“I disagree in some respects with Congressman Paul, who says the country is founded on the individual. The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family. That’s the basic unit of society.” —Former Sen. Rick Santorum, at Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas.
“Well, I would like to explain that rights don’t come in bunches. Rights come as individuals, they come from a God, and they come as each individual has a right to life and liberty.” —Rep. Ron Paul, in reply to Santorum.
Many observers of these primary debates find them pointlessly repetitive; they can’t wait until the field is winnowed to one or two viable contenders.
For my money, I’m glad for this period of wide-open, freewheeling, occasionally ridiculous discourse. Sure, you have to wade through the vacuous nonsense of Rep. Michele Bachmann (“Hold on, moms out there!”); the vainglorious opportunism of former Rep. Newt Gingrich (yeah, I supported an individual mandate—but it was in opposition to Hillarycare!); the charming ignorance of Herman Cain; the slimy evasiveness of former Gov. Mitt Romney; the deer-in-headlights ineptitude of Gov. Rick Perry.
But then you get a gem such as the above exchange between Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
It gets right to the heart of the matter—to the eternally unresolved tensions within conservatism.
In many ways, Representative Paul has been an indispensable voice in these debates. As Ross Douthat notes, he’s the only candidate who answers each question with “perfect unblinking honesty.”
I love it when he skewers bedrock Republican assumptions about terror suspects (“You haven’t convicted them of anything!”), the bloated Pentagon budget (“You can’t cut a penny?”), and even the lately dominant and tiresome “class warfare” trope (“A lot of people aren’t paying any taxes, and I like that.”).
As refreshingly iconoclastic as he can be, though, Paul is the archetype of the kind of rightist I like least—the arid rationalist. He’s what poet-historian Peter Viereck called “the unadjusted man” or an “apriorist.” He’s filled with tidy abstractions about how the world works. He’s perfectly secure in his convictions and, like every ideologue, he will backfill every hole that the real world presents to those convictions.
Viereck identified this mentality precisely for what it is—radical:
Old Guard doctrinaires of Adam Smith apriorism, though dressed up in their Sunday best (like any Jacobin gone smug and successful), are applying the same arbitrary, violent wrench, the same discontinuity with the living past, the same spirit of rootless abstractions that characterized the French Revolution.
Santorum, virtually alone in the Republican field, gives full-throated voice to the notion of a “living past”—of individuals situated in and nourished by families and communities, by Burke’s “little platoons.” But then Santorum engages in some apriorism of his own. Glimpsing the possible disquiet within his own worldview, he rejects the idea that the United States was founded on individual rights (clearly it was) and says “the family” is the “basic unit of society” (clearly it is). It’s “the courts” and “government” that are burdening the family—no one or nothing else. He brushes his hands and continues merrily on his way.
The guy seems intrinsically incapable of even entertaining notions outside of the box of stale fusionist conservatism. The late Burkean conservative Robert Nisbet, who, in The Quest for Community, saw the “centralized territorial state” and industrial capitalism working in tandem to create “atomized masses of insecure individuals,” is there waiting for someone with Santorum’s sound and humane instincts:
In the history of modern capitalism we can see essentially the same diminution of communal conceptions of effort and the same tendency toward the release of increasing numbers of individuals from the confinements of guild and village community. As Protestantism sought to reassimilate men in the invisible community of God, capitalism sought to reassimilate them in the impersonal and rational framework of the free market. As in Protestantism, the individual, rather than the group, becomes the central unit. But instead of pure faith, individual profit becomes the mainspring of activity. In both spheres there is a manifest decline of custom and tradition and a general disengagement of purpose from the contexts of community.
Santorum’s mind just won’t go there.
And neither, it seems, will his party.
By: Scott Galupo, U. S. News and World Report, October 20, 2011
Every so often, one capital case makes a public spectacle of the American machinery of death. Last week, it was the controversy over Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia after years of impassioned argument, organizing and litigation.
I honor those who worked so hard to save Davis’s life because they forced the nation to deal with the imperfections and, in some instances, brutalities of the criminal justice system.
Yet after all the tears are shed, the repeal of capital punishment is still a political question. Can the politics of this question change? The answer is plainly yes.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1966, more Americans opposed the death penalty than supported it — by 47 percent to 42 percent. But the crime wave that began in the late 1960s and the sense that the criminal justice system was untrustworthy sent support for capital punishment soaring. By 1994, 80 percent of Americans said they favored the death penalty, and only 16 percent were opposed.
Since then, the numbers have softened slightly. Over the past decade, the proportion of Americans declaring themselves against capital punishment has hovered around 25 to 32 percent. The mild resurgence of opposition — caused by a decline in violent crime and by investigations raising doubts about the guilt of some death-row prisoners — has opened up political space for action.
Liberals are not going to lead this fight. Too many Democratic politicians remember how the death penalty was used in campaigns during the 1980s and ’90s, notably by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. They’re still petrified of looking “soft” on crime.
Moreover, winning this battle will require converting Americans who are not liberals. The good news is that many are open to persuasion. Gallup polling shows that support for capital punishment drops sharply when respondents are offered the alternative of “life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole.” When Gallup presented this option in its 2010 survey, only 49 percent chose the death penalty; 46 percent preferred life without parole.
And a survey last year for the Death Penalty Information Center by Lake Research Partners showed that if a variety of alternatives were offered (including life without parole plus restitution to victims’ families), respondents’ hard support for the death penalty was driven down to 33 percent.
If a majority is open to persuasion, the best persuaders will be conservatives, particularly religious conservatives and abortion opponents, who have moral objections to the state-sanctioned taking of life or see the grave moral hazard involved in the risk of executing an innocent person.
Despite the cheering for executions at a recent GOP debate, there are still conservatives who are standing up against the death penalty. In Ohio this summer, state Rep. Terry Blair, a Republican and a staunch foe of abortion, declared flatly: “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose or what we might refer to as a justified purpose.”
Last week, Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California, explained in the Los Angeles Daily News why he had changed his mind. “Life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence,” he wrote. “It’s a lot cheaper, it keeps dangerous men and women locked up forever, and mistakes can be fixed.”
The most moving testimony against Troy Davis’s execution came from a group of former corrections officials who, as they wrote, “have had direct involvement in executions.”
“No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” they said. “Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”
Political ideology has built a thick wall that blocks us from acknowledging that some of the choices we face are tragic. Perhaps we can make an exception in this case and have a quiet conversation about whether our death-penalty system really speaks for our best selves. And I thank those conservatives, right-to-lifers, libertarians and prison officials who, more than anyone else, might make such a dialogue possible.
By: E. J. Dionne, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 25, 2011
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) earned glowing reviews for her performance in Monday’s CNN/Tea Party presidential debate. Her perceived finest moment: Hammering Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his (quickly overruled) 2007 executive order mandating that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” in Texas get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted infection HPV. Bachmann didn’t fare as well, however, in her post-debate media blitz, ill-advisedly repeating the cautionary tale of a mother who claimed her daughter “suffered from mental retardation” because of the HPV vaccine. Has Bachmann “jumped the shark” (as Rush Limbaugh suggests) by attacking vaccines instead of just Perry?
Bachmann is sabotaging herself: Bachmann’s odd assertion sounds a lot like the “thoroughly debunked” claim that childhood vaccines cause autism, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. And as with the autism “nonsense,” there is no evidence that the HPV vaccine has ever caused anything like “mental retardation.” Bachmann really blew it here, quickly fleeing the debate’s winner’s circle for the fringe camp of “anti-vaccine wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy.”
This is just Bachmann being Bachmann: “News flash: Vaccine luddism is rather widespread,” says Dave Weigel at Slate. And the fact that it’s Bachmann who’s tapped into it is “totally unsurprising,” given her penchant for “endorsing or ‘just asking questions’ about dark theories that she’s overheard.” Really, such claims are just par for the course with Bachmann.
Whatever her reasons, this will cost Bachmann: “I liked Michele Bachmann. A lot,” says Lori Ziganto at RedState. That ends now. I don’t care if she’s “actually cuckoo pants or if she’s just lying and using children and the fears of their parents to score political points,” but this “tall tale” about a 12-year-old absurdly “catching” mental retardation — something you’re born with — tells me all I need to know: Bachmann’s “not very bright” and she’s a “Jenny McCarthyist.” Let’s not forget: “Vaccinations save lives.”
By: The Week, Opinion Brief, September 14, 2011