February 19, 2010

Founding principles

Americans deserve politicians who remain true to their values

As we celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln this February, one regrettably must contrast the robust, principled vision of these heroic men with the culture of pragmatism, public relations, and petty vanity that a generation of Americans has come to take as serious politics. As the public adopts and discards allegiances to political factions with the caprice of a dissatisfied child, politics in the modern age can be considered something that has become about as definite as the latest lady’s fashions, and even less compelling to a man of discrimination.

In the span of a little over a year, the country has seen two swings of power, first to President Obama and his alleged program of an America renewed in hope and opportunity, presumably by the force of his personality and oratory alone. Yet, when the people learned with King Lear that, in fact, nothing comes from nothing, and someone, namely themselves, the taxpayers, would have to pay to achieve Obama’s grand visions, sentiments turned rapidly. The enthused post-election proclamations by Democrats that the Republicans are becoming a “permanent minority party” notwithstanding, the tide now seems to have shifted to those who conservatives who are supposedly conserving the country’s founding principles, which, if recent history amounts to any guide, would consist of going to Washington and passing legislation buttressing the welfare state, like Bush’s Medicare Part D, and funding the endless, aimless wars so obviously at the heart of the principles of the American Constitution. Not since the downfall of the Roman Empire have so many trivial, uninspired, replaceable leaders, each of whom will continue the same basic policies as the last, had the audacity to declare themselves leaders worthy of dignity and respect, when it is known by even the simplest man that they get elected only by lying about the extent of their vision and subsist only by engaging in the most Machiavellian power struggles.

What makes possible this peripatetic circus of instant political celebrity and subsequent sudden downfall? Quite simply put, principles of any sort have been eradicated from political discourse. If one has any sort of principles, they must be taken not as active, definite guides in the formulation of policy, but disembodied Platonic notions separate of any concrete political reality. In the mind of the modern politician, success does not consist of the fulfillment of carefully defended principles, but rather the balancing of those principles with the nebulous standard of practical success. No principles are taken to be those which lead to, and in a deeper sense, even define practical success, but are rather opposed to the hazy achievement of practicality, which is meant as a shorthand for how popular or intuitively sensible a given program may be.

The perfect expression of this attitude came with last year’s financial crisis. Despite his alleged free-market ideology, President Bush admitted that, in all sincerity, he thought that free-market principles were ineffective in reality. Faced with criticism from the more principled conservative factions, he explained during a CNN interview, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” Given that Mr. Bush thinks that America still has an economy even approaching a “free-market system” and that he would advocate such a system despite conceding that it would inevitably lead to crashes and need to be saved from itself, it becomes clear that the professed convictions of our leaders are only so many words, carefully selected in order only to balance the contingencies of the moment.

Indeed, the statements of public leaders are so disingenuous that it becomes necessary for the public to project onto them an ideological identity, lest they lack any coherence whatsoever. For all the posturing over Obama’s socialistic policies, it seems that he cannot sustain his antipathy toward capitalism for the duration of an entire month. On January 29, Obama claimed that the multi-million dollar bonuses won by financial officials were “shameful” and the “height of irresponsibility” given the public bailouts they had received. In the span of a few weeks, however, apparently the moral universe had violently overturned itself, as on February 10, Obama, now a man of the market, defended the bonuses, saying that he “doesn’t begrudge people’s success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.” Liberal supporters should not trust, nor conservative opponents so fear, Obama, a man so obviously without convictions beyond advocacy of the politically expedient, and so lacking in vision beyond the marketing of himself as a brand, that his elevation to the status of international icon is more a sad commentary on the state of culture than an intellectual noteworthy trend. Without a return to operating principles, the only practical outcome we can expect will be a continued drift of disillusionment, as polls continually reflect that we are going “in the wrong direction” without any sense of what the right one would be.

While such an honest appraisal of the country’s leadership may lead one to the glum conclusion that the country is headed for disaster, Americans should look to the men for whom President’s Day is celebrated for the answer to today’s crisis of leadership. While most nations in the history of the earth were founded on the incidental qualities of geography or ethnicity, America was the first nation founded purely on a principle—that of inalienable individual rights. While America has certainly allowed contradictions in the application of this founding doctrine, we have only been great insofar as there has been definite adherence to it on the part of our politicians. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Important principles may, and must be inflexible.” Rather than treating principles as floating notions separate from any reality, Americans must rediscover the notion that only a country that has identified and validated proper political principles can project any lasting political stability and harmony. This was the achievement of the men whose birthdays we celebrate this month, and we would be wise to not stop merely at praising them, but to stand as rigidly as they did in defense of the absolute rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

— George Saad is a second-year

in the College majoring in Classics.