The Politics of Procedure

The Republican and Democratic parties remain locked in a struggle against one another.  Their parity produces an agonizing see-sawing that distracts officials from their true representative function.  Careerism and the fate of partisan “teams” dominate the national narrative, coloring the news.

Every issue, including that of the role and condition of citizens in a republic, assumes a fantastical shape when seen through partisanship’s unreliable lens.  Only a few patriots like Liz Cheney use their time at the microphone to remind colleagues and peers that the entire political class is bound to a higher calling, which involves reverence for and adherence to the Constitution.

The federal system that binds disparate states and populations into one powerful nation has always involved trade-offs.  It involves one state putting up with another.  It involves something very much out of fashion, particularly among radicals: federalism requires compromise.

Compromise is often very painful, and it’s tricky.  Its crafters must bear the responsibility for compromise, which by its very nature is unpopular.  Compromise is never ideal; it’s always “less than.”

Those who compromise may suffer resentment and guilt.  Misgivings may haunt them, about whether their counterparts at the bargaining table are trustworthy or whether they could have gotten a better deal.  All this they have to manage while mitigating the disappointment of followers back at home.  And this is the best case scenario, because it assumes that a compromise can be made.

Compromises are imperfect, yet they are generally better than “settlements,” which are face-saving arrangements.  Compromises address painful underlying issues, whereas settlements are ways to avoid the issues and the responsibility that comes with facing them.  Settlements cost the parties nothing and tempt them into “kicking the can down the road.”  Settlements allow problems to balloon through neglect, to the point where they come to govern all other events, even usurping the rule of law.

Instead of tackling urgent national issues together, the parties–at every level of the federal system–are intent on “the politics of procedure.”  This style of politics focuses on the mechanisms of government.  According to the rules of this game, each party seeks to use government and every public power to consolidate and extend its own control.  This style of politics is very bad for the people.  It’s bad for the nation.  Yet, it has been increasing in popularity among politicians since the time of Newt Gingrich, reaching an almost intolerable crescendo today.

Whether Democrats or Republicans are on top is the principal issue in US politics today.  Each party is so used to this degraded form of politics that their members can’t see beyond party destiny.  Their sense of nation is nearly gone.  They imagine and tell one another that, if their party suffers defeat, nothing of value will remain.  They shame and punish anyone bucking the narrative.

Such is the state of politics in the United States.

Image: from this source.
In John Dorival’s 1834 drawing,
an eagle clings to a rock littered with symbols of American Union.
Above the shield of unity floats a baricole bearing the nation’s motto,
E Pluribus Unum (“From the Many, One”).

The poem reads
“Here on the Rock of Boundless Ages
Are Shades of Patriot Chiefs and Sages!
Who form’d our Constitutions Plan
On Moral Justice and the Rights of Man.”

A World Without Lincoln

sketch by Charles Dix of Fort Monroe in the offing, 1863 (private collection)

For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries.  The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter.  Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox.  A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater.  That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.

It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced.  On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated.  To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly.  Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel.  They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate.  Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way.  The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.

Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time.  It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water.  The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.

Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory.  After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned.  Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period.  Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.

It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle.  Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.