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How We Got Here

McCain-Feingold in the context of American ideology.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 11, 2001

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How We Got Here_James Leroy Wilson-McCain-Feingold in the context of American ideology. Even I got too worn down to have expressed the appropriate outrage. Last week, after hearing that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill passed the United States Senate 59-41, I proceeded to sit down and write about something else for last week's column. That is because it is difficult to process the enormity of what had happened. While its passage was not surprising, it is nevertheless a landmark that can only be eclipsed if it is eventually signed into law by President Bush. By curtailing the right of citizens to criticize the government, 59 Senators have deliberately and inexcusably violated the First Amendment of the United States. This is far from the first time Congress has tried to violate the Constitution, but at least in the past they had enough respect for it to lie and pretend that they weren't. Now, many of the same supporters of the bill are hoping for - counting on - the Supreme Court to overturn the law. They voted for McCain-Feingold to give the impression they want reform, but they do not really want to silence their allies and make it more difficult for themselves to raise money.

Which is ironic. The double-speak of both liberals and conservatives is one that questions the legitimacy of the Supreme Court ("they stole the election for Bush!") and appeals to its binding authority ("women have the right to abortions because, well, the Supreme Court said so"). And now both Democrats and Republicans are trusting the same people who they charge with stealing elections or legalizing murder - these same people - to have the integrity to protect the First Amendment.

It is, of course, dereliction of duty to vote for a bill one knows to be unconstitutional, but the regime of judicial supremacy gives the politicians cover: "Well, I voted for the bill but I'm no constitutional scholar, and I accept the decision of the Supreme Court." Congress is not responsible for its decisions anymore, so they grab as much power for themselves as possible and let the chips fall where the Supreme Court says they may.

Where did this all begin? How did we get to this corrupt place? I believe it goes to competing views of the American Revolution and the Constitution that followed. It is easy to characterize the differences as liberty vs. equality. But that doesn't work; both, ultimately, come from the same liberal view. The differences that do exist are about the kind of limits that should be placed on liberty, the definition of equality, and the extent of one's rights in a changing society. But while liberals have disagreements, liberalism as a whole is a moral view of, and idealistic vision for, America, which is that government's role is to advance the cause of individual rights. It has triumphed.

What has lost is the conservative view. It sees liberty as a collective endeavor called self-government. To that end, it resists the centralization of power. It seeks to keep government within constitutional limits, yet strong enough to resist any encroachments on its sovereignty. From the institution of the Progressive Era 100 years ago, this conservatism has been on the losing side, and conservatives progressively alienated.

The liberal view of individual rights, in the meantime, kept expanding, following Duke Ellington's statement on music: "If it sounds good, it is good." Rights are no longer just claims against others who might harm, steal from, or enslave us, but are claims to share in the general prosperity of the community. From the liberal prospective, rights include free education, health care, old-age pensions, "living" wages, "safe" working conditions, and freedom from discrimination. And only the federal government has the power and resources to redistribute wealth so that all may enjoy these rights.

The result is liberalism's expansion of the federal government's role in economic and social affairs, even crime. But once it busted loose of its Constitutional constraints, the federal government's branches began to compete with each other for more power without really "checking" each other as the Founders predicted. Congress passed more and more laws and established more and more programs. Presidents imposed more laws by executive order, and began using acts of war as "foreign policy tools." The Supreme Court overturned duly-enacted state laws, abolished long-held local traditions, and became thoroughly politicized. Unelected officials not only controlled the money supply, but also were expected to "run" the economy. And in each area that the federal government interfered in, there were groups, called "special interests" who were affected and tried to get their voices heard in Washington, attempting to either get special advantages or just be left alone.

Liberalism hasn't gone all the way; it has yet to fully nationalize health care or public education. But it has done enough to create a large federal sector whose legitimacy rests not on the text of the Constitution, but solely on the integrity of the democratic process. Therefore, the appearence of corruption in it is seen by liberals as more dangerous than letting the government control the flow of political speech. To enjoy our rights, we must give away our freedom.

Regardless of the fate of McCain-Feingold, the political culture is obviously in grave disrepair. It is tempting to shrug it off and walk away, but that will play right into the hands of the McCain-Feingold reformers. They want to demonize their opponents and silence the dissenters, but our only hope is to resist by speaking up and speaking out.

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