American political thought and practice have become so muddled that we need to think of new ways to insult each other.
“Conservative wingnuts” and “liberal flakes” just won’t do any more. It’s because wingnuts and flakes increasingly are finding themselves allied.
The fight over surveillance by the National Security Agency is illustrative. Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is suing the Obama administration because he says the agency’s efforts violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment privacy protections.
From the left, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders is in a snit over the possibility (likelihood?) that the NSA is spying on members of Congress and other elected officials. (Sanders is a good example of muddled political labels because although he calls himself an independent, to others he’s a “socialist.”)
Then there’s Barack Obama, once considered among America’s most liberal U.S. senators and who as president now is running an NSA program initiated by the despised former conservative President George W. Bush. Are liberals now supposed to hate Obama as well?
On this and many other issues the differences are not drawn so much along liberal versus conservative lines. Rather, the fight increasingly is between fundamental individual rights and what used to be called the commonweal.
In the culture wars, for example, Republican libertarians and Democratic social liberals have formed a peculiar alliance in support of same-sex marriage. For social liberals, it’s a classic issue of “equality.” For their libertarian allies, it’s just another case of government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong . . . in our bedrooms.
Or take a recent federal judge’s ruling against a provision of Utah’s anti-polygamy law. Some of us think government properly regulates marriage in the interests of the common good. Others would loosen or, more radically, eliminate government licensing of marriage because, well, what does it matter who lives with whom? It’s none of my business; how does it hurt me? Or so the reasoning goes.
Take the issue of abortion, aka “choice.” Radical individuals on the right and the left demand the supremacy of a woman’s body. Government has no particular interest in protecting the life and the rights of any “alleged” person in utero. For them, a woman’s rights are nearly absolute.
Similar absolutist views are held on the right by those who interpret the Constitution’s Second Amendment to mean that government regulation of firearms should be extraordinarily limited, if not nonexistent.
Communitarians — if I can resuscitate a term that was in wider use 20 years ago — believe the government isn’t in business just to protect individual rights but also to watch out for the wider general welfare, as the Constitution states. Call it the common good, or the commonweal, if you will. Communitarians accept reasonable regulation of firearms and abortion because, simply put, other people are involved.
But, I fear, that’s not the direction we, as a nation, are heading. Rather, America is more and more embracing radical individualism.
Colorado’s plebiscite legalizing the recreational use of marijuana is a good example. Americans seem to becoming more “open minded” on pot legalization, just as they are adopting a more individualist view on gay marriages. The “it-doesn’t-hurt-you” philosophy now dominates the argument, leaving behind some pressing questions about the societal costs.
You can find some of those costs documented, ironically, on the White House website, which itemizes the negative public health consequences of marijuana legalization. In this, Obama and social conservatives have a similar view.
Another example: Obamacare. Tea party adherents, focusing on individual rights, would repeal Obamacare, perhaps Washington’s worst-ever intrusion into American lives. But they’re not as passionate about devising a more effective and less intrusive replacement that would promise improved health care for all Americans.
Individual liberty is central to the American narrative, and we abandon or minimize that precious value at great risk. No one from this corner would diminish that value. But when it comes at the growing expense of the community’s well-being, we’ve got a problem.
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