The myth of political principles

I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that Mitch McConnell would vote for Donald Trump as president on 2024. I assume all the handwringing and outrage among pundits is largely performative. Of course Mitch McConnell is going to vote for the Republican candidate in 2024. All of the incentives of American democracy as it is structured right now lead him to no other plausible outcome.

Here’s the key thing to understand about politics just in general: principle is not a consideration for decision-making. Or, if it every is, it comes into play way down the list of decision factors, behind things like self-interest, party loyalty, interest group influence, electoral impact, and a plethora of others. Conservative/progressive/liberal/libertarian/identarian principles very rarely come into the calculation when politicians make decisions about voting or public statements or when it comes to what to support or not support. This is true on the right and the left. Principles are just simply not luxuries politicians feel they can indulge, aside from a few iconoclastic personalities who rarely are able to muster support across a wide base (Bernie is the only moderately successful principled politician in recent history.) Principles are for the rest of us, and its up to us to figure out which party’s quest for power best benefits the principles and causes we might support.

And honestly, this is how the Founders designed our system to work. Those who crafted the Constitution understood that human motivation is very rarely principled, but instead is guided by baser instincts, and thus they put together a system replete with checks and balances and guardrails and funnels and other methods of channeling and focusing the various motivations of politicians towards the responsible use of power in a way that benefits the Republic.

I think our political culture has lost that plot, and this reaction to McConnell’s declaration of support is just another example of how our perceptions and expectations about politics are misguided. We need to stop reacting to our political leaders – and trying to influence our political leaders – like they are responsive to arguments about principles and values and ideas. Instead, we have to remember that what they respond to is arguments rooted in power and self-interest and electoral incentive. Is it the most virtuous system out there? Far from it. But we can either do politics in the world as it is, or as we wish it would be. I know which one Mitch McConnell has decided to operate in.

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Mitch McConnell is a Political Terrorist

Mitch McConnell is a political terrorist.

The FBI has this to say about the definition of the term terrorist:

There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

What we have seen Senator McConnell do in the United States Senate over the last decade and a half is nothing short of the “use of force to coerce a government in furtherance of political or social objective.” Ever since his declaration on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama that his primary political goal was to make Obama a one-term president, McConnell has used his power as the leader of the Republican Senate caucus to twist and subvert democratic governance and to tear apart any of the norms need to sustain such a government.

McConnell’s particular brand of terrorism isn’t the use of violence to subvert and undermine governments. My use of the term isn’t to say McConnell has joined some fringe group using physical violence to achieve their ends. Rather, I use the term “terrorist” to indicate that, like the commonly understood subjects of the epithet, McConnell places ideology and a thirst for power above the good of civilian populations or electoral majorities, and is willing to tear down any structure, institution or society in order to achieve his ends. His is a pure consequentialist, in that the ultimate goal of seizing and maintaining power for himself and his capitalist allies supersedes any question of tactics. No tradition or institution is too important to dismantle in his single minded pursuit.

His latest push to complete a Supreme Court nomination mere weeks before an election in which his party is increasingly projected to lose across the board – against his own former declarations of what is and is not permissible in an election year – is just the latest example of the terrorism he perpetuates. For decades, the process of selecting and confirming a Supreme Court nomination has been a slow and deliberate one, purposely so, in order that the United States Senate has the full amount of time and attention needed to carry out their Constitutional duty in such a way that they are able to assure the public that whoever assumes the lifetime appointment to the most powerful judicial body in the world is indeed fully capable, qualified and vetted. At the same time, the right of the sitting president to nominate and have their candidate voted on by the Senate was never challenged, no matter what other events were happening in the nation at the time.

These norms are essential to our Constitutional democracy. The Supreme Court wields enormous power over judicial proceedings and legal theory in our nation. As an unelected body, it is the most undemocratic of our major governing institutions. Thus, the role of the President in nominating, and the Senate in conducting a confirmation in good faith, is crucial to maintaining trust in the Court and ensuring that the decisions it hands down are respected and followed. Without an above-board process, the legitimacy of the Court breaks down, along with that of the rest of the federal judiciary, which leads to a undermining of the idea of rule of law, something crucial to our democratic society.

McConnell has shown, over the course of the last five years, that preserving the rule of law, maintaining trust in the nomination process, and carrying out the duties of the Senate in the interests of maintaining our form of government are not priorities to him and his caucus. It is clear from his actions that he would rather burn it all down, as long as the benefits of that burning trickle upwards to him and his allies.

This burning began early in 2016, when Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died in February, a full 9 months before the presidential election, and almost an entire year before the next president would take office. As has been the case since the founding of our country, President Obama nominated qualified jurist and sent that nomination to the Senate. McConnell at this point made the decision that he had no duty to follow the Constitution and bring the President’s nominee before the Senate for consideration, on the weak and baldly political grounds that it was “too close” to an election, that “the American people should decide who selects the next nominee to the Court.” McConnell was able to maintain this blockade for over a year, destroying norms the whole while and allowing President Trump to begin his presidential term (achieved without winning an electoral majority) with a lifetime appointment to the Court. This was shocking at the time, a clear attack on the democratic character of the United States government.

All the while, McConnell and his allies made pious claims about preserving democracy and the rights of the people, about how allowing a “lame duck” President to influence the Court was an affront to the Constitution, about how a President should never make an appointment in an election year.

This year, the narrative coming from McConnell has flipped dramatically. Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg just 6 short weeks before an election, now the rhetoric coming from the Majority Leader is that a President has an absolute right to fill a Supreme Court seat, and that the Senate should confirm that nominee quickly and with little oversight provided, in order to get it in before the election.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but not unexpected. McConnell and his Republican allies long ago made it clear that none of this was ever about principle; rather, power is at the heart of their calculations. Whatever seizes the most power is the right play, ideals be damned. Again, no principle, institution or tradition is too valuable to smash in this immoral pursuit. The democratic will must never be heeded.

This unyielding pursuit of power and destruction of the Constitutional norms American governance was supposed to be built upon is political terrorism. The idea behind McConnell’s moves are not driven by the desire to govern widely or compassionately. Instead, every move is motivated by the ideology of power. Every obstacle must be destroyed. Every check must be broken. Every appeal to higher principles must be ignored at best, and more often than not, mocked as unrealistic or weak. This is not a partisan issue; this disregard for our basic norms of governance damages all of us, as it makes government even less accountable to those it is supposed to represent and serve. Through his actions, McConnell continues to actively work to make government work only for those with power, money, and elite status. Through weakening democratic institutions, he serves to make our Constitutional form of government much more of a oligarchy than a democracy.

Mitch McConnell is a political terrorist. His trampling of a whole host of democratic norms over the last decade and a half will have a terrible impact far beyond the expiration of his time in power. Things have been broken that can never be fixed. The traditions he has subverted or undone will not return after he and Donald Trump leave office. I fear for the future of our democratic experiment, because I do not believe there is a lot of optimistic signs about its future. And when the story is written about its downfall, Mitch McConnell’s blatant willingness to shred it all in pursuit of power will be the central story. Trump may be the loud and shocking voice at the center of this terrible moment in our national story; but his is an aimless, blundering destruction, one that while terrible, could be papered over after his ouster from office, written off as an aberration, a temporary insanity on the part of American democracy. But the legacy of McConnell’s terrorism will live on much, much longer.

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