Thank the good Lord for the pandemic.
Well, sort of. Up to a point.
The upside of any disaster is the schoolroom it supplies for the acquisition of knowledge and learning. Concerning, for instance, the very modern case of American politics and Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump — and need I go on? — knowledge and learning about the inadequacy of power remedies for human woes.
Note the fallout from the president’s intervention Saturday in the politics of corona control: orders to do this and that so as to make up for Congress’ unwillingness to compromise on a relief bill. The House speaker and a Republican senator have labeled the president’s actions “unconstitutional slop,” which is less a juridical than a political assessment. Why not? Nearly this whole business is about the lost art of democratic governance, known generally as politics: known more honestly, I contend, as the struggle for the power of one combination of interests over another combination of interests.
Who’s on top? Isn’t that the essential question here?
Trump says he’ll redeploy $44 billion or so from federal disaster relief so as to increase jobless benefits by the more or less $400 a week he sees as the essential compromise between Senate and House targets for relief. He says, moreover, he’ll extend relief on rental and homeowner evictions. And he’ll defer for the rest of the year — I order to increase consumer spending power — the $6.25 Social Security tax paid by employees.
The net good of which will be found in the eye of the consumer/voter: on account of how politics has so disordered our dealings with the essentials of life that the effect of the president’s order can be actually weighed only in a power, not a medical or economic, context. How appropriate. Everything going on at the moment in America — conspicuously the tussles and shouting matches said to concern racial questions — is about power: who’s got it, who wants it, and what we’re prepared to do to acquire it. I don’t think anyone could legitimately call this present moment the most morally edifying moment we’ve known as a society.
A healthy society, the kind we’ve generally pretended to be, bases its actions and concerns on common understandings — dos and don’ts, cans and can’ts, oughts and oughtn’ts. We observe these understandings because we aim at something higher than fleeting triumphs of one party or group over other parties or groups. We aim at the good life, a term variously defined but more often than not stemming from what are pleasantly called our civilized traditions and assumptions, rooted in natural law, religious witness, and plain old experience.
You will have noticed how I’m generalizing at high speed. We hardly ever, as a society made up of contentious individuals, get things just as they ought to be. We enjoy forcing our views on others. You say miraculous healing device, I say unconstitutional slop. That’s why the terrifying pursuit known as politics rarely solves problems. The quest for power is aimed, not at solving problems — bettering racial relations, say, or vanquishing pandemics — but at winning. Take that! Hooray for me! #!@#@ on you!
The American grasp of moral relationships never came up fully to scratch. Everyone acknowledges as much. What presently undercuts our ability to grasp essentials is the spread of the noxious philosophy that the idea of moral norms — of right ways and wrong ways — is nonsense that contradicts Free Choice or some such. Do what you like. Burn down shops. Deface monuments. Pelt the cops with stones. It’s your life!
Small wonder our politicians can’t get together on anything. We no longer know what “together” means. We know about me, my, mine. My power, not yours. My victory, your humiliation.
Such is modern life — a succession of rocks thrown at cops and small businesses wrecked by mobs and political disputes framed for the sake of political advantage.
Me, me, me! What a great rallying cry. We used to do better. It would seem better if we tried harder to do better once again. That, of course, would involve hard work and practice.
It could take a while.
William Murchison is writing a book on moral restoration in the 21st century.
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