What we are witnessing are the visceral images of a nation in the throes of an addiction. It is an addiction to a message of Constitutional narcissism. It is an addiction that has been knowingly fed by its dealers – Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk – within the self-proclaimed Conservative Media for more than three decades.
Our nation is the same as any other well-heeled addict from prosperous circumstances. We think we convey a sense of normalcy as the addiction grows, unaware that to the outside world, our property has grown seedier and our household more disorganized. Most importantly, our children and most vulnerable are neglected and left as prey to the hard mercies of others. The addiction stresses our ability to cope until something happens which collapses the facade and exposes our reality in its awful ugliness. It is an addiction whose propagation now willingly courts death, a literal siren song luring the body politic to a mass fatal encounter as senseless as the American Civil War.
This something is obviously the Pandemic. As I write this, the national daily death toll is such that the entire population of my hometown would be dead within a week and the numbers continue to rise, at least outside New York. Yet many localities are again re-opening despite metrics that don’t even come close to those laid down by the Trump Administration and armed protesters stand on the steps of state capitol buildings proclaiming opposition to measures which purportedly infringe their Constitutionally mandated civil rights. This opposition, fomented by the Conservative Media and the President – the guy whose folks put out the re-opening metrics less than a few days before, remember? – is predicated upon a wholesale misleading characterization of the Constitution.
There is an inherent tension within the construct of the Constitution and that is the tension between the Me and the We. The Me is encased within the Bill of Rights and has been the focus of the Conservative Media since the arrival of Rush Limbaugh after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Who doesn’t love our Bill of Rights? It was the first written attempt in human history to enumerate and guarantee what were considered the essential rights of the individual in a society. It is the most identifiable aspect of the Constitution. The great majority of Americans can’t define the 17th Amendment let alone even tell you how many Amendments even exist. But you can be damned sure that people know about their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Except that the Bill of Rights is only one part of the Constitution. The other part of the Constitution is about the We. The obvious and accelerating failure of the original Articles of Confederation prompted the calling of the meeting that became the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It was the We that concerned Madison, Hamilton and the rest of the attendees. Multiple states with different personalities based upon unique founding charters and culture, let alone geographic and economic differences, were too diverse to ensure continued political coherence. The national structure was collapsing and the success of the Revolution would be rendered meaningless.
The Convention’s intent was not the Me, the Bill of Rights. The Me wasn’t the first, second or third thing in the mind of either Madison or Hamilton. It wasn’t on any agenda, as little as there was of one. The Bill of Rights was an outgrowth of the debates as the Anti-Federalists pushed back against Madison. In their minds, what was the point of the Revolution if it allowed the creation of a new government which could trample the individual as badly as the recent English king? The resulting compromise created this Bill of Rights to assure that an individual’s rights were protected. This compromise created an astounding document of political duality that attempted to balance the We Yin and the Me Yang. There is supposed to be a balance.
These were the questions that most concerned the Constitution’s framers: How can We maintain a civil society that can peaceably abide together under the principle that all are created equal under the law? How can We allow for a civil society to change and adapt to the world around it within the framework of the first question? How can We control power and allow the peaceable transfer of power? Most importantly, how can We as a civil society protect ourselves from falling prey to predators such as demagogues, despots and zealots?
When viewed from this aspect, much of our history has been made in the effort to expand the We in the face of resistance from individual groups fearful of a loss of their own powers and wealth. Expanding it to who? Securing the rights of blacks and other minorities , including that key right to vote, expands the We. Securing the rights of women, including that key right to vote, expands the We. Why? Because it’s through the securing of their own individual rights and enfranchisement that these groups – one of which actually comprises more than half of the population – can find a voice that entitles them to a place at the economic table sharing in the common wealth of the nation. Not only sharing in the common wealth, but expanding it by dint of their own talents and efforts.
Commonweal. It’s an archaic word used by my wife in a recent conversation as we discussed the multiple acronymic lifelines already thrown to the business community and capital markets but not extended in any meaningful measure to the average person. It forms the basis of the word commonwealth and in its simplest terms is the common good. It is the idea that while the members of a community can expect their rights to be respected by the community, they have a like obligation to the well-being of that community, politically and economically. Is it important to distance ourselves for a period to not overwhelm our medical system as well as protect our most vulnerable? Then it’s what we do for the community and in turn, we expect the community to support us through this period. Commonweal.
Except that that hasn’t happened. The community has responded with full support to the wealthiest and only one-time payments to the general citizenry with the understanding that they would still be responsible for the upkeep of their bills. In the meantime, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed. The public has been left to bear the losses from a communal disaster without certainty of income for an unknown period. In a society that embraced the commonwealth philosophy, the community would be certain to provide sufficient support to support its members while they were asked to participate social distancing to protect the community.
Not only do we ignore the concept of the common good, we have a Chief Executive who ignores the Constitution, exemplifying the fatal flaws of the original Articles of Confederation by abdicating responsibility for a national crisis to the individual states.
There should be balance. We haven’t had that for decades.
The cultural birth of the Me preexisted it’s maturation in the 1980s. The Boomer Generation were a cultural phenomenon and their quirks led to their titling as the Me Generation by the writer Tom Wolfe in 1976. That generation – mine – turned society on its head in search of self-fulfillment and it persisted as they aged and entered the economic and political mainstream.
Their entry into the mainstream set the stage for the economic and political rise of the Me in the 1980s. Rush Limbaugh, the first of the Conservative Media, arose on the back of a resurgent conservative response to Ronald Reagan’s famous comment: Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. Limbaugh expanded upon that with the message that I earned that money and I should be allowed to keep it. Soon, other commentators entered the field and proceeded to help fracture the We by separating the nation into Good Americans versus Liberals and Republicans versus Democrats in the search for listeners and market share. Understand this: Conservative Media is not only a message of anger but a business model of anger as well. Anger and fear are profitable and this profitability has caused an even harder push.
Uncertain about this? Consider Les Moonves’ – then CEO of Columbia Broadcasting – comment about Donald Trump in 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.
It’s the same for the other side of the media spectrum as increased competition extends the boundaries and coarsens the dialogue to gain listeners.
But why do Conservative Commentators have the advantage in ratings? Where do they find the materials to gin up rage, secure listeners and earn profits? The materials are ensconced right there within the Bill of Rights. Some of the ten amendments are outdated and not suited for the propagation of rage. Quartering troops in houses? Archaic. Unreasonable search and seizure? Right to a jury trial and reasonable bail? Perhaps, but if you obey the law – like any of our salt of the earth listeners – then it isn’t pertinent, is it? State’s rights? Not since 186…never mind. Just go to the first two amendments right up front: religious freedoms in the First Amendment and gun rights in the Second Amendment. The rancor of the past two decades has built within these two amendments but it has been stirred, spiced and served on a scalding hot plate in our laps by our Chef Executive.
We are near the culmination of the Conservative drive for power and money. The Conservative Media has relentlessly pushed fear and anger and the President has mastered it, wielding it venomously in a strategy of Divide and Conquer. To secure his election in 2016, he divided us from the world and in the aftermath of the inauguration, proceeded to remove or threaten to remove us from multiple international treaties. When he viewed the push back demonstrated by the Women’s March after his inauguration, he narrowed the Divide and Conquer Strategy to focus on the nation itself and found his ammunition in the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights. He has openly stoked his followers with fears of religious persecution and the threat of a repeal of the Second Amendment. A call to “Liberate Michigan!” via Twitter led to his supporters bringing semi-automatic weapons to a rally at the state Capitol.
Our nation has had two other encounters with governance according to the Me. The first was the original Articles of Confederation ratified at the end of the Revolution, which created a Federal government that was only a weak shell and ceded almost all power to thirteen states. It went so well that six years later, the Articles were replaced by our Constitution. The second was the Confederacy. Nominally a nation of sovereign states that heavily espoused states rights. By the latter half of the war, the Confederacy suffered crippling problems as different states opted to withhold money, supplies and men from the central government in order to support their own needs.
Some of our greatest national moments occurred during the Commonweal moments of the We. We eliminated slavery through a Civil War which incurred more death and national destruction than any other war in our history. We beat totalitarianism and did it twice in a quarter century, almost just to prove a point. We expanded our educational structure during these conflicts through a series of Commonweal political acts – The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 during two of these conflicts. We put a man on the moon and expanded the frontier of space because as a society, We willed it so.
We have now lost more than 90,000 of our citizens as I write this and an untold number of thousands of those deaths could have been prevented. Our Chief Executive minimized the notice, hampered preparation and then abdicated all responsibility to the individual states, who have been left to fend on their own domestically and internationally. Don’t like social distancing and lockdowns? Look to Washington, DC and ask if things might have been different had 50 individual governors not had this dumped in their laps.
Once again, the Me has failed. It’s time for the We.