We are not capable of self-government
When Vice President Aaron Burr ended his term as President of the Senate, he gave a farewell speech, which was an impassioned portrait of the virtues of the members and the importance of the institution as a forum for respectful, reasoned debate. The remarks were intended to be private (they were delivered at the end of a closed-door executive session of the Senate), and so they were not transcribed. But several Senators present (including John Quincy Adams) recorded some of the high points of the 25 minute address. Burr said that he had endeavored to treat “nothing trivial which touched, however remotely, the dignity” of the body, and he urged future senators “to avoid the smallest relaxation of the habits which he had endeavored to inculcate and establish.” He ended by comparing the Senate to “a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty,” and said that “if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.”
That was in 1805. Slightly more than 208 years later, a different way for constitutional representative democracy to die illustrated itself. There were no demagogues (it had been years since a Senator was able to talk in anything but the bullet-point patois of Washington insiders) and no outright usurper. Instead consider what took place.
A little over a year ago the U.S. Senate was heading to a vote on a bill entitled “Public Safety And Second Amendment Rights Protection Act.” Four months had gone by since the shocking, gangland style massacre of 6 years olds and their teachers took place in Newtown, Connecticut. People had been moved as never before to get something done about the run-away gun violence in the country, particularly the violence that threatened school children. The Newtown massacre had made it impossible to ignore, because it took place in an exurban community of affluent whites, not an inner city school that was allowed to deteriorate. The angst was palpable this time. It looked like even the craven politicians that roamed the halls of Congress now would have to at least look like they were doing something.
The bill itself was not going to be heavy lifting. It was not something truly radical, like, say, reinstating the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which had become law in 1994, but allowed to expire in 2003. By that time, a combination of a cynical political-outcome oriented Supreme Court, Republican gerrymandered districts throughout much of the country, and a contrived “war on terror” all combined to give the reactionary elements always seething at the bottom of the Republican party a grasp of at least one of the branches of government, except for a very short period at the beginning of the Obama administration (which was squandered in a benighted view of how “bipartisanship” might work). So of course it would not be possible to go back to even the status quo ante. But the bill in 2013, sponsored by perhaps the most conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin, and one time Club for Growth president, Pat Toomey, was just a slight tightening of the gun laws. It is what is called “common sense” reform; in other words, it will address some (but not all) of the glaring holes in the patchwork of federal gun regulation, but not do much for gathering up the sea of weapons of mass destruction that we have been persuaded is our right to bear.
The Manchin-Toomey bill would have required background checks on purchasers of guns at gun shows and on the internet, something that current federal law does not require; federal law only requires background checks on purchasers from registered gun dealers. The bill would also have provided for the study of issues, including mental heath, that might be behind the epidemic of gun violence we experience. To make the bill palatable to congressmen pandering to the gun-worshipping zealots, it plainly stated that no background check was necessary for sales or gifts among family members or “friends” and that no federal registry of gun ownership would be maintained. It also provided for the reduction in the waiting period necessary for the background check. Obviously, for those wishing to exercise their Second Amendment rights, having to wait 48 hours (during which time the impetus to shoot someone or holdup a liquor store might subside) was just too much of an infringement. It also reduced liability to sellers for criminal acts by their buyers.
So in short it required people selling to strangers to have a background check performed on their potential buyers, the same way gun dealers currently do. In other respects it relaxed federal gun regulations. Pretty innocuous right? Innocuous enough for Manchin and Toomey to lend their names to. And yet it was attacked by the NRA and its even less responsible little copy cat organization (one supported by Rand Paul), the Gun Owners of America, Inc.
When April 17, 2013, the day the procedural vote came, 60 votes were necessary to allow the bill to proceed. This is because, simply to make it more difficult for anything to get down, the Senate has made its own rule that on anything of importance (or indeed anything), if more than 2/5 of the senate objects, the bill goes down in defeat. In other words, it is not enough that the Senate inherently over-represents the rural states of the country. It has decided that a mere majority of the inherently conservatively biased Senate is not enough to overcome inertia. There must be 60%.
So would the bill get 60 votes? Not a chance. In the vote five Democrats voted against cloture as did all but four Republicans. The marvel was not that it lost, but that four Republicans voted for it. One, of course, was Toomey himself. One was John McCain! If the fact that Congressman Gabby Giffords was gunned down during a shooting spree at a supermarket in Casas Adobes, Arizona, influenced his vote, it was not an effective cause for his colleague. Nor was the shooting massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Senator Jeffrey Flake had written the mother of one victim of the latter that, all other issues they may differ on, “strengthening background checks is something we agree on.” And yet, given the chance he marched lock-step against even this minor palliative.
The Democrats who voted against this simple improvement were excused because they came from rural states and had tough re-elections coming up. After all, it would be unreasonable to suppose that a Democratic Senator would actually stand for something, especially if he could be defeated as a result. Or even if it made it close. You see, the theory is that it is better to lose today, but preserve the chance to come back later, when, of course there will be other reasons why you lose. The one thing is for certain. No one will be writing a book profiling the courage of anyone in this Senate.
Two witnesses in the Senate gallery were so disgusted by the disgrace brought on the Senate that they shouted, “Shame on you!” One was Patricia Maisch, who had knocked a magazine from the hands of the shooter in Casas Adobes. The other, Lori Haas, was the mother of a victim of the Virginia Tech shooting slaughter in 2007. Because Senators have neither the courage nor empathy of either of the women, the women forced to leave the chambers by the Senate Security staff, before any of the members actually felt anything like the shame they brought on themselves.
But that done, it was decided it was time to move on. It was as if the vote suddenly released the pressure on Congress to do something. The death of 20 6-year olds had bought one procedural vote. What more could America ask? The political establishment would now make sure that no one would suffer for the defeat of the bill. In fact, the heat was placed on those who supported it, including Pat Toomey, the reliable right-winger, who was grilled by the lowest of reactionary paid media hacks. It was time for the Senate to move and pretend to deal with other issues.
That day may have been the high-water mark for serious public policy in the U.S. Senate. The day that Aaron Burr thought couldn’t happen.
But unfortunately the Senate’s act of throwing up its hands did not end school slaughter. Since Newtown there have been scores more (the number is somewhere between 44 and 74; we can’t even agree on what is a “school shooting massacre”). But the right-wing that holds our polity in a stranglehold won’t even consider that inadequate gun regulation, ease of availability or even the public brandishing of guns might be a problem. Presidential hopeful Rand Paul this year offered legislation in the Government Affairs Committee that would allow open carry of firearms in U.S. Post Offices, to the delight of his pet gun lobby, Gun Owners of America, Inc. What could recommend someone to the office of Presidency more than make sure there is even fewer places where guns are prohibited?
But on this one specific part of the problem, school shootings, let’s accept that these cynical hacks might have a point. Perhaps there are solutions more directed toward protecting children at school than an overhaul of federal gun regulations. Surely if there is a solution, they must want to find it, right? Another school shooting, resulting in a death took place this week, so what is Congress doing to find the solution?
This past week John Boehner, the face of the do-nothing house, stood before the press with his best imitation of thoughtful concern and opined that the prisoner exchange that freed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl might cost American lives in the future. This was to justify the hearings that would speedily begin to discover the presumed malignity behind the exchange. And yet, we know that there are American children regularly dying in their classrooms because of a patent epidemic of gun violence in this country. And since the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, how many congressional hearings have taken place to discover the cause or solution? Congress has had how many futile, politically motivated investigations into the Benghazi killings, and they are about to undertake another? And yet not one committee chairman or any of the House leadership has even floated the idea of hearings on school violence.
You pick the reason. (1) The Republican Congress has no interest in anything except scoring partisan political points against the Administration. (2) The Republican House could not with a straight face find witnesses that would suggest gun violence in schools could be solved without gun regulation. (3) The leadership of this Congress is nothing but self-interested, cynical hypocrites who have decided they know how to game the system for their own purposes.
The correct answer is: All of the above.
Montesquieu’s writings in the eighteenth century were highly influential not only among the revolutionaries like John Adams who took on the cause of persuading the colonies to establish republics but also among the Federalists who argued for the formation of “a more perfect union.” Montesquieu’s central thesis in The Spirit of the Laws is that the form of government must comport with the character of the people of the country. Depots and monarchs required no special virtue among the populace, because the iron rule of one could clamp down on all. Republics, however, required virtuous people, he argued. Virtue, in his view, was “love of the Republic.” This love means a humbling, a voluntary damping of ambition and greed and the desire to be superior. It also requires intellectual honesty. What happens to a Republic when this kind of virtue is lost?
When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigour; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear. Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice. Formerly the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure; but now this has become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the licence of many. (Spirit of the Laws, Book III.)
That, ladies and gentlemen, is where we are now. Since the rise of the modern Right, with the “Greed is Good” era of Ronald Reagan, we have deserted the foundation on which a Republic must be based. Take a look at the gallery of Boehner, Gomert, Rubio, Rand, Bachmann, Cruz, King, Scalia, Roberts and on and on. The right wing can rally people dressed in 18th century costumes, but no amount of dressing up this crew can make them look like Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Jay.
Aaron Burr did not list the loss of virtue as a danger to the Constitution. Perhaps he could never envision the how vacant we could leave our consciences and what brazen cynics we would elect to govern us.