It is said that history is recorded by its victors. Apart from the traditional understanding of this maxim, we at The Mendenhall offer another interpretation: that ultimate victory does not come from those who fight the battles, but from those who write of them. The history of an era, as written and interpreted by its intellectuals, not only allows future generations to look back and learn the lessons of their predecessors, but also sets the cultural tone for years to come. So vital is the emergence of a rational culture to the achievement of our own ideals, we have taken it upon ourselves at the end of each year to summarize and analyze the year previous from a capitalist, pro-liberty perspective.
It is in that spirit that we look back on the events of the last twelve months often with frustration, occasionally with the pride of hard-fought victories, and always with a love for our country and the ideals that it was founded upon and may once again embody.
In less than three weeks’ time, President Barack Obama will take the podium on the floor of Congress to deliver the last State of the Union address of his eight-year presidency. It is promised to be less of a solemn address by a sitting world leader and more a “conversation with the American people”— an inauspicious ending for a president who has struggled since his triumphant election in 2008 to maintain the image of a strong, successful occupant of the most powerful office in the world. Outside the walls of that chamber, there will be a rather different country than the one that he was elected to lead and, one can only assume, a very different state of affairs than he had expected to bring about during his time in the White House. If 2014 was a year of political and social turmoil, beset by controversy, divisiveness, and rising cultural tensions, 2015 has seen the crystallization of those developments into a strange and vicious norm.
The gunfire and violence that rocked the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, last year have been long since forgotten, and the media’s pledges of concern for what happened to that town after the fires went out were discarded by the next news cycle. The need for controversy, however, remains, and a symbiotic relationship has developed between a rising culture of victimhood and “political correctness” on college campuses; between the media’s lust for scandal and the left’s indiscriminate willingness to co-opt every cause to augment its power and the role of the state. The result has been a tempestuous year full of conflict that has ended with moments of promise for those who wish to see our country brought back from the brink of cultural disunity. Whether those glimmers of hope will multiply and turn the tide of the war, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, after last year’s powerful showing in the mid-term elections, an empowered Republican majority in Congress is underwhelming those who placed them in office. Republican voters remain frustrated by the constant punting by party leaders who have promised time and again since 2010 to deliver on the voters’ demands if only they can get the House, the Senate, the White House, etc. As real as the obstacles to accomplishing their aims may be, the moving finish line that they have repeatedly sold to their constituents is beginning to wear down voters’ confidence, already unseating one speaker of the House and one House majority leader, and Republican politicians will have to do much more in the coming year to show that they stand by their word if they hope to maintain their advantage next November.
In the economy and world affairs, America’s condition is scarcely better. A disastrous nuclear deal between the Obama administration and Iran, an increasingly aggressive Russia, and the unanswered growth of ISIS in the Middle East highlight the loss of American power suffered under Barack Obama while much-touted growth and unemployment numbers continue to paper over an uncertain economic recovery at home. America faces a dozen formidable risks to our safety and prosperity as we enter 2016, and we need strong and intelligent leadership to answer them. Instead, we have a president who offers us a “conversation.” Let us put that conversation in context.
A Culture on the Brink
As much as any year which we at The Mendenhall have yet reviewed, the events of 2015 are uniquely weighted toward cultural and philosophical trends as much as or perhaps more than political and economic ones. True: culture and philosophy always precede and guide the politics of a nation, but America in 2015 revealed the kinds of volatile and divisive cultural traits that our still moderately civilized political system cannot yet digest. It is our great hope that the tide of our culture will turn before its unscrupulous politicians succeed, as they so often do, in finding ways to transform public outrage and emotionalism into new forms of government power and control. In the meantime, we behold the spectacle of politicians who stand fearful of the fires they helped to stoke.
For all of the left’s shameless, freewheeling use of collectivist “identity politics” in recent years, the divisions that it has encouraged are more often placing its own politicians in precarious spots than the conservatives they aimed to tar as unreformed bigots. Perhaps not since the 1970s– not even upon the election of the nation’s first black president– have race relations been worse in the United States than they were in the seventh year of Barack Obama’s administration. Though the turmoil of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, had calmed by the first of the year, it would be revived months later– this time in Baltimore, Maryland, after a young man named Freddie Gray died from an injury suffered in police custody on April 12th. The circumstances of Gray’s death are still debated, but the frustration with a perceived lack of accountability resulted in destructive responses by some residents of Baltimore, who took to the streets to demonstrate, and by Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who received well-deserved opprobrium after saying that she had not ordered the police to stop early riots in order to give rioters “space to destroy.” As a result, between 285 and 350 Baltimore businesses were reportedly damaged, with losses adding to over $9 million; 150 vehicles and 60 structures suffered arson damage; at least 250 people were arrested; and a state of emergency was declared throughout the city, with the Maryland Army National Guard deploying to establish order after days of turmoil. Charges of homicide were brought against the accused officers. In December, the first of their trials resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial. Thus far, the only political consequence of these events has been an announcement by Rawlings-Blake that she will not seek reelection and a questionable reputation for Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, widely seen to have allowed the fervor of the moment and an opportunity for self-promotion to diminish her legal judgment.
Similar, though less dramatic events have turned against other Democratic leaders in 2015, proving none–not even the Democratic elite– to be immune from public outrage. The end of the year saw Chicago mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel under fire for concealing video evidence in the police shooting death of 19-year-old Chicagoan Laquan McDonald. Demands for Emanuel’s resignation have come forth, alleging that Emanuel impeded justice in that case for the sake of smoothing his own path to reelection.
In response to such cases, a new player in America’s fractured social scene in 2015 was the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement seemingly driven more by anger and the self-advancement of movement leaders than by any clearly expressed set of objectives. The most fervently pursued of the group’s initiatives has been pressuring Democratic presidential candidates to simply say the words “black lives matter” in their speeches on the campaign trail. Beyond that, they call for an ill-defined “justice” in cases of officer-involved violence across the country and have categorically rejected candidates Hillary Clinton’s and Martin O’Malley’s attempts to generalize the message to “all lives matter.” An incident at Michigan State University in November, in which BLM protesters blocked an event by President Bill Clinton, suggests that the organization is holding fast to its strategy of targeting Democratic politicians and candidates who are resisting their becoming a niche constituency in the party.
Unfortunately, what the BLM activists consider “justice” consists of siding with whichever party to a dispute is black, and whether or not they ever achieve status within the Democratic Party, they are quickly fashioning themselves into an all-purpose activist organization that is the manifestation of the very racism it purports to condemn. They are the living embodiment of the very handicaps discussed in these pages which prohibit the left from ever truly combating racism on a fundamental level. Racism is a form of collectivism–the crudest of all its forms– and no organization that operates on a subjectivist-collectivist philosophical framework can ever argue for the one perspective that can truly defeat racial prejudice– individualism– or the one social system that abhors it: capitalism. Whether Black Lives Matter is a new fixture in American social debates or whether–more likely– it is a passing symptom of an unhealthy time, one thing is certain: it will accomplish nothing in improving racial relations so long as it abides by its current tactics and ideology.
But that tactics and ideology of BLM would not be possible without the cultural degradation of American academia into a cesspool of all the destructive, subjectivist-collectivist doctrines undergirding the contemporary left. While protests by undergraduate students are somewhat of a generational cliché, this year’s protests were notable for particular types of intellectual errors and bad philosophy driving the protests rather than for their prevalence and scale (which generally pale in comparison to their predecessors in the 1960s). At Duke University, for example, a noose was discovered on the main campus and quickly devolved into cries that the administration was “not doing enough” to catch the culprit–who, ultimately, turned out to be a foreign student from China who was entirely unaware of the racial connotations associated with a noose in North Carolina and the South generally.
At Missouri, a swastika was smeared in feces onto a wall, resulting in similar cries for “racial justice” rather than any actual desire to catch the culprit (demands included, for example, that the administration publicly acknowledge their “white privilege” and strive to reach some imagined “statistical norm” for the racial makeup of the faculty, itself a deeply racist aspiration). The protestors responses, baselessly assuming that the swastika was targeting black students rather than Jewish or other minority groups, drew both participation and opposition from members of the university’s faculty. One professor made news by physically threatening a journalist for reporting on the protests. Another protestor–a student and former president of BLM at Missouri–fomented fears of attacks by white supremacists by making fake threats over Twitter. Eventually, in a tragic capitulation, the protests succeeded in pushing the university’s president and members of its administration to resign.
At Harvard Law School, portraits of black faculty members were taped over, instigating further protests. Meanwhile, one of the affected professors penned a New York Times op-ed expressing a general lack of concern for the incident, noting that the stunt was miniscule compared to the racist attacks he experienced over a lifetime and that there simply was no reason to believe that it was racist, concluding that it could just as likely be a fake or some poor attempt at “raising awareness.” At Yale, students protested in droves when well-respected administrators suggested that whether or not students found certain Halloween costumes “offensive” was a matter for the students themselves to resolve as adults, not a matter of university discipline. The students declared their need for a “safe space” against “microaggressions” and “hate speech,” some expressing distaste for the First Amendment’s protection of the same. While America’s most “prestigious” universities had succeeded in intellectually crippling droves of American youths, permanently rendering them petulant children who break down at the slightest resistance to their preconceived worldview, a few voices–such as one university president and one professor– stood out as voices of reason above the turmoil by telling students that they had been admitted to a university to be challenged, not coddled; that being adults requires coming into contact with people who possess ideologies different than their own; that the First Amendment was not to be sacrificed to their “feelings.”
Through it all–be it campus unrest, pop culture, leftist intellectualism, and the pack of rabid wolves that social media often proves to be– there is a guiding cultural trend that is often given the name of its previous incarnation from the 1980s and 90s: political correctness. The name, however, is tragically inadequate. There is something altogether more vicious, calculating, and purposefully directed in today’s thought-policing than there was in the political correctness movement of decades past. Marked by the same faux-intellectualism, scolding tone, and condescension, they are undoubtedly related. But beneath today’s form lies something darker and more malevolent, a sneering nihilism designed to shake the moral confidence of a nation. Its only standard of knowledge is emotion. Its standard of justice is malleable according to the parties involved. Its appetite for concessions is insatiable. It revels in American weakness and it feeds off of a moral relativism run amok. It is not the product of conspiring politicians but of meager and infinitely flexible ones who believe in nothing in particular and will bend in any direction according to the dictates of the mob. It is not the barbarians at the gate. It is the wood rot at their foundations as they sink into the waiting mud, clearing a path for the barbarians to come if we as a culture do not discover the moral virtues that made America great and will restore her if given the chance.
Many will argue– and with some merit– that the ruthless, unforgiving, feigned outrage permeating social media at the first sign of an uncouth statement by a politician, celebrity, or media figure is an amplified, caricatured representation of America today that does not necessarily reflect the tenor of debate or manner of thinking common throughout most of our society. However, what is missed by this critique is the way in which that pretense of outrage and offense is tendered and accepted by many as a sign of cultured intellectualism. It dispels the notion that with education and worldliness comes a measure of acceptance that disagreeable ideas will always exist and must be accepted as part of life. It replaces that measure of intellectual’s grit with the notion that a flailing and vengeful sensitivity is the ultimate mark of sophistication.
What’s more: its anger is as indiscriminate and self-consuming for the left as the aforementioned protests were in Baltimore and elsewhere. As progressive writer Jonathan Chait noted in a much cited article this year, the thought police of the left are turning on their own at least as frequently as they assail the right, and they are transforming the left into a cesspool of anger without direction. A feminist who dares to suggest that there are any adverse effects of modernization for white males is quickly and savagely ridiculed by fellow feminists for the offense of discussing men in an almost sympathetic tone. Those who question the established doctrine that America is a bastion of racial prejudice and gender inequality are branded as clear cut racists and sexists themselves. And anyone who would dare to suggest that we live in a relatively prosperous and improving time will be eviscerated with all the wicked zeal reserved for those who threaten the status quo in which victimhood is power and grievance a weapon. The evolution of this trend was addressed in our 2014 Review, featuring a section entitled “The Rise of Victim Culture.” If victim culture can be said to have risen in 2014, it was solidified, spread, and canonized in 2015.
Its rampant sense of divisiveness and mob rule reached a fever pitch by summer. As the poem goes, it seemed that “the best lack[ed] all conviction, while the worst were full of passionate intensity.” Fortunately, by fall there seemed to be not only a rising sense of resentment towards “PC culture” but an outspoken condemnation of the sort of bullying that has come to pervade popular discussion on many issues. Conservative commentators, though surprisingly not the primary objects of PC anger, have done well to answer it with incisive criticisms. National Review Online, in particular, devoted considerable space in its pages to dismantling the thought-policing tactics of college crusaders and leftist intellectuals, while Reason Magazine and others pursued it with similar vigor.
Even leftists began to decry the bloodthirstiness of the sensitive little monsters they had created. Numerous college professors wrote anonymous editorials detailing how they had become witnesses and victims of a collapsing intellectual culture in university classrooms. They recounted the sense of entitlement with which students demanded tailored curricula, rife with “trigger warnings”, designed to account for each student’s unique neuroses and emotional handicaps that rendered them unable to handle their coursework like functioning adults. Even President Obama spoke out against the culture of mob outrage growing on college campuses, though his administration maintained its line of pressuring universities to defer to allegations against them of racially biased conduct and explicitly referred to protesters as “experts” on their own experiences. It seems that no matter the president’s personal feelings about escalating rhetoric on college campuses, the lure of gaining social justice warriors’ votes is too great for the Democratic Party to ignore.
The lingering question, however, is whether conservatives and libertarians have the intellectual answers to provide something in place of PC; whether they can morally and intellectually argue for the freedom of thought and speech without relying upon platitudes and past practices. ‘This country was built on the freedom of speech and conscience’ or other appeals to the past are insufficient without an argument for why those ideas are necessary to the flourishing of a healthy culture, the maintenance of freedom, and the promotion of human life. As in so many areas, conservatives must learn and uphold the moral arguments for freedom and abandon their task of harkening back to some fictional, unspecified, bygone era in which everything used to be better. They must argue from a sound basis in an objective standard of the good: man’s life. Every issue and every year wasted on an ambiguous standard of trying to “conserve” a patriotic but vague notion of America without defining their moral principles allows for the continued advance of a socialist progressive agenda overtaking the American idea.
Culturally, America is in the balance between increasingly polarized extremes. The enduring desire by many Republicans since 2010 for a more limited, rights-respecting, and fiscally accountable government has been mirrored by a series of less successful, less manageable, and less sustained extreme movements on the left. The difference, of course, is that while the Tea Party succeeded in electing many viable senators and congressmen– three of whom are presidential candidates in 2015– the left’s haphazard flourishes of extremism such as the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and various student protests have proven to be ill-organized social experiments that have, in the end, cost Democrats more than they benefitted them.
As unsuccessful as leftist activism has proven to be in recent years, it tears at the fabric of our political culture with every blow, destroying without creating, and degrading the composure of our national debate. At the heart of this debate is an emerging generation that appears as polarized as the environment in which it has emerged. Various polls give conflicting signs as to the political character of millennials, and as with all generations it is fair to say that when the fervor of youth is tempered by adult realities their views will change to some extent, but there is a battle afoot over the political soul of America and millennials are the prize. With an entitlement crisis less than twelve years away that could leave America reeling, if they are to pull her back from the brink, the GOP must offer bold new ideas– not just budgets and plans, but principled statements into the heart of every American under 30 that they are not helpless, writhing victims, and that their life is their own, complete with all of the freedoms and responsibilities that entails. It must answer the party of victim-worship by becoming the party of heroes. To do so, however, it must act quickly to reform itself, letting go of intractable ideas and old battles. Capitalism depends on the gradual achievement of a rational culture– one that values independence, productivity, and intellectual clarity. To achieve this, conservatives will have to do some serious introspection and reform. Whether among their ranks they have the kind of thoughtful and persuasive leader needed to achieve that, we are unsure, but it is becoming increasingly clear that saving America from the brink will depend heavily on the character and commitment of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, one year into the largest Republican majority since before World War II, the party seems to be a source of continual frustration for those who elected them.
A Republican Majority: One Year In
It would be inaccurate and unfair to suggest that the frustration of Republican voters with those in Washington is entirely the result of most Republican politicians’ lack of commitment to pursuing meaningful change. Certainly, their commitment to voters’ values is often questionable, and they have indeed brought a considerable measure of frustration on themselves by bowing to lobbying interests over popular will on countless occasions. However, an honest appraisal of their circumstance must account for the possibility that Republicans, in the spirit of an election year, simply promised more than they could deliver and delivered even less. And no Republican should be faulted for going home and telling his constituents that he genuinely tried to accomplish something but could not get his party’s leadership to budge. In fact, the primary function of Republican leadership under John Boehner seems to have been the obstruction of Republican efforts. Their desire to not rock the boat in the lead-up to 2016 has made for a dead year in which Congress was less an engine of progress than a boat caught in the wind, guided this way and that by events as they emerged from outside the walls of the Capitol. This may well be as passive and inert a Congress as we have seen in years–a great disappointment when we think back to the hopeful spirit that followed Election Day 2014.
The result of all of this? As Veronique de Rugy wrote in Reason Magazine,
“A tumultuous year for the Republican-led Congress has come to an end. If you were a supporter of the GOP establishment’s shallow goal to show the country that it could ‘govern’ by passing bloated spending bills, congratulations. If you’re a special interest, congratulations are probably in order, as well. If, however, you held out hope that the GOP would put up a fight for smaller government, I hope the New Year’s Eve champagne helps with the disappointment.”
Disappointed we are, and the frustration was enough in 2015 to push a longstanding speaker of the House from office in a silent coup. The push to remove John Boehner from office had been underway from at least the “Tea Party Purge” of 2012 in which Boehner and GOP leadership removed prominent Tea Party voices (and eventual members of the House Freedom Caucus) from select committees. After continued failure to halt the destructive progress of the Obama Administration, unrest grew within party ranks. The House Freedom Caucus gained enough members to serve as a significant obstacle to the Speaker’s desire for “compromise,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat in a primary, and a Republican Senate removed any excuses Boehner once had for continued inaction and capitulation. Eventually, one Republican filed to remove Boehner from office over the summer. His effort was mocked by Republican leadership, but it would prove to be the morbid laughter of those who knew that the end of their heyday was nigh.
From there, Boehner’s downfall was left to fate and circumstances. The House Freedom Caucus continued its opposition and, joined by raucous outrage from the Religious Right over funding for Planned Parenthood, it became clear that the GOP would enter a Republican election year with a deeply divided House Caucus absent a change in leadership. Whether the opposition had enough votes to remove Boehner on their own remains a matter of historical supposition, but Boehner had unquestionably overstayed his welcome for many Republicans. As a result of pressure from the right and a possible desire to unify the party going into 2016, Boehner announced his resignation. In short order, his heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, withdrew his candidacy after highly unpopular public condemnations of the Republican inquiry into the Benghazi attacks and allegations of sexual indiscretions with a fellow married House member. For a period of weeks, no clear candidate existed. Paul Ryan initially opposed any suggestion that he fill the role, expressing concern about his ability to spend time with his young family. Eventually, Ryan acquiesced, making several demands regarding his duties and promising procedural changes to the business of the House. At the end of October, Boehner officially resigned, and a new generation of Republican leadership took the reins of the House.
More than any other issue, six years into the battle over ObamaCare, the fact that the law remains in effect is enough to cast a continual pall over Republicans’ heads. Voters were told during last year’s election of the myriad ways that the Affordable Care Act could be defunded, nullified, and destroyed once Republicans held both houses of Congress. As soon as they did, however, the finish line was moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as Republican leaders said that little could be done until and unless they win the White House in 2016. From the House to the Senate to the presidency, the end zone continues to be pushed back, and Republican voters are growing weary of the delays.
In the end, it is a shame that more was not done in the last year to end ObamaCare’s taxes and mandates. Twenty-fifteen would have been an ideal year for the Senate to contrast Democratic delay tactics used under Harry Reid’s leadership with Republican focus on results. And with such low approval ratings for ObamaCare, to announce that they had quashed the law going into the 2016 presidential elections would have been a coup de grace for Republicans. Though it is a longshot, one hopes that they will use 2016 more effectively towards that end.
Also in a state of political limbo is the conservative movement that arose in response to ObamaCare: the Tea Party. In our 2014 Review, we had this to say about the progress of that faction:
“[W]hat is the status of the Tea Party in 2014? Throughout this Review, we have at least spoken of the Tea Party as if it still exists, and assuredly it does. Insofar as anyone who adheres to the principles of “free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government” is a member of the Tea Party, then the Tea Party continues to be a growing force on the American right, regardless of the name attached to it. The name is another matter, as the Religious Right has largely latched itself onto the symbols and slogans of the Tea Party without genuinely adopting its ideas. Moreover, groups announcing themselves as ‘Tea Parties’ — while present — are, as the ‘Tea Party’ has always been, largely local, fractured across various ideologies, and active with varying degrees of organization, leadership, and effectiveness…Though discussion of the ‘Tea Party’ as a caucus or faction may be much subsided from previous years, the effects of the Tea Party are still present in the background as a cultural and ideological force, shaping politics vicariously through reforming and challenging the Republican Party when it falters.”
The circumstance since then has not changed, and in a non-election year it is fair to say that the Tea Party was scarcely felt except as a cultural force. As an organizing political movement, its heyday may well have come to pass. That fact takes on personal significance to this publication and its editors, who founded it when the Tea Party movement was new and promising. We have written at length about its character and evolution, and we have shared our aspirations for what it could achieve with the right philosophical guidance and direction. In the end (if this is the end), one cannot be too disappointed in the Tea Party’s results. It supported the election of a far better class of candidates for Congressional seats across America than we would have ever enjoyed in its absence, and it put pressure on wayward Republicans who had backed big government programs in the Bush era to suddenly remember their limited government principles– or else.
Today, in the heart of the Republican primaries for 2016, “Tea Party” is not the brand name certification that it was in 2010 and 2012, largely a result of having been hijacked by social conservatives who sought to capitalize on its popularity to maintain power in an increasingly secular nation. The ideas of the Tea Party, however, are still present, and in 2015 one could say that the Tea Party was effectively absorbed into the Republican body politic. No longer a standalone thing unto itself to be treated by Establishment Republicans as juvenile idealism, it has transcended caucus boundaries to put pressure on all Republican candidates to brush up on their Federalist Papers and put dusty copies of the Constitution in their jacket pockets before going back home to face their constituents. And it has inspired the Freedom Caucus, which appears to be crafting itself as the next check on old guard Republicanism. Ultimately, it is not the “Tea Party” name that matters most but its spirit. This is not to idealize the movement as having been perfect; it was not. It never fully recognized the moral argument that it needed to make for capitalism, and it lost its focus when it began to accommodate divisive social issues at the expense of its members shared objectives. Nonetheless, it was the wake-up call that the GOP needed, and if it introduced something into the party that might manifest as progress in the years to come, then it will have more than served its purpose and improved us as a country.
At the dawn of 2016, Congress is in a state of transition, ripe for those who aim to carve out new directions for it. With new figureheads in both parties, the iron is hot for new ideas and new struggles. Twenty-sixteen promises to hold interesting developments with both John Boehner and Harry Reid out of leadership roles.
Speaker Paul Ryan, for his part, has started with some promise. He made good on some of his pledges to devolve power from his office to committee chairmen, giving them a greater say in how legislation moves forward. Additionally, he reduced his own power in how committee membership is selected and ensured greater regional diversity in the steering committee that makes the assignments. Alternatively, the omnibus funding bill passed at the end of the year suggested that the procedural changes may not be enough to truly change “business as usual” as it existed under Boehner. Despite his promise to avoid putting off “necessary votes” until the last minute to “manufacture crises,” the omnibus bill exhibited the exact problems of which Boehner’s opposition have complained for years. Members were given little time to read the bill, and while the deficit was reduced overall, many unnecessary and destructive measures still made it into the legislation under Ryan’s watch–most disconcertingly the new surveillance legislation, CISA. Ultimately, it is too early to determine whether the late nature of this vote was a vestige of Boehner’s regime of crises or whether the young Speaker Ryan is getting comfortable in his position of power. But twenty-sixteen will undoubtedly provide opportunity for further evaluation, as Speaker Ryan will be subjected to the pressures of an election year. Whether he will bend to them or bend them to the party’s own productive purposes remains to be seen.
On the Issues
After years of debate, controversy, and countless legal battles across various states, 2015 saw the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The occasion was marked by a flurry of predictable responses by both sides. Many on both right and left supported it, while social conservative politicians declared it unconstitutional and pledged to change the law before a nation of people who had mostly accepted it as a foregone conclusion. Revealing the lack of substantive argument behind their opposition, conservatives such as Ted Cruz proclaimed that the Supreme Court should have left it to the states to decide individually whether or not to allow same-sex marriage in their jurisdiction. If anything, their responses only highlighted two dangerous flaws in conservative rhetoric and thought in 2015.
The first is one of the right’s favorite fallbacks: if an issue is too divisive or complicated to address without caustic political consequences, delegate it to the states to decide. The solution rings with a sense of reverence for the Tenth Amendment, humbly leaving it to individual states to determine a rational solution for their citizens. However, the issue at hand is not a decision as to how best to organize a state legislature, what is a prudent sales tax rate on food, or whether one might legally make a right turn at a red light. This is a question of individuals’ right to contract, and to deny them that right based on the fact of their genders is a violation of the 14th Amendment. It is undoubtedly the role of the Supreme Court to decide such matters. What’s more: those who value freedom and individual rights should take note of Republicans’ willingness, despite all of the talk about limited government, to let states individually violate those rights so long as they might wash their hands of it at the federal level.
The second note of concern regards Republicans’ sudden dismissal of the Supreme Court’s authority after this decision on the basis of their being “unelected.” From Slade Mendenhall’s article, “Conservatives, States Aren’t Always the Answer,” comes a sampling of their responses:
“Senator Marco Rubio’s statement, that ‘[p]eople who disagree with the traditional definition of marriage have the right to change their state laws. That is the right of our people, not the right of the unelected judges or justices of the Supreme Court. This decision short-circuits the political process that has been underway on the state level for years’ seems unimaginable if the issue at stake was any other form of contracting. Carly Fiorina’s statement likewise stressed that ‘responsibility should have remained with the states and voters.’ Mike Huckabee’s melodramatic statement characterized the Supreme Court as being ‘imperial’ and likened it to King George III– a colorful response, if not one grounded in the facts of the case. Rick Santorum, along with several other candidates, has stressed the ‘unelected’ nature of the Court, as though that in any way invalidates its decisions. In addition to showing conservatives’ knack for drama when they lose, it also hints dangerously at a preference for elected judiciaries. Finally, Ted Cruz has gone so far as to encourage states to outright defy the ruling of the Supreme Court–a course of action that would be not only doomed but legally and morally wrong. If this were a matter of the federal government trying to violate the bill of rights, that would be one thing; granting marriage certificates equally to heterosexual and homosexual couples is hardly the road to serfdom.”
Surely these are unhealthy appeals to an evangelical base that these conservatives are seeking to gain at the expense of some Americans’ individual rights. And the ease with which they rallied around the criticism of the Supreme Court is disheartening, as it shows how little they understand or respect the reasons that our Founding Fathers valued the preservation of an appointed judiciary. Americans’ rights, however, are not pawns in the game for the presidency, and conservatives surrender their moral high ground when they challenge the legitimacy of our governing institutions each time that a decision is passed down that is not in their favor.
One issue on which social conservatives and advocates of limited government could agree this year was the proper response to the release of videos showing Planned Parenthood doctors and employees negotiating the sale of aborted foetuses. When a pro-life activist group began releasing the videos on a weekly basis to reveal the black market in foetal tissue and body parts that had apparently emerged across numerous states, much of the nation was outraged. Though some attempted to dispel the videos as duplicitous, the release of unedited footage online confirmed that they were an accurate representation of the backdoor operation being operated in Planned Parenthood’s clinics, going all the way up to its national management level. The scandal had Republicans up in arms, bringing Planned Parenthood Director Cecile Richards before the House Government Oversight Committee. Unfortunately, initial efforts to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood failed in the Senate, showing how ineffective Republicans still seemed to be despite majorities in both houses and in the face of widespread public support. By the end of the year, another measure to defund Planned Parenthood, this time initiating in the Senate, was set to pass the House, and Speaker Paul Ryan announced that a bill to defund would be sent to President Obama in a week’s time.
For any Republicans who truly believe in a limited government, the choice to defund Planned Parenthood should be an easy one–not because all Republicans agree about a woman’s right to choose, but because the government should have no part of funding health clinics of any kind. Republicans specify in their description of the latest bill that it defunds any abortion-related activities by Planned Parenthood, but note that they are not advocating the outright privatization of Planned Parenthood and its severance from all government support. Firstly, this relies on a measure of economic ignorance by their constituents, who should recognize that to fund any part of an organization is to free up funds and resources that can be devoted to its other functions; eliminating funding for abortion-related activities but funding Planned Parenthood’s other operations only allows the organization to fund abortion-related activities in different ways. This hardly meets the goal that the pro-life Republican base is trying to achieve. Beyond this, however, for Republican politicians who have spent six years touting their alleged moral opposition to government involvement in healthcare to only defund part of the organization shows how uncommitted they are in principle to that goal. If they really opposed government providing Americans’ healthcare, they would fight it in all of its forms. Instead, it seems that many of them are pandering on one issue as surely as they are on the other. This places all the more significance on voters continuing to pressure Republicans to stay the course on ObamaCare. Without that pressure, one can fairly assume that many of them would just assume let bygones be bygones and adapt themselves to the new rules of an ever more intrusive state.
In all of these issues and so many others, the tenor of debate was amplified by the partisan and intraparty clashes that characterize a primary season. Presidential primaries are an excellent metric of the political culture of our nation and how it changes over time– far more than regional and state elections or even the general presidential elections that follow them. Thus, with this foundation of cultural and domestic issues at our backs, we will turn in Part II to the race for the White House and the question of what it says about America’s political philosophy as we enter 2016.