Belmont Club

The In-Betweeners

In  “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde“, Robert Louis Stevenson describes how the eminent Henry Jekyll wanted to be relieved of his conscience. From time to time Jekyll had indulged in shameful vice.  However his enjoyment was ruined in two ways: first by the fear of discovery and second, by the guilt which he felt afterward.  Thus torn, Jekyll resolved to let it all hang out yet somehow retain his respectability.

I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness … I was radically both … If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust delivered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

The result was the famous dual personality Jekyll/Hyde. There seem days when politicians,  like Dr. Jekyll, seem weary of maintaining the pretense and tempted to simply drop the mask. James Taranto writing in the Wall Street Journal notes that Hillary Clinton is responding to a request for her official emails in a calculatingly insulting way. She’s turning over the emails as printed pages, almost as if to show her displeasure at being questioned, the way a man might resentfully pay the balance of his home loan with barrels full of pennies.

If you were following the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s private State Department IT operation last week, you probably heard that, as the initial New York Times story put it, “55,000 pages of emails were given to the department” in December after being selected by a private aide to the former secretary. You might have wondered: What does that mean, 55,000 “pages”? Or maybe you just read it, as the crack fact-check team over at PolitiFact did just last night, as 55,000 emails.

It turns out the reference is to literal physical pages. From Friday’s Times: “Finally, in December, dozens of boxes filled with 50,000 pages of printed emails from Mrs. Clinton’s personal account were delivered to the State Department.”

Why did Mrs. Clinton have her staff go through the trouble of printing out, boxing and shipping 50,000 or 55,000 pages instead of just sending a copy of the electronic record? One can only speculate, but there is an obvious advantage: Printed files are less informative and far harder to search than the electronic originals.

Because State has only printouts of emails, department personnel responding to a Freedom of Information Act request have to go through the whole haystack rather than type “needle” into a search engine. At best, that would mean long delays in FOIA compliance.

Likewise, printouts are not subject to electronic discovery in the event of investigation or lawsuit. The Times reports that department lawyers responding to a request from the House Select Committee on Benghazi took two months to find “roughly 900 pages pertaining to the Benghazi attacks.” And printouts do not include electronic “metadata,” which can provide crucial forensic evidence.

It’s not just Hillary either. President Obama told the public with a straight face that he only learned that his Secretary of State used a private email account from the news media. Bill Clinton has responded to reports that his foundation has received large sums of money from Middle Eastern potentates with a breezy ‘why not?’ “We do get money from other countries, and some of them are in the Middle East,” Clinton said. “I think it’s a good thing.”

When the great realize that nothing can actually stop them then the temptation to dispense with the inconvenience of pretense grows too great to resist.  It’s getting hard to be just plain folks for show any more.

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Vox, indirectly captures this desire to give free rein to ambition when he argues that America is doomed because the Constitution is flawed and standing in the way of progress.

America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse. … In a parliamentary system, deadlocks get resolved. A prime minister who lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority is replaced by a new one who has it. If no such majority can be found, a new election is held and the new parliament picks a leader. It can get a little messy for a period of weeks, but there’s simply no possibility of a years-long spell in which the legislative and executive branches glare at each other unproductively.

But within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution. The United States’s recent government shutdowns and executive action on immigration are small examples of the kind of dynamic that’s led to coups and putsches abroad.

Things worked well when politics consisted of backroom deals.  But somewhere along the line politics got polluted with principle and the machine ground to a stop on a whole range of issues.

While Gilded Age members of Congress voted in a highly partisan way, their voting didn’t reflect any polarization of ideas evident in broader American society. As Charles Calhoun, a leading scholar of Gilded Age politics has written, the main concern of actual members of Congress was not policy, but “patronage power, the privilege of placing one’s political friends and supporters in in subordinate offices. …

Today’s partisan polarization, in other words, is not the same as its Gilded Age predecessor. The old polarization was about control over jobs and money — the kind of thing where split-the-difference compromises are easiest. That polarization was eventually undermined by a new politics built around principles. For decades, politicians found themselves cross-pressured between their commitments to a national party network and to various ideological causes. Today, however, politicians are no longer cross-pressured. We have strong Gilded Age-style parties, but organized around questions of principle rather than questions of patronage.

It’s possible that back when culture and religion were widely shared the dominant ideology was simply implicit.  There was an ideology but not many competing ideologies. As  the gangster Eddie Valentine in the Rocketeer said to the man unmasked as a Nazi paymaster who offers him money “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi. Let the girl go!” The Golden Age of wheeling and dealing which Yglesias is nostalgic for had many degrees of freedom precisely because it had only one constraint: an American identity.  By contrast today’s gridlocked society has multiple constraints — identity politics, single issues, etc — and no global objective function.

But as the Clinton Foundation incident shows, times have moved on.  The days of Eddie Valentine are dead.  Today we work for anyone who pays.  One can no longer take identity for granted leaving only the division of the loot to be discussed.  Today, as Yglesias notes, ideology has reared its ugly head and produced a polarization which has led the Republicans to obstructionism and the president toward “constitutional hardball”, which appears to be a term of art for ignoring its provisions.

But Obama has to play ‘hardball’, Yglesias explains, because the system forces him to. The Vox article continues, “America’s escalating game of constitutional hardball isn’t caused by personal idiosyncratic failings of individual people. Obama has made his share of mistakes, but the fundamental causes of hardball politics are structural, not personal.”

He has to bend the rules, otherwise nothing gets done so the argument goes.  The article’s punchline is a prophecy.  “The best we can hope for is that when the crisis does come, Americans will have the wisdom to do for ourselves what we did in the past for Germany and Japan and put a better system in place.”

“A better system” in the offing? Doubtless he is right, though perhaps not for the reasons he imagines, nor might he get the “better system” he anticipates. The United States was founded by men well acquainted with greatest power of the age: Britain.  The Founders were not ignorant of efficiencies of parliamentary government. The British Army came perilously close to getting them “done”. Rather they both respected and feared it.

The instrument of government they created to replace the Crown was calculated to both exercise power and protect its citizens from that power.  What they did not provide was an adequate mechanism for resolving fundamental differences of principle within the mechanism of government.  As the Lincoln-Douglas debates suggested, that had to be fixed by other means. Once “a house is divided” gridlock ensued; and there is no remedy until the house was united again.  The Constitution seems designed to force the body politic to reach a consensus externally before it would allow the wheels to turn again. The Amendments are peace treaties marking the resolution of various crises.

Permanently resolving the crisis in favor of single body may not be a “better system”. The crises themselves cannot be finessed. They will fester until they are fundamentally resolved. Examples of this abound. Only today the White House and Democratic lawmakers expressed indignation at a letter sent by 47 GOP lawmakers to Iran reminding the Ayatollahs that the government of the United States consisted of more than one man.

The GOP letter, spearheaded by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), warns Iranian leaders that any agreement between Washington and Tehran could be voided by Congress and simply not upheld once Obama leaves the White House in 2017.

“Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement,” they wrote. “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

The president’s supporters called it ‘bizarre’ and ‘inappropriate’. Yet in fairness agreements can only be made between nations, not individuals, with enough political support on both sides to sustain the deal. Iran cannot make a deal with a “house divided”; it cannot sign articles with Barack Obama alone leaving the Congress and the rest of the American electorate out of the loop. That simply will not last.

One is either Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. The character in Stevenson’s story learned to his cost not even a powerful potion can enable you to remain both personas for long. The increasingly naked exhibitions of pure power demonstrated by the Clintons for example, suggest that the conflicts are becoming so pronounced that they have to be faced squarely, for like Jekyll/Hyde in his last moments, the composite character is beginning to oscillate like a blinker bulb between  law or pretense, the good doctor or the unrestrained brute.  It must settle on one; it cannot exist in between.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about the Constitution is that didn’t provide an easy way out.  At various points in history, as scholars well know, the United States has had to fight for its soul; answer the question “who am I?”. There was of course no guarantee it would arrive at a satisfactory answer.  All the process of compulsory resolution ensured was that the phrase “we the people” would always mean “we the people” and not “we, the divided, multicultural, foreign lobby-ridden mob”.

That’s a house divided and probably won’t last.


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