Ship of Fools


This coming Tuesday, our neighbours to the south will hold their customary midterm elections. Along with a slew of gubernatorial and local elections, the entirety of Congress and a third of the Senate will be contested. Any follower of politics is well aware of the colourful slate of candidates that will be standing in various elections across the country, particularly those who have been given the “Teabagger” label. The breakout star of this election cycle, without a doubt, has been Christine O’Donnell, the Republican nominee for senate in the state of Delaware. Ms. O’Donnell’s forays into witchcraft (youtube vid), and what some see as an even more bizarre attempt to temper her past statements (another YT vid), have  made her the ideal target and focus for ramping up sensationalistic coverage of the midterm elections.

These stories are mere distraction, however, and ignore a more important issue underpinning contemporary politics in general, namely the outright ignorance that some candidates have displayed with regard to the political process of which they seek to be a part. The most blatant example came in one of her many debates against Democratic opponent Chris Coons, wherein O’Donnell was seemingly unaware that the Constitution consisted of any notion resembling the separation of church and state (the big moment comes at about 1:40 into the video below).

I don’t mean to pick on Christine O’Donnell, but merely use her as an example to illustrate what I see as a series of simple but incredibly significant questions that any citizen with the right to vote must ask themselves: How much civic knowledge should candidates have in order to be considered worth voting for? In addition, what kind of discourse do we expect from those holding office as they seek to serve the public interest? The latter question is irrevocably tied to the former, as we must ask what type of requisite knowledge is necessary in order to carry out the type of discourse we want. If we hope for an enlightened discourse, wherein governmental actions and the legislative process are informed by a thorough understanding of the Constitution and the debates that surround its provisions, then we are in trouble if we are willing to elect candidates like Christine O’Donnell who are unaware of the First Amendment and its evolving interpretation over time.

The ignorance that O’Donnell displays managed to draw fire from even her fellow conservatives, for precisely the reason that she is able to engage only in shouting slogans rather than informed discussion. In American Conservative Magazine, Daniel Larison lambasts O’Donnell for being inept at even articulating any  conservative interpretation of the First Amendment. Larison writes,

The real shame is that O’Donnell could have had a valid point on the question of church-state separation, but she didn’t begin to know how to make it. As an activist and talking head, she has learned slogans about the separation of church and state, but evidently she has not learned anything more than that. The establishment clause has been wildly and mistakenly misinterpreted so that a restriction created solely to prevent the federal government from imposing a religion on the states has been turned into a general imperative for all levels of government. This is not what critics of the Constitution wanted when they argued for a guarantee that the federal government would not establish a religion, but more important it is an unnecessary and obnoxious restriction of the free exercise of religion. Of course, one has to know that the establishment clause exists and know what it says before one can criticize its misinterpretation.

Whether Larison is correct about certain elements of the First Amendment is beyond the scope of this piece, but his broader point asserting the necessity of constitutional knowledge and an ability to offer an interpretation of its provisions stands. There is no question that policy making is infinitely broader in scope with each passing year and it would be naive to expect lawmakers to spend excessive time debating their conceptions of the good in light of the Constitution (not that they’re being any more productive as it is). Nonetheless, there is a logic to any constitutional system that entails that such a document, as thoughtfully and thoroughly understood with reference to history, precedent, and ongoing debate, act as an overarching principle which confines the actions of lawmakers. Essentially, a constitution serves as an all-encompassing conception of the good, codifying the principles, whether they be legal or normative, which guide the actions of all levels of government.

Is it then unreasonable to demand that any candidate seeking public office in the US be aware of the 27 amendments to the Constitution and their various interpretations to at least some extent? Perhaps candidates should also have some familiarity with landmark Supreme Court cases as well as more recent decisions and the legal reasoning behind them. Though O’Donnell’s First Amendment gaffe was especially ignorant, when it comes to deep familiarity with legal matters affecting public policy and lawmaking, she is certainly not alone among other candidates currently seeking office nor is she an anomaly among those currently holding positions of power, both Democrat and Republican.

The beauty of collective reasoning that comprises democracy is lost with ignorant candidates who have no concept whatsoever of good governance or the political principles that they claim they will defend if elected to office. An ignorant legislature falls victim to Plato’s critique of democracy, seemingly timely during these elections:

The sailors are quarrelling with one another about steering the ship, each of them thinking that he should be the captain, even though he’s never learned the art of navigation, cannot point to anyone who taught it to him, or to a time when he learned it….Moreover, they call the person who is clever at persuading or forcing the shipowner to let them rule a “navigator,” a “captain,” and “one who knows ships,” and dismiss anyone else as useless.They don’t understand that a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the start, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft, if he’s really to be the ruler of a ship. And they don’t believe there is any craft that would enable him to determine how he should steer the ship, whether the others want him or not, or any possibility of mastering this alleged craft or of practicing it at the same time as the craft of navigation.

If democracy is in practice a coming together of civilized and equal discourse, then we can discount Plato’s fear that it is simply a ship without skilled navigators. On the other hand, a Congress or Senate comprised of rowdy sailors lacking in any knowledge of their constitutional compass is perhaps as disastrous as Plato, speaking through Socrates, fears. Furthermore, when those in power have the unique ability to set the broader discourse among citizens, the possibility presents itself of a vicious cycle of ignorance, wherein citizens are just as lost as their leaders when it comes to sailing the ship of state. If the current election cycle is to teach us anything, let it be that democracy ought to have standards. While it is certainly a tenet of such a system that anyone fulfilling certain minimal requirements is eligible to seek office, citizens might want to ask themselves those aforementioned questions of what they desire in those officeholders and what kind of government they really want .

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  1. The Mask of Statesmanship (The Expansion of the Culture Wars in American Politics) | We are Living in a Society

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