The essence of government, the later Roman emperors who resided in Rome used to say, is panis et circenses: “bread and circuses.” This can be used as a metaphor for the lives of most of my fellow citizens as well.
Let panis exemplify provision of the basic necessities — and some of the luxuries as well — which we need to survive and thrive. Most of us work, and work hard, for those items, such as food and protection from inclement weather. When my average fellow citizen comes home from the day’s labors, he typically does not wish to be informed; he wishes to be entertained, and that’s where the circuses come in.
It is widely known among friends and family that I am not a fan of collegiate or professional sports. I’m not completely uninformed: nasty creatures though they are, I’m sure the badgers will do fine during the season, since they are government-protected and people can’t hunt them. As for the bucks, they’ll have to take their chances during the deer hunting season. My “circus” is politics. I’m not a professional; I earned my living doing other things. But I do follow avidly the national and state races, and in my own small way, participate as well. One thing I do know about the NFL and the NCAA: They have established rules for the game which all member teams must follow if the game is to be meaningful.
Our political system is utterly dependent on a watchful, informed electorate, firmly rooted in the rich soil of biblical orality and ethics. And that is what is severely lacking now, I’m afraid. Jonah Goldberg provides a striking metaphor for the political equivalent of the NFL — our constitutional order:
The Constitution is a bit like the blueprint for a hedge maze. It lays out on paper the paths for the travelers who trod through it. But the Constitution itself is not a hedge. Those plants grow from the ground up, rooted in the soil. The blueprint “works” because the hedges do their part. But what if the hedges start to die from lack of care? When big holes in the green walls appear, shortcuts will become all the more tempting. And when the hedges disappear altogether, people will start walking as the crow flies, taking the shortest course to their desired destination.
The Founders made any number of assumptions about the country they were imposing the Constitution upon. Among the most significant, however, was that the people themselves were constrained by the requirements of virtue, a fear of shame, and the belief that the fear of an all-knowing, all-seeing God would help regulate the society. These were the hedges of the new garden of liberty that the Founders were constructing.
There have always been and always will be scandals, because there are scoundrels who think they can outsmart the system. If such people as FDR and JFK got away with their actions for a little while, it was because the press at the time colluded with them. Being eminent fans of the New Deal and the New Frontier, they knew that if the general public heard some of the things they knew, the would not stand for it. This tells us much about the propensities of the establishment press, but it also reveals volumes about the people in that semi-mythological time when America was great, to which the Trump administration hearkens back.
But beginning with the Clinton administration, things began to change.
Unlike Kennedy, Bill Clinton happily flouted the rules in public, and gleefully in the most shameless, blatant, and obvious manner, lied to the country at large. Yet a plurality of the electorate didn’t care, and elected and re-elected him, and nearly elected his equally shameless wife-of-convenience in the last election.
Clearly some of the hedges are now brown, and easily passed through or walked over.
I am not a “never Trumper,” because that would require a denial of reality. We have one president at a time, and for better or worse, that president is Donald J. Trump. I want him to succeed because I want this country to succeed. I won’t deny that he has performed better than we had any right to expect, and many of his policies are reasonable and correct.
But I can’t help noticing that many of the people who bayed for Clinton’s blood over what once would have been shocking scandals involving Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Catherine Willey, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and many others now use Clinton’s ill behavior as a precedent. Many proclaim piggish behavior by Trump to be beyond criticism, immediately asking: “What about Clinton?”
Let’s forget Clinton for a moment (I wish we could forever); does anyone remember his parents telling him two wrongs don’t make a right?
We used to be better than this. Republicans have had their share of political scandals too, but we used to send our Bob Packwoods packing. Ditto Trent Lott, and Livingston, and Craig, and Cunningham. We didn’t tolerate that sort of behavior, neither the sexual matters nor the political corruption.
Unless we’re prepared to concede that what remains of the hedges is only for us little people, neither Clinton nor Trump should be allowed to get away with it.
What we need is some political and spiritual gardeners to restore those old hedges, so that our commitment to virtue, the sense of shame, and the fear of God will once again demand it of us. As it appears that the current crop of church leaders aren’t up to the job, I guess it is up to us if we want the republic to survive in recognizable form.
Let’s start with this one: When I was young, not all that long ago, boys and girls were exactly the same as they are now, and sought the same things. But our mothers beat into the heads of the girls to hold out for the marriage license, and most of them did. What has happened? Why didn’t those mothers of my generation do the same? Clearly they failed, if they tried. Why? What has produced the sex-drenched electorate which permits a Bill Clinton or a Donald Trump to cavort in so shameless a fashion?