If Not Washington, Then What?

The Problem of Legal Authority

Perhaps the most unfortunate fact about the current government of the United States is that a vast amount of the work the Federal government does is illegitimate.  The Constitution of the United States lays out certain tasks for that government to perform, and implies – in the Tenth Amendment specifically states – that other powers belong to and duties are to be performed by the individual States or by the people.

Most markedly, when compared to the work we find the Federal government performing, the powers assigned to it do not include any form of welfare administration, or care for health of persons or communities, or involvement in education, or provision for the arts.  This is to say, by current stated law all such programs ought not to have been brought into being and we ought to desist from them, for the sake of law and honesty.

It is not to our credit that, in political engagements these days, it is relatively rare to hear an official or candidate make this argument – and lamentably, rarer still that one who does is taken seriously.  However the anticipation of doom brought on by suggestions to restrict these programs for any reason whatever are as discreditable.  The majority of the programs commonly mentioned are not even particularly old; while certainly care ought to be exercised in their dismantling, the mere fact of their removal, once effected, will not result in catastrophe but force a return to other – I believe better, but certainly more legal – ways of providing these things.

It is sometimes argued, in the term “living Constitution”, by torturing of legal phrases, or by similar arguments, that the Constitution is merely a guideline and has no definite authority, and certainly not an authority to restrict government – that government has the authority at all times to do what is necessary.  This is untenable: applied beyond the Constitution it undermines all law whatsoever – and if applicable to first principles, surely it applies to lesser regulations.

The Process of Restoring Legitimacy

I will not discuss here the various ways different facets of this over-expanded Federal involvement should be curtailed.  I also am not going to discuss – which is anyway more speculative – the various way I see this underlying dishonesty affecting the rest of our government, although I think it does.  I am instead going to discuss the three parts of a reform process I think are essential:

I. Focus on State and Local Responsibilities

One of the major arguments for the necessity of Federal involvement is that in certain areas it is alleged that State governments are unable or unwilling to perform the work necessary.  In most cases I know of, “unable” is not accurate; “unwilling” may be.  At this stage of illegitimate centralization, it seems to me likely that states will have stopped attempting to manage certain things.  In other areas such as education policy we know that what has resulted is massive, often conflicting, layers of regulation from every level of government which has any excuse to become involved.  To the degree the Federal government is removed from authorities it has usurped, attention must be paid at more local levels to maintaining and improving what services ought legitimately be publicly performed.

II. Understand Government as Part of Society

This is a “middle of the road” principle.  The progressive inclination is to treat government as the pinnacle and ultimate voice of society, whether justified as “the people’s will” or “the knowledge of the experts” or simply by default.  The progressive needs to remember that any society does not function purely because the people at the top make it go.  On the other hand, in America the conservative tends to view any government – though strangely, not most government agents apart from the IRS – as inherently evil.  They – we – need to remember Chesteron’s aphorism, that “politeness” and “policeman” have the same root and that both are necessary to maintain political society.  Government can be overreaching and can do evil.  However, it is not necessarily bad, but is a good thing and is instituted for justice and the common good.

III. Legitimize What Should be Kept

I have argued above that the Federal government is doing certain things it ought not because it has no right to those powers.  However, it may be the case that – because of changes in ideology and technology or because of historical reflections – certain things it is doing right now illegitimately, which were brought about in a perceived crisis but without the necessary legal authority, are good ideas and ought to have been implemented properly.  To legitimize these functions would require Constitutional amendments, but this is not too high a bar: we have had plenty of these – one within my lifetime, even.  This concept is not mine, although I have adopted it as it seems sound.  It was introduced to me by Anjali Reed Phukan, whom I talked to (incidentally and at a completely unrelated event) while she was a candidate for Maryland Comptroller in 2014.  However, my expression of it may not match hers: among other things, the fields for Federal action which I view as potentially legitimate are somewhat broader than those she proposed then.  While I will not in this piece examine the subject exhaustively, I believe the amendments necessary involve at the least the following: first, some general regulations for the Federal bureaucracy, such as review by elected officials of regulations affecting the public; and second, a formal expansion (if necessary) of fields within which the Federal government is authorized to act.

The Documentation Problem

The first work of science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny which I read was his short story collection – turned into a novel of sort by means of the useful anachronism of supposing the protagonist of each to be the same character – My Name is Legion.  Although not one of the better of his works, I got a copy of my own when I ran across it in a used book store, because it had once caught my imagination, and I had quickly found his Amber series and other works – but my literary interests are not exactly the point right now.  The protagonist is, depending on your point of view, either nameless or over-named – and unidentifiable, having managed to erase his records.  In the 1970s Zelazny had already extrapolated something very like our “Information Age”: “Everybody, nowadays, has a birth certificate, academic record, credit rating, a history of all his travels and places of residence and, ultimately, there is a death certificate somewhere on file.”  The particular quasi-villain he imagined has not, that I know of, yet actually emerged – “[S]ome people set out to combine them.  They called it  a Central Data Bank.” – but I am not sure it is for want of trying (consider the recent attempts of the United States government to collect schools’ testing data, for instance), and the reason put in the mouth of the chief organizer – “… ‘[S]ome means has to be found to record and regulate… a society as complex as ours…'” – sounds presciently familiar.

Zelazny’s protagonist begins as an enthusiastic programmer for the project – but with time and promotions his worries grow.  It is really incidental to the main story, an explanation of why he is an unidentifiable person, so I will risk the spoiler and simply state that he gains a position of responsibility such that, with all records centralized, he can remove all records of himself.  An excellent solution – presuming he never comes to the attention of the authorities, otherwise his existence-on-record begins as a criminal one, starting with the misdeed of not having existed officially before being apprehended.

Thus far Zelazny: now my train of thought picks up.  I have similar misgivings about what we now call “Big Data”, especially when it combines with the government.  But I do not quite think the solution of erasing all paper trails is the correct one – or viable, for that matter.  What we need to do is to formulate some principle for who needs to know what, and what constitutes informational overreach.  There are, roughly speaking, two legitimate general reasons for personal information to be shared: the private and the public.  A doctor or investment advisor or lawyer will want to know quite a bit about me – or, as the thrillers have it, be paid far more handsomely than usual for working without that information.  On the other hand, if I am responsible for a large project or to a large number of people, they will also rightly want to know quite a bit about who I am.  But in neither case, as I simply exist, is it your business or the policeman’s business or anybody’s, really, what my name is or what I am doing.

Or where I come from.  Now, we have certain kinds of identification which exists in a sort of preventative sense.  I have a driver’s license primarily so that, when I drive, the police know who I am if I crash or even run a red light – and who they need to find if the fine does not get paid.  I am registered to vote so that, if I feel like voting and show up to do so, the election officials have some record of me as well.

What I find curious about this, however, is that so much of our information provision relies on previous information provided.  Virtually never do I hear the obvious suggestion made that if someone shows up with no documentation, the thing for the party concerned to do is to document them.  We know how to do this when we know we are starting from scratch – the pictures of voters waving their ink-stained hands in celebration in the new democracies in the Middles East have stuck with me, regardless of how poorly those governments may at this point seem to have turned out.  The thing about fingerprints, too, is that they are personal – unique in fact, or all but, as I understand it.  They’re also fairly permanent – though I am told they can be changed or removed, painfully – not dependent on an individual’s organizational skills when moving.  They also do not depend on the whims of an Office of Existence Certification somewhere as to what goes on the form.

All of which is circling around the point I want to make: it does not much matter whether my neighbor is from Pennsylvania or Paraguay.  The extent to which I want to see immigration controlled is pretty much for the relevant agencies to take down sufficient information for future identification and to confirm – as far as is possible – that the person is not wanted for actual crimes somewhere.  Maybe that really would mean a central data bank of fingerprints and such somewhere, that states’ police or other authorities could access.  But that’s about it: all this “qualification” and “vetting” and so forth has me rather dubious.

The question of voting, or other benefits attached to citizenship, is rather different.  Citizenship is not equivalent with existence, even for those of us fortunate enough like Paul to have been born citizens of a fairly stable entity.  A nation can make citizens: it does not make persons, even or especially when like China it attempts to end them.  I said before that my neighbor – let him be called by the everyman moniker Joe – could be from Pennsylvania or Paraguay with no difference made to me.  As far as existence goes, this is true: but if Joe is from Paraguay, I would like him to have some introduction to the American system first if he wants to vote, or have public monies assigned to him in the form of welfare.  If he desires, in short, to be part of the public system he ought to identify himself with it publicly.

To put my position briefly: I am opposed to most restrictions on movement, travel, and immigration, but am in favor of making and keeping formal divisions between citizens and non-citizens.  Details, of course, need somewhat more thought.

Review: National Philharmonic plays Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, Dvorak’s 8th Symphony

Today Haochen Zhang played the second of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with the National Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore.  The program also included Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, composed in Bohemia shortly after the striking success of his 7th.

Zhang is a Van Cliburn winner and played like it; the orchestra responded in kind.  I found only one tiny flaw, and that not, from my recollection of various recordings, uncommon: at fortissimo the orchestra did once or twice simply drown the sound of the piano.  Though I was also in the second balcony.

He also performed – not on the program but as an encore to the first half – a solo piano piece which I did not recognize but believe by length and form was a movement of a sonata, perhaps Schumann or Brahms.

The Dvorak unfortunately did not come up to the same standard.  The first movement was clean, beginning beautifully and remaining solid.  The second opened in unremarkable fashion, but when the emphasis was in the brass, the string sound was muddy, damaging the force of the crescendos marking the halfway point and again near the end.  This might again be due to my position in the balcony, but here I suspect not.  The orchestra handled the waltz opening the third movement wonderfully, but the more energetic second portion felt cluttered.  In the final allegro the opening fanfare was good but the transition notes to the main portion were awkwardly phrased; the movement was otherwise solid but the brass once again had a tendency to run over the strings a bit, although the finale came together just about perfectly.

My impression was that the orchestra – or the conductor – Piotr Gajewski – overdoes everything just a little bit.  Loud brass a bit too loud, the slow a bit too slow, the energetic with more focus on energy than precision.  Altogether a good concert, but not a great one.

Three Paragraphs on Health Care Law

I support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. In the mean time, or if that proves unworkable, I would strongly suggest amendment or repeal both of parts of the ACA and of other Federal regulations which have tended to make the health care process more and more a hassle, and especially those parts which make unwarranted demands on citizens. Additionally I would like to see the government pursue a policy of opening health care as much as possible to the free market: expanding options for insurance across state lines, cutting out subsidies for special interests such as insurance companies, and removing corporate versus personal distinctions in regards to, for instance, tax law.

The Affordable Care Act is un-Constitutional.  It was passed on a strictly partisan basis.  It has not met the goals with which it was advanced, either the well-publicized claim that it would preserve then-current insurance plans or the obvious and stated goal of saving people money on healthcare.  Premiums have gone up for health insurance- as was in fact predicted beforehand by many who did not support the bill – and it is not clear that overall any significant improvement has occurred either in quality of or access to actual health care.  Certain parts of the scheme have not worked as planned.  Moreover the regulations imposed in enforcing the bill have so far blatantly disregarded the Constitutional and traditional American protections of the private conscience.  The ACA has been so unpopular since its introduction, and more so since its passage, that the Republican Party has been running virtually on a repeal platform alone and through three elections has been successful to varying degrees in so doing.  It is barely even a “done deal”: its full requirements were not in effect at the commencement of President Obama’s second term.  The point is this: while it is understandable that some would decide that – despite these drawbacks – the ACA is preferable to the state of affairs before it became law, it does not make sense to consider repeal efforts surprising, inexplicable, or unconnected to the desires of the electorate.  I would even add that the potential for repeal illustrates why we should not hand more power to government than absolutely necessary.  What the strong arm of the government can “give”, it can most definitely take away again on a whim.

However, the repeal of the ACA should be done in a straight-forward manner.  The current effort to mangle the law by budget resolutions and amendments is not the way the repeal ought to be achieved.  I linked and support the bill Senator Cruz sponsored to repeal it properly.  I do not support the budget chicanery (on this or any other of the issues it is so often invoked).  Lincoln is supposed to have said that the best way to get rid of bad law is to enforce it thoroughly – the implication being, of course, that enforcement would result in increased public displeasure with the measure – and with laws not blatantly immoral this is the method I would endorse as well.  Admittedly some of the ACA provisions, at least as currently regulated, are such – but not, that I can tell, the ones targeted at the moment.  The question of the morality of a law which is illegal by higher law – I did earlier and seriously call the ACA un-Constitutional – is a difficult one.  To take the possible counter-example most easily proposed: what if the higher law is itself immoral?  I do not believe this of the Constitution as currently amended (currently interpretations I will pass by), but the principles involved are certainly enough to give one pause.)

Five Focus Points for Policy

One of the things I discovered fairly early on was that my particular items of discontent with the political status quo were not always shared by everybody or even anybody else.  A slightly later discovery was that what you discussed led people to assume other things about your opinions.  And at some point, I noticed that popular opinions could prioritize a discussion.  In general I take a somewhat cynical view of politics, so where the discussion is already focused where I would like to see change, I am happy enough to add to the volume there and leave other things alone for a while.  On other items, I see a problem, but do not like the dominant ideas behind possible solutions being discussed: here it is easiest to let things go by, especially when I do not know enough to say anything particularly helpful.

However, I am here taking one post – possibly others in the future – to discuss some of the major problems I would like to see specifically addressed by the governments of the United States at their various levels.  (Though I do not expect to be even widely read.)  These in general can be summed up by saying I would like to see these entities due their proper jobs without prejudice but with regard for reality.  A key premise is that a good number of things which are not being done, or are being done badly, ought to be done, but the central government – especially its bureaucracies – should not be trying to do them.  Particular ideas I have range from the vaguely reasonable to the highly unlikely to the ideologically sound but ridiculous to outright dreams.  Despite being generally in favor of limited, not to say inactive, government, the activity of change in most of these areas would be massive.  I have selected five broad categories.

Citizenship and Identity

The Constitution of the United States does not offer any particular definition of citizenship, leaving it at the time of ratification in the hands of the various States, either explicitly or implicitly.  Various laws and amendments have altered the situation somewhat, yet the legal situation with regard to the status of various groups as “Americans” remains problematic.  Speaking broadly, there are three groups not satisfactorily accounted for with regards to identity, property, rights, and status: Native American tribes and residents of non-State “territories”; residents of the United States whose presence is formally illegal; and would-be immigrants.

The first group are descendants of residents of territories annexed to the United States by force, and their resulting status has not really yet ever been satisfactory either in moral sense or one of national identity.  The problem of the Native American tribes, the reservations, and faulty administration is well-known if rarely discussed; the problem of the territories mostly forgotten.  But this is a lot of people to leave in a second-class position.  Puerto Rico would, formally joining as a State, be roughly the 30th most populous, with corresponding numbers of representatives, actual senators, and so forth.  To point out the problem is not the same as determining a solution, of course.

The second and third groups have distinct problems but can in some sense be taken together: in each case these are people who (largely) would like to live as Americans but are not.  Immigration policy, as I understand it, currently favors those already “skilled”, with a reluctant acceptance of some few refugees, making the boast on the foundation of the Statue of Liberty rather hollow.  Meanwhile various persons have in fact managed to live in the country without formal status.  I am not opposed to a distinction between resident and citizen, which seems to me the simplest solution to both issues.  The problem of how many immigrants might actually be absorbed – mainly in terms of provision for their life – is a vexed one I am not prepared to hazard an answer to.  I will not here even speculate on where responsibilities might properly fall.

Welfare, Insurance, and Medical Care

The government of the United States has over the past years grievously overreached its appointed role.  Various programs such as Social Security and Medicare have no basis in the Constitution, and a great many other regulations are dubious.  Most recently the “Affordable Care Act” attempted to restructure the provision of medical insurance, and among various measures which have mainly resulted in cost increases included a mandate of purchase: among problems with the law the unfounded audacity of the mandate overrides even the mere philosophical offense to principles of free exchange.  To say this should all be done away with is hardly a revolutionary opinion.

The difficulty comes in the intermediate steps.  While some argue for sweeping all these away at once, and letting a single shock then subside into a more normal situation, I think there is a difficulty in that some of these programs now have long standing.  Provision for persons who have planned with the handouts provided do need to be made, because in some sense Social Security, for instance, is a “common law” guarantee at this point.  Similarly, each individual State government – and more local authorities – ought to examine whether the case for providing such “social” insurance programs (which most States’ constitutions, unlike the Federal one, seem readily to authorize – and where they do not, well, State constitutions are regularly amended) is a good one.


The Federal tax code is an immense collections of regulations at this point – a puzzle, really.  There are a great number of taxes, which is one problem; and they are accompanied by an even greater number of exceptions, which is another; and the taxes collected do not in fact cover the government’s expenditures, which is perhaps the worst indictment.  This is not a simple problem to solve – I have my own pet scheme, as I think everyone does, but it presents various difficulties itself – but ought to be addressed on more than a continuing patchwork basis.

Regulations and Bureaucracy

The Federal government has created, in the pursuit of solutions to many problems (many of which are not even legally its business), a whole host of agencies, bureaus, and departments.  I have come to believe it was an oversight in the original Constitution to not specify more clearly the nature and limitations of this “fourth branch” of the government – while it was not the Founders’ intentions to produce anything like the sprawl we have today, even the business of the government authorized by that document must be done by someone, and those persons organized.  An amendment, or several, I believe, are called for, which ought to do the following: state specifically which spheres the Federal government may operate in; authorize those existing departments (or new ones, though I believe ideally this would result in considerable consolidation and virtually no expansion) which are necessary to those spheres; detail processes for creating any other departments as necessary by technological advancement; and provide explicit authorization and methods for Congressional review, or even preliminary approval, of any rules promulgated.

Privacy and Conscience

It is becoming more and more common for politicians, courts, media, and other influential parties to view religion dubiously – or in fact any determined moral stand on whatever grounds.  This is seen generally in two legal trends: first, legislatures and especially judiciaries take pre-emptive action on socially disputed actions, on the acting assumption that government is the highest law.  Second, many advocate for severely limiting all religious expression, and clamor for private persons to be held to certain standards which are fitting and necessary only for public officers.  This is particularly worrying in that expressions challenged are often on a natural reading of laws expressly legally protected, but many persons seem unconcerned that this is the case, and it seems to me more and more surprised that anyone should even think it is the case.

On the other hand, a growing portion of the populace is engaged in or approving of behaviors traditionally found morally heinous in the United States.  Unsurprisingly, reactionary movements to use government to suppress such behaviors follow close behind, not asking careful questions but taking emotional stances.  That the stances taken emotionally are often less absurd than the things reacted against can often be easily shown, but does not justify the means and method.  Even the exact ends ought to be more severely examined before the power of the state is called in.  The problem should not be exaggerated, nor should the extent of governmental power (and socially weighty opinions) brought to bear in favor of perversions be understated: on both sides political force is brought in to impose, and public opinion sought in order to to shame, the perceived offender.

Very rarely does anyone seem to look for a secular accommodation – which is to say an acceptance of society shared and shareable by those with whom we disagree or even those whom we dislike, a removal of governmental (especially Federal) force from questions at issue.  It is of course no credit to any society when significant moral matters are shrugged off: but it would be, at the moment, far better to let certain things go than to risk nation-wide formal endorsements of villainy.  I would rather have no credit than gross moral debt.  If the cost of avoiding embrace of evil is that praise of some good things is also lost, I will accept that trade, because I do not believe government, while necessary and an inherent good, is perfectible, and so I do not demand perfection.  Practically, if stability can be maintained, it would still be better than a descent into civil wars of irreligion, which is, if history is any guide, the current trend shaped by our power struggles.

The Statue of Liberty

On the whole, I am impressed by most progressive “gotcha” arguments.  For instance, it is true that you make a poor case for the importance of good morals when you keep selecting blatantly immoral persons to serve as your representatives.  But – it makes a poor case for monetary equality when you keep selecting the very wealthy to serve as your representatives.  If we allege hypocrisy, there is too much to go around and hypocrisy makes a poor reason to choose between the parties.

Even more misleading is the charge that conservatives “don’t care” for a particular cause or group when they decline to back specific government programs.  All this charge shows is that the accuser has a paucity of knowledge or vision – one that fails to account for the hours and dollars poured into shelters, food banks, hospitals, pregnancy and childcare centers, schools, and so on by private effort.  The discussion of whether and in which fields a society is better served by directing its charity on a private or a public level (I do not entirely accept the common conservative argument that “‘charity’ from tax dollars isn’t really charity”) is certainly worth having: disparaging conservative intentions is ludicrous and has no connection with reality.

But in one case I do think conservatives ought to listen to the critiques.  “How,” asks the progressive TV host, “Can you talk about a ‘Christian nation’ and be so hostile to immigrants?”  Various texts are commonly cited – admittedly sometimes out of context – to demonstrate that the guarded or even inimical attitude common in conservative circles is not really consistent with the claims we typically make elsewhere.

The claim that the United States is – or even was – a “Christian nation” is dubious, except in the sense that Christianity is (and definitely was) the majority religion.  On the other hand, I believe – as a Christian – that Christian principles applied to law are entirely consistent with – a convenient and revealed guide to – Natural Law, which I might define as “the way the world and human societies best work”.  So I agree with the critics that conservatives – many if not most of whom are Christian, and as Christians often are “conservative” mainly because progressive goals are directly opposed to Christian morals – ought to be welcoming, helpful, and understanding of “[the] tired, [the] poor, [the] huddled masses”.

The question, since the Biblical teaching is so clear – and much of the “Western” tradition agrees, as for instance Terrance’s “I count nothing human as foreign to me” – why do conservatives have problems with immigration, or at the very least why are they perceived as doing so?  This really cannot be defended even by the dubious excuse of pleading ignorance about the correct answer.  The idea of a land that was – or is, or has been, or will be – open to all is even part of the national myth that gets bandied about in Independence Day speeches and on similar occasions.

So when the correct opinion is known, why is it – at least as far as public perception goes – so widely ignored?  Certainly quite a number of Americans are, and have been, hostile to immigrants.  This is in fact probably more common across all parties and factions in American history than otherwise, though there have also always been those courting the immigrant and minority votes as what we now call “special interests”.  On the conservative side, I suspect it ties back to the “Christian nation” myth.  Once you have your perfect society, humanity is very quick to overlook its remaining imperfections and suspect any outsider of trying to disturb it – to say nothing of forgetting how much trouble you had when you were the minority.

Another well-known part of the answer – I say “well-known” but as far as I can tell it is often ignored by much commentary on the subject – is that there is a class of illegal immigrants, that is, persons who are not supposed to have come into the country at all.  Now, the existence of this class is a morally problematic situation – I am inclined, though have not given the situation much serious thought, to advocate for free movement as an ideal – but the fact that these are formally law-breakers makes the conservative, who takes rule of law seriously as a principle and sees it regularly flouted, inherently suspicious.  Other immigrants of any description then gain a sort of guilt by association.  How much the action of various notorious criminals who happened to also be immigrants plays into this I am not sure.  It certainly does not help.

But this brings us to two other factors which are not usually accounted for.

Most Americans – not only conservatives – do not, I think, know much at all about the actual immigration laws.  Most, I suspect, assume they are fairly lenient, and so they direct more or less understandable anger at certain “classes” of immigrants they view as dubious, whatever the emotional overflow may taint.  In fact, as far as I can tell, currently immigration policies are fairly tight, and in fact favor the well-off – those who are assumed to “add to” a society – except for a few policies based on refugee status, whether that is because of religion, politics, or crisis.  Immigration policy, that is to say, is more or less governed right now by perceived national self-interest.  It is true that this policy is often advocated by conservatives, who would sometimes even tighten it further.  They have quite a bit of explaining to do – but I suspect most progressives would adopt similar policies.  As far as I can ascertain historically (though I could be wrong) they have tended to.  But for the average American, conservative or not, I suspect the actual state of things is not known.  Most, I suspect, take the inscription of the Statue of Liberty at face value and do not know how far it departs (and usually has) from the truth.

(Within this conception – however unrealistic – of what things currently are the support for e.g. limitations on immigration from Syria make much more sense.  If large numbers of people assume immigration is essentially unregulated, but current events make a potential group of immigrants potentially dangerous, why not subject them to more careful scrutiny as long as the particular crisis is ongoing?  The biggest blame here lies in persons not knowing about the restrictions and so on actually imposed – and on those responsible for informing them having failed to do so.)

Finally, the concept of charity or hospitality found in the Bible makes steady use of terms typically translated to make a distinction: “stranger”, “alien”, “foreigner”.  That is, there is a distinction made between a person who merely is living in a society, and a person born to it, a full citizen.  Most societies have had this distinction and maintained it is a good and necessary thing.  It ought to be made clearer in this country, though the current state of American politics, and the cloudy relation of Constitution, central government, and State authority, makes that a difficult project.  I would argue, though, that in some small part the conservative distrust of all immigrants is due to the fact that progressives are seen as trying to gain non-citizens the same rights as citizens, especially when it comes to voting and welfare – public money.  “If you’re going to spoil these people that aren’t even really Americans, let’s just get rid of all of them.”  It’s not a very charitable reaction, or a helpful one, or a practical one.  But it is a very human one.

The goal, as I have said repeatedly, is really known to all of us.  We want a free society, and by implication that means a society free to all.  Most conservatives, I believe, would subscribe to this abstract principle – and if not, I am really rather disappointed.  But desire to progress towards that goal is also thwarted by a muddle-headed muddle of actual policies and widespread ignorance of reality.

Dealing with Trump

Barring last-minute and probably unprecedented revelations or electoral hijinks, Donald Trump is set to become the next President of the United States.  This is in quite a few ways an unfortunate state of affairs.  He does not appear to care particularly about truth or law – not even offering the unmeant platitudes of most politicians.  He does not appear to be a moral man – though in fairness, he is not significantly worse, that I can tell, than what we allow other celebrities to be.  After sixteen years of well-ordered family life in the White House, however, it is rather a shock.  On the plus side, the carriage and behavior of his children through the campaign spotlight does suggest that he is not exactly a failure as a parent, even if all that meant was leaving their upbringing in other competent hands.  Further, Trump appears to be reasonably intelligent: his manner is off-putting, especially to those used to priding themselves on manners and intelligence, but his success on the campaign – surprised most, but should not be discounted.  He seems to communicate effectively with significant parts of the population, and to speak in terms – this may not be a good thing, but might prove handy – that various of the “strongmen” throughout the world can deal in themselves.

In fact it has been remarked that he bears many of the marks of that kind of person himself.  We can hope that the advantages that presents are used wisely, while the disadvantages are held in check.  Unfortunately, the various checks on personal power offered by our system of government have been steadily eroded for some hundred years now by the pressure of national and international crises, and various ideologies which wish to centralize control of society for its better ordering.  Now those powers wind up in Trump’s hands, and – well, whatever we might wish, the man is clever, but does not seem to have “restraint” among his qualities and priorities.

I am therefore not particularly hopeful that Trump’s administration will prove generally beneficial to the state of the American polity.  I do think, however, it provides a very different and in some ways better chance than a Clinton administration would have, because it will have a very different character than the “politics as usual” we have been used to.  It might provide a shock and a chance to think – unfortunately, so far we have had the shock and are still in the stage of complaining about being woken up.  The progressive factions are particularly shocked, and particularly vocal.  It seems to me clear that Trump does not have a very secure personal base as President, while the Republican party held and even – through the office of the presidency – gained power.  I do not much like the current state of parties in American politics, but this suggests that conservatives do have some room to launch real reforms.  It also suggests that Trump can be very narrowly watched even by his own party, and that, despite his “populist” base, he actually has much less room for executive action than any recent president.

Therefore, the Republican majority in Congress has a responsibility to govern responsibly.  On a very few issues its hands will continue to be tied by procedural rules which should not be cast aside lightly; on others, all the talk over the last  years can be put into practice as Trump is unlikely to veto Republican bills as a Republican President.  Most importantly, perhaps, Republicans need to view the balance of power correctly: Congress makes law, not the President.  There is little hope at the moment that much of the media will represent either Republican goals or Republican policies fairly, and not all that much hope it suddenly remembers how the Constitution works.  Persons make better copy than committees, I think – but Congress is just an outsize committee, and legislation belongs to Congress.

Republicans and conservatives generally – I include myself – need to steer out of a trap we have been constructing for ourselves.  I am of course concerned by the overwhelmingly negative and even vindictive tone taken by many who disagree with Trump’s policy and personality – and they had and have similar things to say about many other conservatives and their ideas.  By giving offense needlessly they risk – what we already see to some extent – creating a sense among those who agree with Trump more closely that Trump’s policy (or that of whatever other leader of the month) must win or they will be left outside.  Tribalism is already a political trap, and those who assume it must be the case encourage it.  We have to remember that Trump does not make law.   Not all conservatives – never mind all Americans – must agree with Trump – or for that matter with Gingrich or Ryan or Boehner or Falwell.  We have the opportunity to separate policy from the president – policy from persons – start rebuilding a concept of one law for all rather than law as a reallocation favoring some.   Anybody looking to regain the proper limitations of the Federal government has to be fascinated by this opportunity.  If conservative policies are wise, are passed by a Republican Congress, and improve things – well, the voters will know.

Now the sting: I do not really expect the Republicans in Congress to do this.  I suspect many of them are too captive to publicity to swear off trying to run things from Washington.  Moreover, when it comes to policy, I think progressive ideologues will continue to mainly blather on in support of various sexual immoralities, that those issues will continue to occupy media of all stripes, and that the actual business of governing the country will continue in much the same muddle as before.  But the opportunity is there, if anybody shows up to seize it.