the lives of the masses and the regulations, restrictions and costs thereto attendant, and if he or she wants that involvement to be big and soon, the donkey is the way to go. If a voter is resigned to those things but wants to put them off or tolerates them incrementally, the elephant is the way to go.


For those of us who find no connection to the donkey or the elephant, we are left with an alternative party, the most prominent being the Libertarian Party. It’s official sign, one that may be both index and symbol, is the Statue of Liberty. Her torch is often found on candidates’ signs, the light of which guides our way as a nation and drives out the darkness of tyranny. I believe Libertarians still use this image publicly, because it remains closely linked to the party’s principles. For Democrats and Republicans, genuine principles have long since been swept into the dustbin of history.


Unofficially, the Libertarian Party identifies with a porcupine, an index that represents the animal’s defensive nature. It will not harm anyone who leaves it alone. This speaks to the party’s non-interventionist philosophy of live and let live – at home and abroad. Symbolically, both the official and unofficial signs of the Libertarians teach that government has three – and only three – key functions.


Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman described them saying, “Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. When government – in pursuit of good intentions tries to rearrange the economy, legislate morality, or help special interests, the cost comes in inefficiency, lack of motivation, and loss of freedom. Government should be a referee, not an active player.”


As you enter the polling booth, which animal will you take with you: the donkey, the elephant or the porcupine? 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

 Day 6: Political Interest


Athenian general and statesman Pericles observed, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you.” Perhaps this observation informed Plato’s warning, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”


Until the 1960s, according to a 2017 article in “neaToday,” a publication of the National Education Association – hardly a conservative or even non-partisan organization, “Only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the ‘proficient’ standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.” A factor contributing to this existentially concerning statistic is the fact that education in civics and government have been reduced over the years from typically three courses to one, and the didactic learning in this one course is not reinforced through any sort of practical application.


Kind reader, I described this as an existential concern. It seems crystal clear that a lack of understanding of our republic’s founding principles is the challenge of singular import for our nation’s future.


Published in 1835, “Democracy in America” recounts Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels through and observations of the United States and the character of the American people. He wrote, “You cannot doubt that in the United States the instruction of the people serves powerfully to maintain the democratic republic. It will be so, I think, everywhere that the instruction that enlightens the mind is not separated from the education that regulates mores.”


He recognized that to sustain the republic, all citizens needed to be informed about the social contract and the use of government to execute that contract. Without that knowledge, the people tacitly renounce their claim, in part and perhaps in whole, to individual liberty. Through such renouncement, they give themselves over to rule by their inferiors – people dedicated not to the preservation of their fellow citizens’ liberty but to their own grasp for power.


President Harry S. Truman famously quipped, “The ‘C’ students run the world.” Think of the people running for office – at any level. Would you entrust any one of them with the running of your life, the management of your affairs, or caring for your family? Are they equipped or do they have the vested interest to do these things better than you? If you’re anything like me, your answer is a resounding “no.” Yet one week hence, we will cast our votes for such ‘C’ students.


The reclamation of liberty lost will take a long, long time. It will not be accomplished on the third of November. We can, however, take the first step down that path. We must take an interest in politics. We must understand the civics that enable our social contract. It has been my hope that our weekly and now daily discussions would serve to advance that understanding and hope.


As I mentioned at the outset, my goal has not been to tell you what to think or for whom to cast your vote. Rather, I hoped to encourage critical thought on critical issues. Admittedly, my political preferences have surely come through. Notwithstanding that tipping of my hand, I hope you’ve been able to examine your positions and to be reassured of your beliefs and positions or to be moved to a new view of our republic.


We have but a week to go. I hope you’ll continue to explore with me the issues at stake in the upcoming election.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

 Day 7: Congressional Term Limits


During the first century of our republic’s history, which is to say since the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, the average lengths of term for Congressmen and Senators were approximately four years and six years, respectively. As of 2019, the average lengths have increased to approximately nine and 10 years, respectively. The longest serving members in both houses of Congress have lengths of service of approximately 45 years. 


Term limits in the Constitution were not omitted as a result of not being considered. After all, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which from 1777 until 1789 served as our nation’s governing document prior to the Constitution, set term limits for members of Congress and for the President. However, this changed during the Constitutional Convention.


As James Madison wrote in Federalist 53, “A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them. This remark is no less applicable to the relation which will subsist between the House of Representatives and the Senate.”


The belief was that long-term service in office would enhance the officeholder’s skill in performing the work of government. The idea being practice makes perfect. Furthermore, it was assumed legislators seeking re-election in order to make a career out of politics would be few in number. The majority of Senators and Congressmen would be in office a term or two and then return to the private sector, thereby keeping Congress fresh.


One concern about long-term service in Congress was expressed by Constitutional Convention delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut. He said, “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”


Delegate Sherman knew that immersion in politics and power has a corrupting effect. He knew that the spirit of self-government demands governance of, by and for the people, which is and must be distinct from a system that relies on an elite political class.


In the first century of our republic under the Constitution, approximately 37 percent of members of Congress never sought re-election. In the past 125 years or so, that average has dropped to approximately 12 percent. A job in Congress is becoming a career for most.


What are the effects?


If the belief of some Framers be true, we should have many learned and skilled men and women representing us and our interests., and we should be pleased with their representation of our interests and the protection of our Liberty. However, the approval rate of Congress is 17 percent. As prescient as the Framers were, I fear they may have missed the mark in this respect. Few people or groups have a lower approval rating than that of those who serve in Congress.


Another consideration is that the lobbyist industry today is larger and more sophisticated than in the past. The longer a politician remains in office, the longer his or her relationships with lobbyists form and deepen. The “richer” these relationships become, the richer the members of Congress become. The pervasiveness of lobbyists and the favors they provide to our elected representatives serve as shouting voices for special interests, drowning out the voices of the citizens – your voice and mine. 


This all feeds into massive political machines that are designed with the singular purpose of re-electing incumbents. Politics has become a big (if not the biggest) business enterprise in our nation. What makes it different is that it functions almost as a monopoly. It’s run by cold, hard cash, and there seems to be little your or I, as citizens, can do to impact the functioning of these machines.


The ultimate effect is the bureaucratization of party machines that reduce our “democracy” to that of an oligarchy, as laid out by Robert Michels in 1911 in his work, “Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie; Untersuchungen ├╝ber die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens.” He characterizes this reality as a “monopoly of power.” And it is important to note that Nobel Laureate Milton Freidman observed that monopolies cannot exist without government support.


In 1886, Russian philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky addressed the age-old, existential Russian question, “What is to be done?” in his book entitled with the same question. It is a query that now vexes the mind of every American citizen who struggles with the challenge of term limits, or the lack thereof, and the impact on our government of, by and for the people.


We can slowly, but not necessarily surely, “vote the bums out,” as it were at the ballot box. This requires a great deal of time and individual action that could overpower the political machinery that has been in place form more than a century. We also have left to us an ingenious mechanism that the Framers built into the Constitution. It’s known as an Article V Convention. If two-thirds of the state legislatures agree, a convention may be convened to propose amendments to the Constitution. (See Week 22.) Such a convention could introduce an amendment to establish term limits, correcting what some Framers saw as a flaw in the new Constitution.


As you research the candidates on your ballot, think about where you stand on the issue of term limits. Are there candidates on your ballot who share your views? If so, vote accordingly.

Monday, October 26, 2020

 Day 8: Character of the country


Epictetus said, “Draw up right now a definite character and identity for yourself, one that you intend to stick to whether you are by yourself or in company.” This passage from the “Encheiridion” has come to mind time and time again, as former Vice President Joe Biden has stated that the 2020 election is about the character of the country. Mr. Biden contends that the character of the person serving as President is some vanguard of the nation’s character. With all due respect, I must disagree.


The character of our nation is a collective reflection of the character of its citizens, not that of a single citizen in the Oval Office. God forbid that should ever be the case. To be sure, a President who reflects the best of America is desirable, but it is unrealistic to expect one person can espouse all the virtues (or vices) of 330 million people.


Our nation’s character is built on individual character, yours and mine. The genius of the Framers recognized this and set up a form of government that was limited in its authority to insert itself into the lives of its citizens. As such, the Framers did not intend to establish a government that would supplant the role and nature of the citizenry. Tragically, that has changed over time. Nevertheless, you and I, kind reader, and the other hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens are the people who form our nation’s character.


In the time between today and Election Day, perform the task set forth by Epictetus. Draw up your character and identity. I will do the same. Then, on that day you fill out your ballot, consider which candidate genuinely displays a character and identity that best aligns with yours. Again, be mindful of each candidate’s actions. Additionally, with regard to Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, for example, do they espouse a consistent character and identity, whether in private or public, or do their characters and identities change, depending on the persons or groups they’re addressing? Consistency (think of Shakespeare and “to thine own self be true) in character and identity, or lack thereof, becomes a key indicator for evaluating the candidates.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

 Day 9: Court Packing


The wisdom of the Framers of the Constitution is evident not only in what they did write but in what they did not write. In other words, they were clear on the role and limitations of government; they also were deliberate in those issues they left open to the legislative process. The composition of the Supreme Court and inferior courts was one of those open issues.


Contemporaneous writers of the time, namely those writing the Federalist Papers and those writing what would become the Anti-Federalist Papers, also remained silent on this issue. Consequently, there is relatively little insight into the Framers’ thoughts on an ideal size for the court. Over time, the size of the Supreme Court has been increased and decreased.


The closest we get to such insight comes from the first Congress of the United State of America. Among those first congressional acts, was legislation to set the number of justices. The act was signed into law on the 24thof September 1789 by President George Washington. Section 1 of An ACT to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States set the number of justices at six – one chief justice and five associate judges.


With an even number, it was possible that ties would occur, which was a natural guard against overturning legislation (i.e., the will of the People) in close-call decisions. In the years and administrations that followed, the court would be expanded (as many as 10 in 1863) or contracted (as few as seven in 1866) to meet the political ends of parties in control of the government. The court has been a nine-member panel since 1869. In order to protect his New Deal programs from being declared unconstitutional, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed expanding the court to 15 justices as a shot across the bow in 1937. Consequently, the Supreme Court backed off of the New Deal programs, and the court remained a nine-justice panel.


Today, with what appears will be the appointment of Judge Coney-Barrett to the Supreme Court, the court’s balance will be tipped toward that of textualism, as opposed to positivism. This means the Constitution and our laws will be interpreted in the context of the times during which they were written. Wrong or right, this methodology seems to be associated with classical liberalism (e.g., conservatism) as opposed to progressivism. Because of the relative ages of the justices, it is likely that this balance would be preserved for many years. 


Because many policies espoused by progressives are antithetical to the intent and spirit of the Constitution in that they tend to expand government’s involvement in citizens’ lives, a conservative court may be more likely to strike down legislation that inherently is government overreach. Take government-provided healthcare or education. Neither are constitutionally granted activities. This is not to say government cannot provide these things, it just means that they would rightly be provided at the state or local level, providing states or localities wanted to engage in these types of activities. Simply, these (and myriad other) activities are not legitimate functions of the federal government. This is what the Tenth Amendment is all about.


This is where court packing comes into play.


If one party controls the lawmaking and enforcement organs of government, namely the legislative and executive branches, but does not control the courts, there may be the temptation to expand the court and populate it with justices of similar political  philosophies. To bring it in today’s context, if the Democrats win seats in Congress and win the Presidency, they will, as they have plainly stated, pursue an exceptionally progressive agenda. It is not inconceivable that their policies and programs could be challenged in court, and a conservative court could likely rule, applying a textualist lens, such policies and programs to be unconstitutional. 


There is cause to believe, because they have so indicated, that Democrats would entertain expanding the court significantly in order to stack it with positivist judges, those likely to favor their progressive goals. 


They would do well to be mindful of their “nuclear option” debacle, as discussed in Week 11. As political winds change, there is every reason to expect that Republicans would someday regain control and adjust the composition of the court to favor their ends. 


This becomes a never-ending, vicious cycle that only serves to destabilize our republic. Considering this danger is important in the voting booth. While I doubt it is the single issue by which one’s vote is likely to be cast, it cannot be fully disregarded.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

 Day 10: Corruption


In the latest Presidential debate, a seemlier affair than the first, allegations of corruption were lodged by each candidate against the other. What is corruption? For those schooled in Classical Liberalism, Aristotelianism provides a framework in considering this question and for helping us understand which candidates may be corrupt.


Of course, there are statutory prohibitions against potentially corrupt behavior, but with your indulgence, kind reader, I suggest we consider this topic on a deeper level.


In his “Nichomachean Ethics,” Aristotle wrote about three types of constitutions and how these are corrupted. He also wrote about the virtues of mankind, with excesses and deficiencies of a given virtue being a corruption of that virtue.


Let us focus today on the constitutions, as they provide a broad view, and how Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden stack up. I encourage you to review Aristotle’s virtues and to think how each candidate measures up in terms of the mean, deficiency or excess.


According to Aristotle, “Constitutions proper are kingly government and aristocracy; and, thirdly, there is a form of government based upon an assessment of property, which should strictly be called timocracy, though most people are wont to speak of it as constitutional government simply.” For our purposes, we may think of our American government as being in the third classification. Instead of property ownership, we use citizenship and age as requisites for engagement in the political process.


Assuming that we are still a constitutional government, Aristotle would say that corruption of such a form results in democracy – a majority rule form of government in which a simple majority decides for all. Take a moment to think of the implications of such a system, and the logical ends to which you will come will surely demonstrate the inherent dangers of pure democracy.


At the extreme, 51 percent of the population could decide to exterminate the other 49 percent. Yes, it is a reductio ad absurdum argument, so let me offer an example closer to home – the selection of a justice for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. As discussed in Week 11, the Democrats in the Senate changed the voting threshold from a supermajority to a simple majority, yet they now bemoan the fact that Judge Coney-Barrett is being added to the Supreme Court without broader support. They made the simple majority bed, now they must sleep in it. Personally, I think a lifetime appointment to any office is significant enough to warrant a supermajority, but that’s just me.


Regrettably, our political history over the course of the past 100 years has been defined by the transfer of power from the people and local governments to the national government. Put another way, the hallmark of the past century is one of abdication of individual sovereignty. In effect, we have moved away from the timocracy or constitutional form of government to one more akin to a kingly form. Instead of one man as king, who so assumed his power by Divine Right, we have a kingly caste made up of lifelong politicians and deep state bureaucrats. Through this lens, there is little wonder that ascension to the presidency is more like a royal line of succession than a process of election by citizen voters. How else could Clinton, Biden or McCain have seriously been possible? They were entitled, and it was their time. Trump has been the anomaly. The only other anomaly in the recent past would be Ross Perot. 


Aristotle describes the corruption of a kingly form of government as one in which the king (or in our case, the state) becomes a tyrant, placing his own interests above those of the people. In this context, we must consider the recent revelations of influence peddling by the Biden family. It is unlikely that we will have the full story of Mr. Biden’s son and brother and their profiting off of Mr. Biden’s name, his former position and the position to which he aspires. Be that as it may, the evidence out there already is damning and may easily be likened to values and practices of a tyrant. Mr. Trump, it is charged, has used his position to aggrandize his real estate fortune. It is certainly reasonable to assume that foreign powers and corporations hope to ingratiate themselves to the Trump family but patronizing Trump properties, but the accusation that seems to remain unanswered is whether or not the President has used his office to effectuate such patronage. 


Which man’s “kingly” action is more corrupt? That is something each of us must decide before casting our ballot.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Countdown to the election

Starting Saturday, the 24th of October, Publius will speak daily as a 10-day countdown to the election. My hope is that the past year and the next 12 days will have helped you contemplate the issues before us, as free men and women. Let us not forget Reagan's admonition that freedom and liberty are never more than a generation away from extinguishment. Until Saturday...

  Day 5: Semiotics of the Donkey and Elephant   In the election of 1828, a political satirist characterized Andrew Jackson as a jackass, usi...