But what about principles?
The Framers of our Constitution were clearly principled men, but they understood that politics underlies all organized human activity — including the affairs of both the honorable and the untrustworthy among us.
So what can be said that is encouraging about politics?
Nobody expressed this dilemma more pessimistically than a disheartened ambassador John Galbraith, who observed in 1962, “Politics is not the art of the possible; it consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” (Galbraith was lamenting over the politics of the Vietnamese war).
The Framers were probably thinking more like 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable … the art of the next best.”
The Framers knew they couldn’t devise a blueprint for a utopian government, because we humans are hopelessly flawed.
So they struggled mightily, and ultimately adopted a somewhat convoluted political system to — in my view — avoid what they feared could be the tyranny of the majority (think of the guillotine and other horrors of the French Revolution), believing that if views were to change, they should do so slowly so the outcome would not be catastrophic political chaos.
The Framers didn’t sacrifice their principles.
They recognized that in a democratic republic, “making a deal,” not a rigid ideology, is the only practical strategy to move a society forward. (This is the inherent weakness of President Obama and the rigid ideologues in his inner circle of power).
The Framers recognized that there were too many ethnicities, diverse viewpoints and a whole lot of geography in a country as spread out and as disconnected as our United States.
To that end they set up a cumbersome system of checks and balances, hoping that somewhere along the way in the negotiating process, leaders of the various “factions” (Madison’s term) would see the value of a half a loaf of bread, as opposed to no bread at all.
Don’t focus on ethics, morality or principles, but think rather of what Bismarck said — and it’s a great line — “the art of the next best.”
Not to bore you with a philosophical discussion, but Bismarck’s view was close to philosopher George Hegel’s view that politics, too, is a continuing evolutionary process in which each idea (thesis) prompts its opposite (antithesis) from which a distillation of both ideas results in synthesis, which, with any luck, is a creative, incremental benefit for society.
But it doesn’t end there.
In the context of politics it is a never-ending process. Each outcome is in Bismarckian terms the “next best” as the political process moves on striving for the best possible compromise.
As a political conservative, my position is that the truth lies in the direction of smaller, more tutorial, rather than an immense dictatorial, federal government. An example would be a presidential council of educational advisors as opposed to an extensive and generously staffed Department of Education. And my inclination is to preserve our representative democracy, rather than have a direct democracy that progressives would prefer.
The philosophy of new-millennium progressive liberals is best exemplified by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, (Barney Frank, Al Franken, Bernie Saunders to name a few) whose laudable goal is to spread prosperity evenly among the population, which in practice seeks to guarantee societal outcomes at any cost through a large and aggressive federal government.
Its implementation raises a whole host of issues — cost, for one.
I would argue that another moment of synthesis may be in the making, not because of lofty intellectual reasoning, but rather because both America and Europe (the wellspring of our intellectual and political values) are broke. In the process of trying to spread prosperity, western social democracies have destroyed themselves.
While we have been moving in this direction for decades, the Founders tried to design a government that would protect the people from themselves (as Madison said, “their errors and delusions”) as well as a tyrannical government. This proved to be an impediment for progressives.
At least it is slowing them down.
The Founders knew a direct democracy would fail just as surely as a monarchy did, so they established a government in which the voters ruled indirectly through representatives.
Federalist No. 39 makes this clear: “a government which derives all of its powers directly or indirectly from the … people … administered by persons holding office … for a limited period … is sufficient …”
To underscore this system of government, Federalist No. 63 explains that the “true distinction” of our government “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity from any share in the (government), and not in the … exclusion” of their “representatives … from the administration of (government).”
So, to rein in the passions of people, the Framers limited House members to a two-year term, and to indirectly elect senators by having them elected by state legislatures, (unfortunately undone by the 17th amendment) and the president by the Electoral College.
Not that our elected representatives, are, as Lincoln said, “touched … by the better Angels of our nature …,” but the Framers knew in their hearts that in the long run most Americans would not put the common good and the protection of the individual rights of others over their own interests.
(Yet 21st-century Democrats vote for politicians who promise to do just that; but they, too, are ultimately confronted with economic realities).
So while our Founders knew they could not prevent “the change we need,” as President Obama says, they set up a system to require the federal government to move slowly.
They knew they couldn’t prevent change forever, but also knew that in a pure democracy, the majority would ultimately confiscate the property of others. (Think of the European riots). Somehow we have not arrived at that point yet, but in a way the majority has achieved its goal through unsustainable social programs somebody has to pay for; something the Founders never thought of.
Yet by impeding the speed in which government can react to populist opinion, maybe the majority will come to realize we too are at the European Rubicon of economic bankruptcy.
So we have two opposing theses that will marinate over time, hopefully into a more pragmatic synthesis, and save people from their own bad behavior.