Of Presidents and Derelicts

Barack Obama is no fan of the Constitution. He has been known to criticize it for its focus on limiting government, for telling governments what they can and cannot do. He prefers a Constitution that focuses more on telling governments what they should do, at least telling governments to do what he would like, including seeing to the “redistribution of wealth,” or what he calls elsewhere “redistributive change.”

Of course, that is a mischaracterization. Not a mischaracterization of Obama’s views but of what the Constitution says. It does limit government, but it also gives government specific responsibilities and the power to exercise those responsibilities. Article I, Section 8 provides a very clear list of the federal government’s duties. It is noteworthy that those enumerated responsibilities and powers are in the Article that establishes the Congress. The list includes such things as providing for the common defense, borrowing and paying government debts, regulating foreign and interstate commerce, establishing standards for weights and measures, and so forth.

There are plenty of other provisions that limit the powers of the government and how it operates. The Constitution is a balance of governmental duties within a structure intended carefully to limit the government. As a limited government our Republic has prospered. It has struggled either when its duties were neglected (as in the days of President Buchanan, who did nothing while he watched state after state rebel from the Union) or when the limitations have been eroded (as we have witnessed through much of the twentieth century and in the first 14 years of the twenty-first).

The President has specific powers and duties, too, nearly all of which are carefully linked with the role of the Congress. For example, while the President does not make the laws—Article I, Section 1 gives “All legislative Powers” exclusively to the Congress—the President is authorized to make proposals to Congress and has the authority to veto legislation (but not change it) that Congress has approved. Once an act of Congress becomes law, the President then has the explicit obligation to, “take Care that the Laws be fully executed” (Article II, Section 3).

Note the words, “fully executed”. The President takes an oath to fulfill those duties, and nowhere in oath or Constitution is the President authorized to execute the laws only as much as he likes or agrees with them. Once something has become a law, the President may not set aside this or that part of the law or decide that he will only enforce the law so far. His obligation is to take Care that the laws are fully executed.

Average Americans may not like this or that provision of law, but we are not at liberty to ignore any law that applies to us just because we do not like it. The President is not exempt from that common responsibility of all citizens, either. As the chief government executive, who sought to hold his high office of public responsibility, he is even more obligated not only to obey the laws but to execute them, fully. The President may not make the laws, he may not amend the laws, he may not change the laws, and he may not disregard the laws. His duty is to execute the laws, and when he does not he is derelict in his duties.

This is all in accordance with the important division of labor, the separation of powers that the Founders put into the very structure of the Constitution to combat the tendency of all humans to abuse power once it comes into their hands. By dividing the power of government among three separate but coequal branches, dividing legislative power even further between House and Senate, and yet again separating government power between federal and state governments, the Founders went to clear and elaborate lengths to create checks and balances.

Under the American system of government no branch, no person, no group of people in government, are to be able to do very much on their own without getting the other elements of government to go along. Where they are not able to agree, where there is no consensus, for the safety of our freedoms government is prevented by constitutional law from moving forward unless substantial consensus among the different branches can be reached. Those checks and balances again and again, throughout the more than two centuries of our Constitution, have forced the very human people in government to revisit their differences and come to terms with one another, however much they may disagree and be disagreeable. There is safety for you and me in that. And it helps keep our Union together, repeatedly forcing our leaders (and the parts of the nation that they represent and whose authority they exercise) to work with one another, like it or not.

Recently, President Obama has expressed impatience with the Constitution’s checks and balances. After all, he personally, in and of himself, embodies an entire branch of government. The other branches, Congress and the courts, have many different people with a messy variety of ideas. President Obama complains that Congress cannot decide what it wants to do as quickly as he can. In his view, why wait?

By design, Congress of course has something of a multiple personality. It is a gathering of elected representatives, reflecting the diversity of views among the people of the nation. Appropriately, it takes time to build a consensus that accommodates those views, as it should. But President Obama cannot wait. He sees the need to accommodate no ideas other than his own. He has decided that on this issue or that—today it is immigration laws—there is a limit, defined by himself, as to how much time Congress can take to consider things. When time is up, he, the executive branch, will take the matter into his own hands, and pretend to the authority to do it.

His tool of choice today is to abjure his duty to execute the laws fully and instead to execute them partially, just to the extent and manner that suit his own desires, as he engages in another round of redistributive change. That he is endeavoring to violate rather than execute our national, founding law, and his constitutional oath of office, apparently does not trouble him. It is the Constitution itself that troubles him.

But from where does he think he gets his authority to do anything. When he breaks the Constitution, does he not break his very authority to act in the office that the Constitution created?

Of Self Determination and Carving Up the World

Woodrow Wilson unleashed some nasty asps of public policy on the world, the venom of which continues to work its misery on mankind. Professor Wilson as President pushed into practice the idea that American governance should be shifted from the people who elect Senators and representatives and entrusted instead to a cadre of wise men in the executive branch. Experts like himself, elite college professors and their best students, would know better how to manage the affairs of others than would the teaming masses of the nation left to make their own decisions.

Today, thousands of regulations, uncounted yards of red tape, and millions of bureaucrats later, we all live within a shrinking sphere of personal liberty, with diminishing control of our lives, permitted to make few decisions without someone we do not know having a major say in so much of what we have and do. Increasing numbers of our neighbors have effectively been rendered wards of the state, unable to manage their own lives without dependence upon a myriad of government programs that punish individual initiative and grind up families. Today, the most reliable predictor of poverty in America is being a single mother. Lured into the web of sweet-sounding sticky federal, state, and even local programs that promise help, these government victims are rarely delivered from poverty, and neither are their children or their grandchildren. This is surely not what Woodrow Wilson intended, but it is surely what his model of governance by experts has delivered. Obamacare is one of the most recent and obvious examples of this machinery of misery.

Yet it can be argued that nothing that Woodrow Wilson bequeathed has worked more harm than the destructive principle of “self determination,” imposed by Wilson and his international experimenters at the negotiations to rearrange the world after World War I. Of course, he did not act alone, but Wilson did much to make the world safe for World War II. Self determination worked its evil by institutionalizing perpetual turmoil in eastern Europe and the Balkans, as bickering and unstable micro-states created a power vacuum tempting for fuehrers and commissars to fill.

The concept of self determination can seem appealing as long as you do not pause long enough to consider how it might actually play out in practice and over time. The basic idea—and it does not go very far past this basic idea—is that every group of people has the right to find its own place in the sun, either with its own government or subject to another, whichever the group might wish.

It was this idea that Russian boss Vladimir Putin invoked to cloak his grab of Crimea. The people of Crimea had a vote (carefully monitored by Russian troops) in which over 95% said that they wanted to break away from Ukraine. And then they decided, almost the next day, that they wanted to become a part of Russia. According to the Russian Government, this was all very legal and in keeping with international law. It was self determination. Who could object? It was more than faintly reminiscent of the nearly unanimous votes in the nations of eastern Europe a generation ago—when occupied by the Red Army—in favor of communist regimes closely allied with the old Soviet Union. More self determination.

I wonder whether Professor/President Woodrow Wilson thought of how his principle of self determination would have worked in American history? What if Wilson instead of Lincoln had been President in 1861? Did self determination apply to the people of the southern states who wished to leave the Union?

I also wonder how dedicated Vladimir Putin really is to the principle of self determination? If it applies to Crimea, does it also apply to the people of Chechnya, who seem to be eager to be out of Russia? Are there other minority populations in Russia yearning to breathe free?

How about elsewhere in the world? Is self determination a universal principle worthy of universal application? Are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran ready to let the Kurdish minorities carve up their countries and realize their dream of a new Kurdistan? How about Muslim minorities in southern islands of the Philippines? The Tamil populated northern Sri Lanka? The Sunni-majority communities in Shiite majority Iraq? The multitude of tribal groupings in virtually every country of sub-Saharan Africa? Are all of the many minorities of China content with being governed by Beijing?

When would the bloodletting of self determination ever end? It has not ended yet, whether used as a justification for aggression or as a means of sustaining discontent. It is a ponderous legacy.

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of War and Freedom

Independence Day 2013 had perhaps a more than usual significance for our national holiday. On that day, 150 years before, the Army of the Potomac waited on the hills and ridges south of Gettysburg for a rebel assault that did not come. Though General Meade and his officers and soldiers were unaware of it that morning, the rebel army was beaten, after three fruitless days of attacking the soldiers of the United States to clear a path to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself. Instead, Robert E. Lee was engaged on July 4, 1863, in plans to extricate what was left of his army from Pennsylvania and get it across the Potomac and into Virginia before it could be destroyed.

On that same day a thousand miles to the southeast, the rebel army in Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to the U.S. Army and General U.S. Grant. It was strategically an even more important victory. The fall of that rebel stronghold would lead to the free navigation of the entire Mississippi River, from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, for all shipping loyal to the United States, and it divided the rebel Confederacy in two.
As Grant reflected later in his Memoirs,

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after. (Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p.297)

Some who are not friends of the United States Constitution make the false claim that the War of the Rebellion was clear evidence that the Constitution was hopelessly flawed, that the war revealed the weakness of the American government rather than its strength. Such critics little understand history or what a rare thing it is for nations—or rather the people of nations—to learn to be willing to settle issues of life, death, and livelihood by the casting of ballots. It is an acquired discipline.

Consider how very few democracies or republics have been established and accepted by the populace without the people being convinced by bloody war and rebellion that deciding issues by votes and law is superior to trying them by force. England had many civil wars and rebellions on its way to rule by parliaments instead of kings. France, too, went through several revolutions before its current Fifth Republic achieved political stability. The Weimar Republic of Germany teetered for some fifteen years until it descended into the Third Reich, and only upon ruins was a stable federal republic built. Japan at last settled for meaningful republican government after its military dictatorship completely prostrated the nation in World War II. Republican government was only months old when the Bolsheviks replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the verdict is not yet in as to whether the Russian nation has embraced free republican government even now. Similar stories can be told all across the globe, about China, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, and many other lands that through trauma and struggle came today to be governed by leaders chosen by the people limited in their authority by viable constitutions.

But if the American War of the Rebellion demonstrated the challenges to constitutional government in the first one hundred years of the Republic, it also showed its strength. That can be illustrated by what its critics consider its most damning flaw, for they denounce the document for enshrining human chattel slavery instead of abolishing it. In this they are entirely wrong. The Constitution took the thirteen new American states as they were in the late eighteenth century and brought them into a society of constitutional freedom incompatible with slavery, where the operations of that Constitution would sooner or later bring slavery to an end.

It is true that there are provisions in the Constitution as adopted in 1787 that recognized slavery. That was the price for bringing the slave-holding states into the Union within the structure of the Constitution. That very Constitution, however, made it impossible for slavery in the United States to endure. Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, war waged by the people under that very Constitution was abolishing legal slavery in America. Perhaps there was a time when it might have ended peacefully, but peacefully or not, slavery in the United States had to end.

As Abraham Lincoln predicted at the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” I believe that Lincoln knew which would triumph, but I do not know that he suspected that he would be the constitutional officer that would see that the Union was not dissolved and that all of the United States would become free.

By the end of 1860, slaveholders knew that they could not retain slavery if they stayed under the Constitution. Sooner or later, the votes would be cast to end the practice. The slaveholders chose to rebel and get out from under the Constitution before its principles of human freedom inexorably overcame them. But once under the Constitution, it was too late to leave. Under the organization of the Constitution, the armies of the Republic were organized and put down the rebellion and slavery, holding congresses and conducting elections along the way.

The War of the Rebellion did not free the land from enemies of freedom and constitutional law. Those who would impose their will on their neighbors remain with us today. Their freedom is protected by the Constitution. But the Constitution has ever stood in the way of their plans to subjugate their fellows, and it will continue to do so as long as it is upheld. Hence the relentless efforts to undermine it, to claim it a flawed document, or pronounce it a “living document,” changeable at the whim of politicians and judges who are allowed to raise their own will above its meaning. Our devotion to that Constitution, if we are to remain free, cannot be any less than that of those who fought at Gettysburg and other battles of freedom. As we remember them, it is our turn to show “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”.

(First published July 11, 2013)