Defending Diction: Obstructionism

In recent months, under considerable encouragement from conservative media and largely in response to critics of Donald Trump, a word has reemerged in American political vernacular that had gone mostly dormant since the first term of President Barack Obama. The word is “obstructionism,” and it has seemingly found as much of a home in media outlets and popular usage on the right as it once enjoyed on the left. Its popularity is unfortunate, however, as it is a dangerous, anti-intellectual “package-deal” that weakens American politican discourse.

First, what is a “package-deal?” Ayn Rand wrote in her essay “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made” that “’Package-dealing’ is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or ‘package,’ elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value.”[i] Elsewhere, she put it as “the shabby old gimmick of equating opposites by substituting nonessentials for their essential characteristics, obliterating differences.”[ii]

For example, the equation of economic with political power is a package-deal frequently invoked by both left and right. Those who make this equivocation treat successful businessmen operating on a free market as equal in “power” to bureaucrats, politicians, and dictators—regardless of the fact that the businessman is only powerful economically to the extent that people deal with him voluntarily and to mutual gain, whereas politicians and bureaucrats wield the coercive power of the state to impose their decisions on the willing and unwilling alike. That same equivocation is used to argue that anyone who lacks goods and services that they desire is somehow “disenfranchised” and—in the currently fashionable terminology—lacks “autonomy.” This con job is perpetrated in order to convince one that just as surely as an individual’s right to vote should be protected, so the rest of society is obligated to provide his every demand, and that denying him the latter is as wrong as denying him the former.

So how does “obstructionism” fit the bill of being such a “package-deal?” Consider its literal meaning: a belief in obstructing. Surely this cannot be taken as the intended significance of the term. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who holds an ideological belief based on obstructing all political action, just as in foreign policy one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes literally in “isolationism.” Is such an “obstructionist” really thought to believe in freezing all policy measures, all legislation, all diplomacy? And, if so, are they thought to do so based on a moral or ideological belief in obstruction itself, rather than their own, alternative policy proposals? Did Barack Obama think that the Tea Party sought to obstruct his policies simply for the sake of doing so? Do Republicans really think that of Chuck Schumer now?

It is doubtful. What both parties are acting on is the frustration of desiring to put forward legislation or policy agendas of their own and finding that not everyone agrees with those plans. However, in the increasingly pragmatic culture in which we live—one in which politicians are praised for ‘taking action’ above all else—the prevailing critique of the other side, the most salient political pejorative employed by both sides of the aisle is against those who dare to ‘obstruct’ such action for any reason: substantive, strategic, moral, etc. Where expediency is taken as the highest virtue, obstruction is the lowest crime.

The danger of this anti-intellectual equivocation, however, is that it cons the listener into condemning inaction without asking the essential questions: action by whom? towards what end? by what means? on what principles? It commands support for a bill or policy without recourse to its own arguments. That is: it attempts to condemn the “con” without ever having to mount a case for the “pro.” It absolves the supporters of a bill of all responsibility to defend their actions before the people, assumes that politicians should be taken at their word in both their values and their chosen means of applying them, and—like so many package-deals—bullies opponents into silence, lest they be thought the worst thing imaginable in a pragmatist’s worldview: an enemy of expediency.

This, however, is far from the spirit of our republic. Calvin Coolidge was open and powerful in his professions that obstructing bad bills was as valuable and commendable as supporting good ones. The very foundations of our system are designed to obstruct, to pit one branch against another and force politicians and courts to fight jealously for authority and to convince the public at every turn that theirs is the right way, lest they be obstructed from reelection themselves. Obstruction, far from a sign of disfunction, is a feature of our republic and not a flaw. In that same spirit, let us not shirk the responsibilities of careful thought and callously dismiss all who disagree with us. If we are confident in the virtues of our convictions, let us defend them openly and honestly, seeking not the silent acquiescence of our opponents but their logical and informed consent. But above all, let us not make an epithet of obstruction. After all, it is thanks to some of the great obstructionists of history that we are alive today and free.

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[i] Rand, Ayn. “The Metaphysical Versus the Manmade.” Philosophy: Who Needs It?

[ii] Rand, Ayn. “How to Read (and Not to Write).” The Ayn Rand Letter, I, 26, 3

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