Andy Schmookler: Isn’t it “conservative” to care about American norms?

Andy Schmookler

As I’ve said here before, I am struggling to understand the conservative part of America’s electorate. I’m trying to square what I thought I knew about the conservatives with whom I had radio conversations back in the 1990s with what I’ve observed since.

Back in the ’90s, my impression was that conservatives had a commitment to the basic values and norms of the system of government our founders gave us. Indeed, over the years, it has been the conservatives in America who have most vocally proclaimed their patriotic commitment to our political heritage.

But that doesn’t square with a lot I’ve seen in recent years, leading me to wonder:

Are the conservatives — whom I esteemed 20 years ago for their commitment to the norms of our democracy — unaware of how much the political force they’ve been supporting has trampled on those norms?

Voter ID laws

For example, I would like to ask Republican voters about the voter ID laws their party has been passing in the states. “Would you approve of such laws, if you understood clearly that these laws do virtually nothing to prevent voter fraud, but have instead, as their main effect, preventing millions of American citizens from voting?”

Because it’s crystal clear that this is what those laws do.

Of course, there’s a reason for Republicans to like these laws: most of those who get disenfranchised by these laws don’t vote Republican – which is likewise crystal clear the reason Republican legislators have erected these barriers. And so these laws help their side win elections.

On the other hand, it is a basic American value that even those fellow citizens we disagree with have a right to vote. So these voter ID laws – by rendering those millions voiceless — trample on that hallowed American notion, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, of “the consent of the governed.”

So, my puzzle: Have the voters who support these Republican laws been hoodwinked by the bogus talk of “voter fraud” — an almost non-existent problem that these laws don’t address anyway? Or have they willingly cast aside America’s democratic values to get their side more power?

Across-the-board obstructionism

Two other basic American values were abandoned by the Republicans in Congress when, throughout President Obama’s eight years in office, they did everything they could to prevent that Democratic president from accomplishing anything.

Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio articulated clearly the Republicans’ obstructive priority: “If he [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it.”

That violates our democratic ethos, first, by showing contempt for the will of the American people. Through our constitutional electoral process, the people had “hired” Mr. Obama to play an important role in our constitutional system. In making the president’s failure their top priority, the Republicans showed disrespect for both the people and the Constitution.

This reached its climax in 2016, when the Republicans in the Senate declared that they would not consider anyone whom the president might nominate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. As a study of more than a hundred such situations from our history showed, never before had any Senate acted in this way to thwart the president from playing his constitutional role and exercising his rightful prerogative.

Again, for their violating the spirit of the Constitution (in this case, a grotesque distortion of the Senate’s role to “advise and consent”), the Republicans got rewarded with increased power. This theft gained “conservatives” a controlling majority of the Court.

From Republican supporters, no objections were heard. Does that mean these Republicans were reassured by the phony rationales offered by Senate Republicans? Or — as seems more likely, given how flimsy and ever-changing were those rationales — were rank and file Republicans willing to applaud a theft if it gained their side more power?

(“What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36)

Another way that across-the-board obstructionism clearly contradicts the intent of the founders is that it quite patently opposes what is supposed to be the purpose of our public servants: namely, to advance the good of the nation. After all, it was to advance the common good that our Constitution was fashioned.

Creating gridlock just to make the president look bad inevitably means doing damage to the nation and its people.

But I never once heard Republican voters complain about that strategy. Did they always care more about defeating “the other side” than about the good of America? Or did they change?

So, even before the election of Donald Trump, there were worrisome signs that American conservatives, who once seemed a stronghold of allegiance to traditional American political norms, either forgot – or stopped caring — how the system our founders gave us is supposed to work.

Andy Schmookler – award-winning author and former candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District – is writing a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at http://abetterhumanstory.org.

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