The Deficit of Decency in America

| June 17, 2014
In a hyperpolarized and toxic political system, who’s to blame for our dysfunctional national dialogue?

In a hyperpolarized and toxic political system, who’s to blame for our dysfunctional national dialogue?

EDITORIAL –

Distinguished U.S. Senator from Vermont Patrick Leahy often employs a poignant parable to constituents and voters while on the campaign trail.  Currently, Sen. Leahy is the Senate’s President pro tempore, a post typically given to the most senior member of the majority party; the President pro tempore is third in line for the presidency pursuant to federal law; specifically, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

Sen. Leahy speaks of his father during the Great Depression, four years prior to the Senator’s own birth.  In 1936, Vermont was among the most fervent strongholds of the old, Northeastern Republican Party.  On August 1, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt visited Montpelier as part of a campaign stop.  Leahy’s father, a man who the Senator often quips was likely the only Democrat in Vermont’s capital at the time, stood in front of a large insurance firm on State Street to get a glimpse at the 32nd President as he drove through the city in an open automobile.

As the president’s motorcade passed, the president of the National Life Insurance Company, standing next to Leahy’s father, removed his hat.  At the time, National Life was seen as a sort of enclave for the Vermont Republican Party.  Leahy’s father jested to the insurance executive, “I never thought I’d see the day that you would take off your hat to Franklin Roosevelt.”  The insurance magnate turned to Leahy’s father and said, “Howard, I didn’t take off my hat to Franklin Roosevelt.  I took off my hat for the President of the United States of America.”  Sure, Leahy notes that this was a man who would never vote for Roosevelt or, possibly, a Democrat—but it was a man of a different breed of a bygone age; a man who respected the office of the Presidency, and the office of the Congress.  Leahy’s parable speaks to a breed of man seemingly devoid from our current political system.

In February of 2004, the great U.S. Senator and Governor from Georgia, Zell Miller, sauntered to the floor of the U.S. Senate to speak to the moral decay of our society.  Zell Miller is a conservative Democrat.  He famously and openly spoke against the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry at the 2004 Republican National Convention.  Without the leadership of Gov. Miller, the Hope Scholarship for Georgia’s most promising high school graduates would not exist.  The Hope Scholarship is a model which many other states have coopted for their own higher education systems.  When Sen. Miller reached the Senate floor, he prophetically spoke against the now-infamous Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake 2004 Super Bowl incident.  Miller noted that today’s vile rap culture, indecent pop culture and banal reality television, the attempts to remove ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments from government buildings have led to a “deficit of decency” in this country.  Wholeheartedly, this author agrees with the distinguished former Senator from Georgia.

Though, there is not simply a deficit of decency in our culture.  To up the ante, there is a deep-seated deficit of decency in our system of politics.  It’s doubtful that these two deficits, one in our culture and the other in our politics, are mutually exclusive—likely, they’re reinforcing.  Whether it’s comparing President George W. Bush to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler by his opponents, or they very same analogy made about President Barack Obama; whether it’s the divisive birther movement, or the IRS specifically targeting conservative groups, the derisive nature of our politics has reached critical mass in recent years.

In a March 2014 private lecture from American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident scholar and political scientist, Norm Ornstein, Prof. Ornstein spoke to the widespread divisive nature of our politics.  In the late twentieth century, proximately beginning in the 1990s, more staff began sitting in on policy meetings.  Planks in candidate’s platforms were no longer statements of personal conviction, but carefully poll tested and phrased partisan positions on issues of public import.  Campaign strategists no longer left candidates upon their election to reenter private industry as business and advertising consultants, but waged a permanent campaign against the opposition outside of traditional election cycles.  All politics were no longer explicitly local.  Particularly, congressional elections became nationalized and it became increasingly difficult for individual candidates to distance themselves from the national party organization and the platforms inherent to it.  In short, politicos became increasingly homogenized within party blocs, and our national discourse increasingly polarized because of it.

In their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norm Ornstein extrapolate on the current state of American politics marked with a polarized climate perpetually marred in gridlock and acrimony.  Mann and Ornstein claim that our current Congress, with its intense polarization, is almost completely impotent to exact far reaching legislative success.  Our Congressmen no longer converge on Washington to ‘come together,’ which the very word “Congress” is derived from in Latin, but to simply and spitefully oppose one another’s initiatives.  Mann and Ornstein claim that congressional parties “have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, [but in] a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act.”

The framers of the federal constitution purposely crafted a unique institutional arrangement to prevent an absolute “tyranny of the majority.”  In the Westminster system, unitary government is designed to empower the majority party with the absolute authority to make law.  The prime minister and his cabinet, also known as simply, “the government” rules without fear of their initiatives thwarted by a minority party.  The minority and its “shadow cabinet” may oppose and offer alternatives, but not block the initiatives of the government, because the government has the right to govern by virtue of their majority.  The minority may plead its case to the body politic (i.e., the electorate) in order to regain control of parliament and the government, but once a government has been assembled, there is little the shadow cabinet can do to prevent majority action.

This concept is foreign in the American federal system.  The very nature of the federal legislature is to force legislators to craft policies favored by a broad consensus and not simply the narrow preponderance of the members of the majority party (for a well-illustrated commentary, see The Federalist No. 10).  Further, institutional rules such as Senate cloture force legislators in the upper-chamber to achieve a broader plurality of voting Senators than a mere and simple majority.  It can be posited that American politics is the study of unity.  America is a place forged by the confluence of many different peoples.  In fact, during the age of the American Revolution, the notion of a completely united thirteen colonies was not, necessarily, a guaranteed result.  When the framers of our nation met in Philadelphia to draft the federal constitution, following long and spirited debate, the colonies and their representatives had to come together and forge a widely agreeable national government.  This was sufficiently harder than one may first think considering the varying sociopolitical, demographic disparities amongst the colonies in the late-eighteenth century.

Unity is ever-present in our American experiment in democracy.  This is well illustrated by the simple fact our original colonies coalesced around a central federal constitution to form the United States rather than maintain divided states.  Our history notes that we are a mecca for the world’s people.  A core American value is the value we place on our immigrants.  The fact that all the world’s peoples are represented in one place, under a common flag, living harmoniously, and building the world’s strongest nation speaks to our national character of unity through our differences.  Among the most consequential statesman of the early Republic, Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky was known as the “Great Compromiser.”  This is not meant as a dig, but a title of endearment.  For our nation to flourish and prosper, today as in the age of Clay, compromise is a necessary and inherent component to American democracy.  To compromise and reach a broad consensus is not in spite of our national character but inherent to it.

If history teaches us anything, statesmen are called such because of their ability to see past their own philosophies and seek a higher, nobler truth.  Hardliners, those who refuse to see past their own personal biases and preconceptions, such as Sen. Joe McCarthy regarding communism or Gov. George Wallace regarding segregation are never held in such esteem.  To further demonstrate the point: to compromise on an issue is not to compromise on one’s ideals.  One can be a principled conservative and work with an equally upright liberal on an issue and not placate on their core philosophy.  For instance, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion” of the Senate, worked closely with conservative President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind education initiative—a bipartisan achievement early in the Bush administration.  Sure, No Child Left Behind has serious issues, but it’s an example of bipartisan compromise at its finest.  To refuse to work with someone of a different party or philosophy is to run contra to the very foundational principles of the American federal system.

Our nation, our electorate, our media, and our politicians too often employ toxic, vile, and vitriolic language rather than seeking out a middle ground—in short, politics for the sake of politics.  In my editorial last week, I came out against Valdosta State University hosting physician, conservative darling, and political pundit Ben Carson in September.  I was called a hypocrite for saying our nation needs more unity, yet trying to deny the opportunity for Carson to speak.  Once more, I was called a hypocrite for saying Carson was wrong to compare America to Nazi Germany because of our robust public discourse and free speech, but saying he shouldn’t speak at VSU.

I stand by my remarks.  America does deeply need more unity.  Grotesque and incendiary language should be unilaterally singled out in our national discourse.   Sure, Carson has every right to say whatever he wants to say.  If he really wants to compare this nation to holocaust and totalitarian-era Nazi Germany, he has every right to do it.  When Carson wants to say that the Affordable Care Act, which has insured millions of previously uninsured Americans with affordable health coverage, is slavery—he is wholly allowed to do so.  When Dr. Ben Carson, MD wants to assert, in spite of the overwhelming consensus in his field to the contrary, that homosexuality is akin to pedophilia and bestiality, no one is stopping him.

Nevertheless, my point was implicitly simple: Valdosta State University, generally, and its business school, specifically, does not have to be complicit in his extreme views.  Valdosta State would not be censoring Carson, they would not be violating his free speech—they would be simply not giving him a microphone to do it.  That’s an important distinction.  For instance, if Valdosta Today.com wanted to end my column, as many had suggested in the comments section of last week’s editorial, they could do so and it would not be violating my free speech rights.  There’s a clear distinction between suppression of ideas and the restriction of the forums which those ideas may be presented.  VSU has a specifically designated free speech zone.  Protestors must limit their demonstrations to the designated area in order to ensure a productive and uninhibited classroom atmosphere.  They are not limiting the free speech of protestors, they are merely restricting when and where they may actively voice their opinions.

If we want to change the politics of this country, we must restore respect and comity towards those we perceive as our opposition.  We must tell those who propagate those fringe and most divisive views that we yearn for broader discourse and understanding, and will not abscond to cheap attacks and hysterical diatribes.  In short, if we are to restore this nation to greatness, we must say to those who seek only to sell books and speaking engagements off of their sensationalism, we want more from our civic discourse, we will not give you a microphone to profit off of the decay of this country’s political engine.  I wonder if Carson were wearing a hat at the National Prayer Breakfast when he sat adjacent to President Obama, if he would’ve removed it out of respect, like the friend of Leahy’s father did for President Roosevelt in 1936.  I wonder today how many still would, out of a basic respect for not only the Presidency, but our nation, generally.

The final question that remains is the most profound: where does this deficit of decency in our politics stem from?  Carson has said that it is “slick politicians and dishonest media” who are “in the process of destroying our nation.”  Is it really that simple?  No.  If Carson was honest with his audience, he wouldn’t be able to sell his books and regularly contribute on cable news. The answer lies in Shakespeare’s political epic, Julius Caesar.  In a famous exchange between Roman Senator Cassius to his colleague Brutus, Cassius orates that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Carson and those like him, both on the left and the right, did not create hyperpolarized twenty-first century politics—they merely exploited it, and rather masterfully.  In the 2008 election cycle, 94 percent of Congress was reelected.  In 2010, it was 85 percent, and in 2012 reelection rates stood at 90 percent.  Our 24-hour cable news cycle is not a business without widespread viewership and heavy profits.  The point being, in democratic government, we elect the “slick politicians” and in capitalism, we choose what we will consume—including the “dishonest media.”  The fault is not in the ‘slick politicians’ and ‘dishonest media’ as Carson argues, but in ourselves.  Cassius was right.  The source of division is not foreign to us, but inherent within us—it is something that only the solitary individual can change for themselves.

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7 Comments on "The Deficit of Decency in America"

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  1. Papi says:

    Nicky, all your writing can be summarized in one sentence.

    The United States of America has little by little pushed GOD out of it’s life as nation, it is written in the BIBLE a house divided will not stand.

    P.S. Most of your college professors have had a great influence in attaining that goal!!!

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Papi,

      I’m with you. God has slowly been eroded from our national discourse and the growing trend of secularization raises concerns as to where our national discourse is heading.

      Sure, people should be able to do as they please and practice whatever system of religion or faith they choose. With an increasingly sexualized media environment, with Smartphone applications designed to propagate filthy SMS text messages and ‘casual’ sex apps, with teen pregnancy reaching record levels (particularly in the south), and a culture incessantly moving away from God towards more promiscuity, less decency, and more self-indulgence—are we really better off with no prayer in school? Are we a better people because the Ten Commandments are no longer allowed to reside in government buildings? I know this is a rather reductionist view of the state of affairs in civil society, but I refuse to believe that these concepts are not, somehow, interrelated.

      Alright, there are a lot of college professors who’d likely agree with my sentiments above; I don’t know that calling them out en masse as being ‘bad’ is likely the best and most productive way to have a conversation on ‘division.’ Professors are people too—they believe many different things, as all people do. Let’s set the example and try to refrain from needlessly positing derisive statements about whole groups of people. If my article teaches anything, change can only start with us—thus let’s be the change.

      Thanks,
      -Nick

      • Papi says:

        Nicky,

        I have attended colleges not only to obtain my degree but also for further studies and I stand by my statement “MOST” college professors like discrediting GOD with their theories and personal agendas, they take advantage of their opportunity to expand their personal views. Sad but true!!!

  2. Ron Kerman says:

    Nick,
    Good attempt at fair play, you fall far short in relating to the substance and defining the context (actually the lack thereof)in your remarks about what Dr. Carson has said in public discourse. You’re not a bad writer, only a dishonest one. I bet you didn’t watch the video clips I sent you (Ben Carson’s Kids or The National Prayer Breakfast) and you obviously didn’t offer the URLs up to your readers to review for context or lack thereof. You have are given ‘microphone’, but you would deny it to someone because you don’t agree with them. I find that hypocrisy.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Ron,
      Regarding the URLs, I had links in my original article that I submitted to Valdosta Today.com. If you’ll notice, for some reason, there’s no formatting in the entire piece. My editor must’ve forgotten to put in my links or any stylistic components, such as italics, underlining, etc. To that end, if you have a specific fact you want checked, send me an e-mail (narudnik@valdosta.edu) and I’ll be happy to provide you with the link. I apologize for that.

      On not providing content you sent me on my latest article, you can comment on any article and provide your own links for the site’s readers. Normally, if you’ll look at my previous work, I’ll provide relevant links that follow the narrative of the piece. Other extraneous links are typically not included.

      Further, I’m not sure that you understand the implicit argument behind my editorial. What I’m contending is that we should strive toward a system of politics devoid the divisive rhetoric we are left with presently. This is not a free speech question, this is not a question of censorship, and this is not some ‘liberal’ bias. However, this is a question of what kind of politics do we want—what kind of national dialogue should we strive for? Do we want a system of politics where nobody agrees on the same set of facts anymore? Where pundits regularly employ plain lies and less than honest hysteria in order to placate to a hyperpolarized audience? I don’t think so. If Carson doesn’t speak at VSU are we infringing on his free speech rights? No. Does this make us Nazi Germany, as Carson claims? Give me a break. Anyone that wants to make that comparison should Google ‘the holocaust’ and then let me know if that resembles America in 2014. It’s not that I’m intimidated by Carson or afraid of what he is saying—it’s that I desperately think we need more than Carson’s empty dialogue and policy positions which experts, time and again, have dismissed (and I’m happy to provide links to the expert analysis which dismisses nearly every single ‘reform’ the good doctor has offered.)

      Regards,
      -Nick

  3. Rusty Wetherington says:

    Nick,

    You actually had a pretty decent article going there until the last three paragraphs. It seems you’re all for “unity” but only as long as it agrees with you. That you apparently think it a wonderful thing that VSU has a “specifically designated free speech zone” pretty much says everything. Has there ever been a more obvious oxymoron? And I have to second pretty much everything Mr. Kerman stated in his previous comments. It is disingenuous to throw insults without providing URLs to back up your assertions.

    However, you actually did touch on a serious problem in your final paragraph, but the fault is not to be found rhetorically in Shakespeare, but from several decades of hyper-partisan politically gerrymandered districts based on nothing more than protecting entrenched incumbents. Only a few states have non-partisan commissions draw up their district maps, as opposed to state legislatures. More states should follow suit.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Rusty,

      I think you and I are in complete accord regarding the gerrymandering of legislative districts. In the 2012 election cycle, about 8 percent of congressional districts were considered to be “competitive contests” (by New York Times FiveThirtyEight)—that’s a major problem. But think through the entire process. Who elects the state legislatures who reciprocate by drawing up increasingly safe House districts? Who continues to vote for these ‘divisive’ politicians and listen to the derisive pundits? When it’s all said and done, we are, when you think through the entire system; that’s the basic nature of democratic government.

      Speaking to VSU’s free speech zone, to make myself clear, that’s something I do not, in any way, support. I was merely illustrating the point that speech can be curtailed—that VSU can legally impose limits, as can any organization, as to who they may invite and allow to speak on their campus. I wasn’t placing a value judgment on the free speech zone, but for the record, I do not support it—but my point was it is, nevertheless, not a violation of the first amendment.

      Regarding the URLs, I had links in my original article that I submitted to Valdosta Today.com. If you’ll notice, for some reason, there’s no formatting in the entire piece. My editor must’ve forgot to put in my links or any stylistic components, such as italics, underlining, etc. To that end, if you have a specific fact you want checked, send me an e-mail and I’ll be happy to provide you with the link. I apologize for that.

      Best,
      -Nick