05.01.2013 0

The Decline of Virtue

by David Bozeman

Bottom line: American politics is a rotten popularity contest.  Every four years freedom hinges on one man’s ability to navigate a minefield of slander and spin and to assuage one more group than the other guy.  Conventional wisdom says that voters prefer clean campaigns based on issues as opposed to mudslinging, outright pandering and blatant calculation.

If only. The current immigration reform bill being debated represents just the latest cynical, numbers-based, group-focused political calculation.  Both parties are hedging their bets on winning the votes of a large group, in this case, Hispanics, roughly 20 million of whom could ultimately gain citizenship under the proposed legislation.

Its bi-partisan support is baffling, given that its passage might be an electoral disaster, if not a death knell, for the Republican Party.  Hispanics have supported President Obama and his re-distributionist, transformative policies by overwhelming margins.  GOP support of a single issue — amnesty, for instance — may yield only marginal support.

But our public servants crunch numbers and flush founding principles and the values of their law-abiding, traditional-minded constituents down the toilet.  With not nearly enough jobs to go around and state and local budgets buckling under massive debt (and let’s not forget ever-increasing health care costs), self-serving politicians are placing party before country, with Democrats, at least, sharp enough not to destroy themselves by empowering the other side.

Pandering, of course, is as old as politics itself.  Nonetheless, politics-as-usual has become what our founders most feared:  power born of plotting, a national parlor game, only the Boardwalk has given way to the public trough.  That is why our founders never advocated a simple majority vote, at least not for president (or even the Senate).  They relied on a deliberative, informed majority predicating their decisions on the welfare of the community and nation and not merely their own accrual of material and advantage.

An 1859 biography of James Madison by William Rives details how it was once customary for politicians to “treat” voters with alcoholic beverages.  Running for the Virginia General Assembly in 1777, Madison, against all advice, refused to treat his would-be constituents (a tradition, by the way, born in England), not believing it a practice befitting a republican form of government.  He lost the election to a far less capable candidate, but, fortunately, his political ascendency was only temporarily derailed.  No word as to whether he continued his policy of not buying drinks.

Madison famously remarked that for our form of government there must be “sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community” in order to elect officials with “virtue and wisdom.”  There was never any guarantee that we would survive as a free, Constitutional republic.  We’re kind of on an honor system.  Madison and others expected us to conduct ourselves as individuals.  Too many, sadly, see themselves as units of demographic force.

Will anyone say mob rule?  How many among us will raise our hands and demand to be heard as citizens without resorting to posting grievances and name-calling against even our closest friends and co-workers?

Though politicians, by and large, have failed us, our system really hasn’t.  Simply, we as a people have discarded the concept of virtue from public discourse, because that implies judgment, and, as everyone likes to say, who am I to judge?  Who are you to judge?  Everything’s relative.

Civic virtue has been supplanted by an ever-evolving tree of rights, and contestants compete, in American Idol-fashion, for the title of victim of the week.  Can anyone honestly picture Sandra Fluke winning the esteem of our founders?  But such pop culture gripes as a “war on women” rule the day and determine electoral outcomes.  Too many politicians, void of any backbone, vie for the opportunity of managing our national decline.  They spin, fudge numbers and pit group against group, with their only aim being their own political viability.

Real leaders set the agenda, they don’t blindly follow fad and fashion.  If Senators Rubio, McCain and others want to leave this country better than they found it, they can urge that basic civics be taught alongside math and science.  They can challenge future generations to accept a roster of responsibilities, among them individual achievement and accountability, as opposed to an ever-expanding menu of rights and dubiously-earned statuses.

And lastly, restore the concept of virtue to its rightful place as a key linchpin of freedom — in fact, a gold standard of life, both political and private.

David Bozeman, former Libertarian Party Chairman, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.

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