Impeachment and Corruption

Fresno Bee, February 2, 2020

Our constitutional crisis is also a moral one. The impeachment saga shows us deep-seated corruption. One side must be lying. That means that half of the political establishment is fundamentally flawed.

Either the Democrats are engaged in “demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” as President Donald Trump said. Or the president has “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections,” as Adam Schiff put it.

Something is rotten in America. We disagree about the source of the stench. But after this is all over, no one will be satisfied. Most will continue to believe that something stinks.

The accusation of corruption flows freely in both directions. The Trump camp accuses Joe Biden of nepotism. Biden’s son got a high-paying job in Ukraine, where the taint of corruption is especially pungent. But power and money infect the whole system. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner parlayed their connections to move from Manhattan to D.C.

Nepotism and cronyism infect everything. The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is married to a Trump cabinet member, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. The senator declared in December, “I’m not an impartial juror.”

This admission reinforces what many Americans think about the legal system anyway: that it is rigged. The powerful get away with stuff and the powerless get stuffed away.

Or consider John Bolton. If he has information relevant to Trump’s impeachment, he should just speak up. If a kid knows something, teachers and parents encourage him to spill the beans. Law enforcement says, “if you see something, say something.” But that does not apply in Washington, where what you say depends upon personal and political advantage.

We hold our children to a higher standard than our leaders hold themselves. But shouldn’t it work the other way around? Shouldn’t there be a higher standard for those who are entrusted with power and authority?

During Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the late Sen. John McCain said that if a military officer were caught doing what Clinton did, that officer should resign. He explained, “I do not hold the president to the same standard that I hold military officers to. I hold him to a higher standard.” He continued, “Presidents are not ordinary citizens. They are extraordinary.”

McCain’s point echoes a proverb made famous by Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This idea sounds naïve today. After Bill Clinton and Donald Trump it is difficult to believe that anyone lives according to a higher standard. Priests mess with kids. Sports heroes cheat. Politicians lie. And no one seems worthy of our respect.

That lesson can be liberating. If everyone is corrupt, then there is no reason to feel guilty or inferior. But the liberation of lowered standards is dangerous, if it gives us a license to sin. If our leaders lie and cheat, why can’t we?

The value of a moral life persists, of course, despite what the powerful do. We know that truth and integrity matter in family life, in school, and in professional life. And at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. The powerful may not be worthy of our respect. But you should want to respect yourself.

To teach our children to live well, we ought to encourage them to do the opposite of what they see in Washington. To find moral models, we should look in another direction. Let’s celebrate the unsung people in the moderate middle of things. Nurses, teachers and all kinds of ordinary people do their jobs every day with honesty, integrity and compassion. We learn to be moral by watching grandmothers, coaches, scientists and neighbors – not by watching the political class.

Good people tell the truth. They strive to be impartial. They work hard. They care for their families and help their neighbors. Good people do not live according to a calculus of personal advantage.

Ordinary moral decency may not help you in politics. But it will help you live a life that you can be proud of. In the end it is important to hold yourself to a higher standard, even if the powerful live according to a lower one.

Impeachment and Enlightenment Democracy

Fresno Bee, December 8, 2020

In this winter of discontent we discover that democracy contains a dark side. We should lower our expectations without giving up hope.

The president suggests that Democrats do not love our country. The Democrats claim the president betrayed his oath of office. Americans are so divided about impeachment that it often seems that we live in different universes.

But this is to be expected. Free people will diverge. Liberty leads to discord and disagreement. We even disagree about what counts as reasonable. The challenge is to accept this, the cold shadow of democracy, without giving in to cynicism.

The ideal version of enlightened democracy is sunny and enlightened. It imagines virtuous citizens meeting together in public to deliberate and reach reasonable consensus. The losing party would graciously concede, while admitting that the process was fair and their opponents were worthy.

Enlightened democracy is republican in the classic sense, where a republic is a government based on the public good (in Latin, the “res publica”). Thomas Paine explained, for example, “Republican government is no other than government established and conducted for the interest of the public.”

The enlightenment dream is of public-spirited and rational citizens sharing a common understanding of the good of the community. They would have faith in the intelligence and good will of their opponents.

A phrase from Thomas Jefferson explains the genteel dream of enlightened deliberation. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson describes the two of them as “rational friends” despite their deep disagreements. Jefferson said, “you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.”

In these winter months, Americans no longer view one another as “rational friends.” We appear to lack a common vision of the good life. We believe in different facts. We suspect treasonous malice in the other. And we disagree about what is reasonable. This makes public deliberation impossible.

The impeachment hearings are sterile debates, not collegial deliberations. The participants in these “hearings” do not listen. Instead, they talk past each other. Each side has already decided what it believes. There is no effort to find common ground. And each side blames the other for being irrational and partisan.

We are witnessing what is sometimes called “agonistic” democracy. This is democracy as strife, struggle, and conflict (in Greek, “agon” means competition). Agonistic democracy is not about building rational friendship — it is about defeating political foes. The focus is on gaining partisan advantage. The goal is to build power, not to achieve rational consensus.

Agonistic democracy is full of dirty tricks and Machiavellian maneuvers. Fallacious arguments are made. Facts are ignored. And reason is left out in the cold.

President Trump is a master of this game. But he did not invent it. It is an old game familiar to Socrates, Shakespeare, and to the founders.

James Madison warned that people can be “blinded by prejudice” and “corrupted by flattery.” We are prone to error, delusion, and the tyranny of the passions. The system of checks and balances seeks to mitigate the damage caused by the “violence of faction,” which is the “mortal disease” that destroys democracy.

The partisanship in D.C. can leave us disillusioned and cynical. Cynics give up on the dream of rational friendship and public deliberation. When we succumb to cynicism, we sink further into the abyss of Machiavellianism, with violence lurking around the corner as the irrational nadir of a world gone mad in pursuit of power.

Madison’s remedy is the checks and balances of the Constitution. But we also need hope that this dark winter too shall pass. History moves in waves. There are moments of cold-hearted darkness. But the spring will come again — so long as we don’t burn the bridges that can lead us back to rational friendship.

In the same letter that Jefferson wrote to Adams, he noted that he and Adams were both too old to change their opinions. It may be too late for friendship to bloom in the winter years of the Trump-Pelosi generation. But the younger generation can do better. Let’s teach the youth to be better: to be more rational, more republican, and more friendly.

Impeachment, The Constitution, and Civics

Is the United States heading for an impeachment crisis?

Fresno Bee, September 10, 2016

 

Democracy is both inspiring and appalling. This year in California we will vote on initiatives involving the death penalty, firearms, taxes and health care. We also will vote on whether marijuana should be legal and whether porn actors should wear condoms.

There is no guarantee that voting will produce wise and virtuous outcomes. Porn addicts and potheads will cast votes alongside priests and police officers.

The national race does not inspire confidence in the electoral process. The primaries have given us two flawed candidates for president. Each accuses the other of mendacity and incompetence. With this level of animosity before the election, dysfunction likely will follow. Some commentators have suggested that there will be an impeachment crisis in the next few years, no matter who gets elected president.

Democracy can produce good outcomes. Smart and sincere voters can elect virtuous officials who are dedicated to the common good. But the fact of diversity means that we will disagree about what we mean by virtue and the common good. And so democracy also gives us gripes, grievances and gridlock.

THE PRESENT ELECTION PROVIDES A WONDERFUL TEACHABLE MOMENT. CIVICS EDUCATION INCLUDES A DISCUSSION OF THE VIRTUES AND VICES OF DEMOCRACY AS WELL AS ANALYSIS OF THE STRUCTURE AND HISTORY OF THE CONSTITUTION.

Philosophers have often criticized democracy. Plato warned that democracy can quickly turn to tyranny, as the people elect tyrants who make populist promises while plotting to take advantage.

John Adams, our second president, shared Plato’s worry. He warned about the dangers of direct democracy. He said: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution tried to remedy the flaws of democracy by giving us mixed government with a separation of powers. That idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. A mixed government is not very efficient. But it aims to prevent tyranny by frustrating the machinations of those who lust for power.

Another remedy focuses on educating citizens. This idea was dear to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson wrote that education of the common people is the best way to secure liberty.

A similar argument is made in a forthcoming book by educational and moral theorists Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks. The book “Teaching Controversial Issues” maintains that critical thinking and moral education are essential for democracy.

NO NATION IS PERFECT.

The authors argue that democratic schools should encourage critical thinking rather than blind obedience. We need to give young people the tools to analyze and evaluate controversial topics, while inspiring them to remain committed to the common good. The goal “is to develop thoughtful, well-informed citizens for a participatory democracy.”

The present election provides a wonderful teachable moment. Civics education includes a discussion of the virtues and vices of democracy as well as analysis of the structure and history of the Constitution.

It is easy and fun to celebrate the myths of uncritical patriotism. But the truth is more complicated. No nation is perfect. There are no utopias. The flaws in political systems reflect flaws in human nature. People are not perfect. Nor are the systems we construct.

On Sept. 17, 1787, when Benjamin Franklin made a motion to approve the Constitution, he acknowledged that there was no perfect constitution. Human beings always bring with them “their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” So no human constitution can ever be perfect.

But rather than leaving us discouraged, this should invigorate us. There is work to be done to improve the world. In the end, we get the democracy we deserve. We build the world we live in with our questions and criticism as well as our votes.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article100862147.html#storylink=cpy