Friday, May 8, 2020

Week 27: Inclusivity

In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a Petrarchan sonnet as part of a fundraising effort to build a pedestal for La Liberté éclairant le monde, a gift from the people of France, which we call The Statue of Liberty. Lazarus, a poet, a tax reform advocate and an active opponent to anti-Semitism, wrote:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Lazarus’ poem describes many of the people who came to the shores of America, as well as those who continue to come to this nation, this City on a Hill, to borrow a metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount. Particularly since the 17th century, people, suffering from all forms of adversity, have traversed the seas in the hope of a better life. As it quite often does, from adversity pullulates prosperity. For centuries, the tired and poor, the huddled masses and the wretched refuse, the homeless and the tempest-tost, in other words the human beings oppressed and rejected by their native lands, have come to this land to have a new start at life.

Exiles, refugees and immigrants – you and me, our parents and grandparents, our ancestors – not satisfied with the social contracts of their homelands, sought and continue to seek a more equitable and a more inclusive social contract. They seek, as we all do, a social contract that will promote our happiness and empower us to thrive, not at the arbitrary benevolence of a monarch or tyrant, nor at the inconstant will of a mob, but by the innovation of our minds, the industriousness of our hands and the spirit of our hearts. Each of us, as free agents to pursue our goals, ultimately function to advance the goals of our society. It is precisely because of that freedom, the freedom to pursue infinitely diverse interests, that we are an exceptional, diverse and inclusive nation.

Lady Liberty’s torch is that of imprisoned lightning. Remember that it was during the Titanomakhy that the Cyclopes gave to Zeus the lightning bolt, a weapon that inspired fear and submission in immortals and mortals alike. To the gods of Olympus, mortals were mere objects for their manipulation and perverse amusement. So, too, were subjects and masses to the leaders of tyrannical states. So, too, are they today. Tyrants, regardless of their title, cause their peoples live in fear and submission. In America, fear and submission are not to be used as tools of the government. Our mother, the Mother of Exiles, has restrained such lightning bolts.

Lady Liberty, Lazarus tells us, cries, “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Perhaps she is referring to the democracies of ancient Greece. After all, the “brazen giant” to whom she refers is none other than the Colossus of Rhodes, Rhodes being a Grecian island, whose inhabitants were governed by democracy.

In forming our government, the Framers, who were students of not only the Enlightenment but also of Antiquity, knew all too well the hazards of a simple majority ruling the whole of a society. Democracies have an inherent flaw: a proclivity toward mob rule. This is particularly dangerous when considering the size of the states. Should a populous state dictate what happens to the people of a smaller state? More broadly, should half plus one of the citizens, divided along any line one chooses (e.g., gender, race, age, religion, etc.) decide how the other half minus one should live? No, the Framers devised a fairer, more inclusive system for governing our social contract.

Between autocracy and democracy, which are two extremes but both tyrannical, there is a system of self-government that is guided by a vision shared by the whole and that still respects the individual. It is a representative republic. In a republic, virtue and love of the society is the focus of the people, to paraphrase Montesquieu in his work, “The Spirit of the Laws.” To quote Montesquieu, though, when referring to a republic, “Corruption seldom begins with the people.”

This brings us to the third part of former Vice President Biden’s tripartite vision for America.

“We’ve got to make sure our democracy includes everyone. Our politics is broken and excludes too many Americans. Until we fix campaign finance, voting rights, and gerrymandering, it will continue to get more polarized, more ugly, and more mean.”

Among my greatest political pet peeves, the use of the term “democracy” to describe the American system of government ranks on high. The use of the term “democracy” by politicians either exposes their ignorance or betrays their deceit. If Mr. Biden, or any other politician who uses the term “democracy” to describe our system of government, and in doing so believes he or she is accurately characterizing it, has no business whatsoever representing We the People or ruling over us. If, on the other hand, a politician uses this term to stir within the citizenry suspicion, fear and hatred of one group toward another, he or she has no place in the halls of government; instead, he or she should be named the traitor that they are and dragged from their seat in office. This leads us to a question: Are Biden and his ilk (i.e., many other actual and would-be politician) simply careless and stupid, or are they deceptive and treacherous?

Mr. Biden’s first claim is that our political system is exclusionary. This claim would be laughable if there weren’t some truth in it. I doubt very much, though, that Mr. Biden and I view it as being exclusionary for the same reason. I infer that he believes there to be institutional exclusion. Not since August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed, prohibiting the government from denying the right to vote based on sex, has anyone been constitutionally prohibited from participating in the political process. Additionally, cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1965 and 1966 outlawed the application of poll taxes in federal elections and in all other elections, respectively, constitutionally prohibiting conditions placed on an individual and his or her right to vote. Furthermore, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, essentially duplicating the intent of the 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments. As one can see, our political process is, indeed, quite inclusionary. A citizen’s right to participate in our politics is enshrined in our very Constitution.

I would say exclusion does exist, but it exists in an insidious, extra-legislative manner. One need only read articles about intimidation tactics employed in elections during the past two decades. Reports exist of Republican operatives misinforming Democrat voters about voting locations. Reports exist of Democrat operatives standing outside polling stations in paramilitary gear and holding weapons.

Antithetical to the intentions of the Founders, politics is now a lifelong career. Political office is a path to power, and as we have discussed before, power has a corrupting influence. It is power that leads to the issues that Mr. Biden raises.

Consequently, I think there is one solution and one solution only. It is not, as Mr. Biden suggests, campaign finance reform, yet more voting rights legislation or mitigating gerrymandering. I firmly believe that those are just political shell games. I seriously doubt any politician will address any of those issues in a way that benefits the citizenry and their representation in the life of our nation’s government. I have addressed these issues jointly, above. I will not waste your time, kind reader, nor mine by addressing them severally.

The only solution I can conceive that will bring the people’s voice back into the political process is the institution of term limits for all members of Congress. The result would be the destruction of political machines, which favor big money and prop up politicians who are in their positions for their own wealth and power, as opposed to the benefit of their constituents. If those in Congress were limited in the number of terms they could serve – in total or even just consecutively – there would be greater opportunity for more of our fellow citizens to run and serve. There’s real inclusivity. And because politicians would not be in it for the long haul, there would be no reason for big-money individuals and lobbyists to invest their money, because any given politician would be out of office and no longer of use to them. Voter manipulation would be mitigated, because a politician would no longer be using such manipulation for their long-term prosperity. The same line of thought would apply to the need for gerrymandering.

Earlier in life, I was vehemently opposed to term limits. I thought if a person wanted to run and his or her constituents wanted to elect him or her, so be it. As I’ve gotten older, though, I have realized the truth in Lord Acton’s admonition about power. It leads to corruption, as Montesquieu said, and those who are pure of heart tend to be chewed up and spit out by the political machinery of the long-term office holders.

Sadly, I do not think term limits are possible. I cannot see a practicable way to make them a reality.

Therefore, for me, it comes down to one question. Who has actually done something about instilling a virtuous love of country in the citizenry, and who has benefitted from using exclusion as an issue year after year without advancing any real change?

  Day 1: Vote your conscience   Over the past month, social media posts, tweets, chats, etc. have been replete with “vote as if…” admonition...