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writing for godot

Six Lessons to Live By in 2020 (Or, How to Restore Sanity in Politics)

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Friday, 10 January 2020 05:57

Sick of sickening news?  Fed up with gridlock in Congress?  Want to make America respectable again?

If you’re like the majority of American who didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, the answer is a resounding yes.  If you voted for Trump, 2020 is your chance to redeem yourself.  Either way, one thing that unites most Americans is a belief in the Constitution and the core values it enshrines—liberty, equality, fair elections, and accountable government.  So, to repeat, do you want to make America respectable again?  If so, here’s a short course in how to do it.

Lesson 1:  Normal Is A Public Good

Norms are essential In a democracy.  Stable democracies depend on  things being normal.  Good citizenship is a norm.  It’s either normal or  democracy is under threat.  Honesty in public office is a norm.  Again, it’s either normal for elected officials to be incorruptible or democracy is a sham.

An “ordinary politician” is one whose public and private behavior is normal—that is in accordance with established norms.  We don’t expect politicians to be saints and we are fools to vote for them a second time if they turn out to be crooks.

President Donald Trump is not an ordinary politician.  He is not normal in any sense.  In fact, he is quite the opposite.

He is extraordinary in all the wrong ways.  Extraordinarily narcissistic (“the best”), has no respect for the truth, and will stop at nothing to get what he wants because winning is everything.   He is not normal.

He violates norms and breaks rules on a daily basis, and he does it out in the open.  What you see is what you get.  No excuses this time around.

Lesson 2:  Partisanship Is Not A Public Good

Unlike many democracies around the world, the United States has a two-party system. A tendency toward extreme partisanship is a major disadvantage of such a system and if it is not mitigated by common sense and a commitment to the national interest on the part of the politicians we elect, partisanship can lead to crippling polarization within society, gridlock in Congress, and the kind of policy paralysis inimical to political stability and national security.

Political parties are arguably a necessary evil, a way to organize elections, sort out ideas, and recruit future leaders, but partisanship as such is not a public good.  We are currently witnessing the damage that too much partisanship can do to the functioning of the federal government and the nation’s standing in the world.

Lesson 3:  Leading by Example Is A Categorical Imperative

It’s something good parents know intuitively.  All good teachers know it, too, and we all expect them to behave appropriately in and out of the classroom.  What is too often forgotten or ignored in the present political climate is that the occupant of the White House is the one and only person in America whose behavior—words, tweets,  and demeanor—sets an example for the whole country.

President Trump clearly does not care that he is setting a terrible example.  He takes no responsibility for the bad behavior of members of his own inner circle and White House staff (think Michael Cohen, Rudi Giuliani, Michael Flynn, Stephen Miller, Edward Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry, among others).

But the potential damage is by no means confined to individuals close to the President.  The greater danger is the damage Donald Trump’s behavior is doing to the social fabric and moral character of “we, the people”.

Lesson 4:  Power Corrupts…

…absolute power corrupts absolutely—Lord Acton.  Words to live by.  See Lesson #1 above.

Lesson 5:  The Golden Rule

What’s at stake in the 2020 election cycle is the “civil” in civil society.  Donald Trump displays zero civility.  He sets a terrible example.  He’s the antithesis of the golden rule.  Mitch McConnell is his shameless apologist and enabler.

Lesson 6:  It’s OK to Change Your Mind

We all make mistakes.  When we vote for a president, we think we are doing the right thing at the time—not just by voting, but by voting for the right man or woman.  We learn a lot about a president or any other incumbent for that matter by observing how they conduct in office.

As voters, our job isn’t done once we’ve cast a ballot.  In fact, it’s just beginning. It’s our responsibility to pay attention and if an incumbent, whether a mayor or governor or senator, is not acting in the public interest, not honoring his or her oath of office, then it is our duty as citizens to change our mind.  When the incumbent is the president of the United States, it is imperative because, given the power of the presidency for good or evil, making the same mistake twice can prove fatal for the republic.

If you voted for Donald Trump in 2016, for example, it does not mean you’re a bad person.  A lot of decent people voted for Trump.  At the same time, it’s not something to be proud of, given what we now know about his respect for the truth, for women, or his own staff, or, above all, for the U.S. Constitution.  What is not OK is to vote for him again in 2020.

Full disclosure:  I’m the author of a long-running college textbook, Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues which appeared in a 13th edition last month.  A version of this article appeared in Counterpunch on January 9, 2020. your social media marketing partner
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