Wading Through the Debris, Clueless Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 11 November 2008

After the election: I’ve been on the internet, looking at real estate in … Malta. Just think, a four-bedroom townhouse, near the new marina, in Zabbar, $350,000 USD (asking). Hmm. It is not only that the outcome of our election portends a moral disaster at several levels. It is that the people around us, our fellow citizens, the people with whom we share control over our lives, have taken leave of their sober judgment, if they had possessed any. For they seemed willing to drift happily into the camp of a candidate who is at odds with what most of them profess to favor.

One survey has about 80 per cent of the public opposed to the prospect of removing the secret ballot for workers in deciding on a union. And yet, Obama, receiving firm backing from the AFL-CIO, voted in favor of that policy. Most people in the country would take seriously the points made by Justice Scalia on detainees at Guantamo: that “at least thirty of those prisoners hitherto released from Guantanamo Bay have returned to the battlefield,” and that it is wrong to put in control of the battlefield unelected judges, who have no responsibility to the people whose lives are at stake. And yet Barack Obama welcomed the decision in the Boumediene case to put the military under the control of judges.

We could go across the board, through the issues of policy, whether health insurance, taxes, or the authority of the government to track the calls connected to a terrorist network. On one issue after another, the public seemed willing to vote for a man whose positions were quite at odds with their own. And that says nothing for the matter of infanticide. Most people in the country still have a moral aversion to infanticide. But as people became aware of Obama’s opposition to the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act, they became willing to settle in with the notion that infanticide is not, after all, that big a deal. It must have been Bush Derangement Syndrome, coupled with the financial turmoil, that scrambled the minds of ordinary people.

The discrepancy between the views of the voters and the votes they cast took on a deep irony, though, when it came to the so-called “social” or moral issues. Obama brought out a massive black vote, and in California that vote produced a split of 70-30 in favor of a constitutional amendment to secure traditional marriage and reject same-sex marriage. Obama managed to carry Florida, but the voters there produced a supermajority in favor of a constitutional amendment to preserve traditional marriage. In other words, we learn again that issues such as marriage, abortion, and the rejection of racial preferences are for the most part net winners. And we learn the lesson anew with a Republican leadership at the national level that is ever reluctant to receive the lesson. The conservative side on these issues drew a larger vote than John McCain did, but McCain, in a long line now of Republican candidates, has been averse to articulating these issues or giving them anything more than a peripheral place in his campaign.

It may be said of these Republican leaders what was said of one of our regulatory agencies years ago: that instead of having twenty-five years of experience, it had the same experience twenty-five times. And so now, coming out of the election, we hear the same old refrain: the party must make itself more competitive by detaching itself from the Christian right and these issues of abortion and marriage. Even among the most thoughtful of the young Republican leaders, like Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, the reflex is the same. They call for grand new ideas, but those ideas fall into grooves quite familiar: The Republican party must become again the party of small government.

I happen to agree, but that itself is hardly a big idea, or it is at most a slogan drawn from a big idea. The notion of small government is part of a larger argument about constitutional and moral restraints. But the people who snap off slogans about small government seem curiously incapable of explaining that moral case to ordinary folk. As a youngster I always found something abstract in the complaint about “spending.” And now, it turns out that many working people, in the last election, found something quite as abstract - and as removed from their lives - in John McCain railing against “earmarks.”

It seems to have slipped out of the memory of the Republicans that the argument for a constrained government was part of a deeper argument that ran back to the origins of the Republican party. The first Republican platform in 1856 denounced those “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy. The accent was on the ground of nature for human freedom and marriage and the standing of the “human person.” And those concerns are as relevant for our politics today as they were then. Even the young Republicans do not seem to remember that the “big idea” the party once had was a moral idea. With that in place, everything else follows, in the present as surely as in the past. For the Republicans, the true measure of their problem is that they no longer remember what that original, “big idea” was.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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