Some Constitutional Amendment, Part III

I think the most important challenge facing Americans today is constitutional amendment.

That sub-headline connects the three essays in this series.  The first established new, but perfectly plausible meanings for “constitution” (lower case c-) and for “amendment.”[1]  The second surveyed just why the soil that has produced our current political impasse requires amendment and just what sort of mending would help.  

Now we are down to actually doing—that means “writing about it” in my case— some amending.  There are three pieces to this puzzle that I want to highlight.  The first is the large value discrepancies in our society.  The second is the completely inadequate system of economic distribution.  The third is the “warring tribes” model by which the previous two inadequacies are translated into the governmental impasse I referred to above.

The structure of this problem is really simple. [2]  The angry and distrustful citizens are free to elect a presidential candidate who expresses their anger.  They are willing and able to do this.  That means that mending the current constitution of the U. S. would require making them less willing or less able.  I said it was simple.  I didn’t say it was easy.

Making them less able means doing away with democracy.  Throwing roadblocks in the way of voters who are likely to vote the wrong way is the strategy of conservatism, not liberalism.  So let’s work at making them less willing and let’s start with value discrepancies.

Value discrepancies

My thinking has been changed a little since I started this series.  Since then, I have read a very good book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart:  Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism.  My approach to the social discrepancies has emphasized culture rather than values, but Norris and Inglehart make a good case for emphasizing the values themselves.  There has been, these authors demonstrate, a “silent revolution” in values.  Many of the old values were presupposed, rather than agreed upon, and as new settings lead to new values, the old values were “transcended,” in the view of the young or “abandoned” in the view of the old.

It’s really a generational thing, according to Norris and Inglehart.  Europe and the U. S.con sol 7 have been prosperous and secure for a long time now and the “values” that were required by “the greatest generation” [3] are no longer necessary.  Loyalty to one’s country, clear gender roles, heterosexuality, the cultural hegemony of white Christianity, and other commonplaces were once taken for granted.  But now that they are no longer “necessary,” we are free to look at what they cost us. [4] and when we see that the cost is high—not that those values are no longer “necessary”—we transcend them.  That is the silent revolution.

And if you take seriously the “back-“ in backlash, this is the answer.  This “revolution” is what the backlash is about.  In the view of the old [4], we have finally gone too far.  The things we care most about are overtly rejected and routinely ridiculed by “the elites.” [5].  It is time to stand up for America and for Christianity and for an economy that works for ordinary people.  That is the “back” of “backlash.”

We can’t change those values in the short run.  They will change on their own, under the conditions that produced the “silent revolution.”  When the working classes are secure and prosperous, they will not have a grievance that can be attached by political sleight of hand to the current ruling class.  If they don’t have a grievance, it can’t be used as fuel for a revolution of any kind.

So my “solution” to this problem is to leave the values alone except where they are put into statute as applicable to everyone.  In the view of this culture, for instance, refusing to require everyone to pray in public schools is “throwing God out of the schools.”  Those values, because they are demanded of everyone, need to be opposed.

Economic distribution

Because I focus on the cultural view—and here, I am in debt to the analysis of Joan C. Williams–it is not the inadequate compensation of the working class that constitutes the political problem, it is the prospect that things are going to continue to deteriorate for their children and grandchildren.  There is a braking effect on the feelings of class resentment if the parents always have to be prepared to see their children successful in terms of the current liberal agenda.  This “braking effect” used to keep class antagonisms from hardening up, but under current and foreseen economic circumstances, there will not be upward mobility for the children—the children will not become “them” in the class system—so there is no reason not to circle the wagons and begin to return fire.

I have argued that the flaw—the “menda”—in the economy is that work can now be done so cheaply that it doesn’t sustain workers anymore.  That means that there needs to be—as in the social democracies of Europe—a floor below which we will not allow our citizens to sink.  It means breaking the link, at the lower end of the wage economy, between work and compensation.

con sol 6There really isn’t any other way to do it if there is not enough work to go around.  We don’t need to go so far as Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” but we need to move in that direction. [7]  The value argument is that all citizens deserve this support.  The wealthy deserve to live in a society where they are not assaulted by egregious poverty and need.  The poor need to have their basic needs for food, shelter, and medical care met so they will not experience egregious poverty and need.

So there you go.

This will require a good deal more taxation, of course, but we have the means to pay those taxes and when they are framed as what “we deserve as Americans,” those levels can be defended.

Warring tribes

The third element of the solution wouldn’t be necessary if the first two were the sole causes of the current “menda.”  If the abandonment of the old values and the perpetuation of the new poverty were the causes of the current political warfare, then when we deal with the first two, we have eliminated the need for the third.  Except that it doesn’t actually work that way.

So long as there is an elected government that can profit by stoking the latent grievances con sol 5of the citizenry, there will be appeals of that kind by the government to the people.  Politicians will say that their constituents STILL do not have the respect they are due and STILL do not have a fair deal economically, and that those citizens should be angry about it and use their anger to keep those particular politicians in office.

The previous two “solutions” mean that the citizens need not feel the way they do feel.  The value discrepancy problem has been solved in principle.  The economic equity problem has been solved in principle.  But if appeals are made to them, the fact that they need not does not mean that they will not.  We need also to make the warring tribes model of electioneering a thing of the past.

Currently, people organize themselves into collectivities in which “we” are righteous and unrecognized and “they” are imperious and immoral.  Or vice versa.  The order really doesn’t matter.  Appealing to your own tribe as a way of securing your election will still work so long as there are still tribes.  So my solution here is to get rid of tribes.

What I want is people who are willing and able to recognize that perfectly good people see things differently and, as a consequence, you really don’t need to cherish “enemies,” as is currently the practice.  You can have fellow citizens who are your allies on this issue and your opponents—not your enemies—on other issues.  This makes changes in the nature of the conversation also.  There is no value to treating with contempt, someone whose support and understanding you will need fifteen minutes later.  There is a kind of moderation that is born of these status discrepancies. [8]

So people who will not discuss politics (and economics and cultural values) civilly with their neighbors on the grounds that it is the right things to do, will still do so because it is the prudent thing to do.  You can have my support on zoning if I can have your support on homelessness.

I have argued that the tribal model is a two-way street.  Warring tribes of citizens elect warring politicians, who boast of having no friends in “the other party.”  And politicians who try to get re-elected by appealing to these discrepancies will seen only desperate and shrill, as if they have no real program to offer.

Accordingly, the solution will require two parts.  The national parties will have to stop banning legislative contacts with the other party.  Any Democrat, for instance, would be encouraged to cultivate relationships with Republicans provided it did not damage the high priority Democratic bills.  The old wisdom used to be that we could accomplish more with bipartisan legislation, even if the credit neededcon sol 4 to be shared.  I want that back.

The second is that neighbors used to talk politics fairly peaceably before party membership became a ghetto.  Walking that back is going to be hard because it will require discussions with people who are now enemies on the grounds that they don’t need to be enemies.  “Opponents,” sure, but the friendship is not based on common membership; only on common interests and civility.

End of argument.  The problem as I and the cited authors have defined it, can be reasonably solved by the approaches I have outlined here..  That doesn’t make them any more likely, of course, but having worked my way all the way through from the beginning to the end, I feel better about it.

[1]I made a big point in the first essay that the Latin menda= a flaw or error and the process of a + mending is the removing of that flaw.

[2]  Leaving aside the mechanical problem that popular majorities (but not electoral majorities) continue to vote for liberal candidates, the problem is that the populist majority is willing and able to elect authoritarian leaders.  The solution would have to make them less willing or less able.

[3]  Tom Brokaw’s book has made that expression nearly indispensable.

[4]  Admittedly, just who “us” is shifts around a little in such a series.

[5]  Notice how “elite” shifts the complaint from either a value or a culture and places it at the feet of actual power holders, who can be rejected in one sweep as “them.”

[6] Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.

[7]  The Apostle Paul thought that was perfectly appropriate as an operating practice within the church.  The Apostle Karl applied it to economies worldwide under conditions of communism.

[8]The hot book when I first began to become a political scientist was E. E. Schattschneider’sThe Semi-sovereign People, which argues that democracy is saved by what he called “cross-cutting cleavages.”That is exactly what I am hoping to restore by honoring status discrepancies.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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