Thus David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior political strategist when asked about the administration’s plans to impose socialized medicine upon the American people (my description, not the questioner’s). “If we’re going to get this thing done,” he explained, “obviously time is a-wasting.”
But let’s pause over his first, revealing, statement: “Ultimately, this is not about a process, it’s about results,”
Wrong, Dave! Ultimately, politics in a democracy is very much about process — note that I said “in a democracy.”
Yesterday, in a column about semi-disgraced former Car Czar Steven Rattner, I quoted Geroge Will about the “tincture of lawlessness” that imbued the actions of the Obama administration. I speculated that neither the President nor many of his key advisers — to say nothing of his nominee to the Supreme Court — really understood what the rule of law was all about. David Axelrod’s offhand comment illustrates what I meant. For him, for Rahm Emmanuel, for Barack Obama, politics is all about instituting a virtuous society. For chaps like the Founding Fathers, politics is about that process of deliberation that makes free society possible. This is something that the 19th-century English commentator Walter Bagehot understood with unusual perspicacity. Civilization, he noted in his book Physics and Politics, is measured by increasing deliberateness. Government — the institutional distillate of progress in civilization — is valuable not only because it facilitates action but also, and increasingly, because it retards it:
If you want to stop instant and immediate action, always make it a condition that the action shall not begin till a considerable number of persons have talked over it, and have agreed on it. If those persons be people of different temperaments, different ideas, and different educations, you have an almost infallible security that nothing, or almost nothing, will be done with excessive rapidity.
Ultimately, to use David Axelrod’s word, it is “the age of discussion” — the age of “slow government” and political liberty — that Bagehot ultimately extols in Physics and Politics. But Bagehot is ever at pains to remind his readers of the harsh prerequisites of civilization, which include war, slavery, and gross inequity. Government by discussion, Bagehot is quick to acknowledge, is “a principal organ for improving mankind.” At the same time, he insists that “it is a plant of singular delicacy.” The question of how best to nurture this delicate plant is Bagehot’s final problem. Part of the answer is in facing up to the unpalatable realities about power that make civilization possible. The other part lies in embracing what Bagehot calls “animated moderation,” that “union of life with measure, of spirit with reasonableness,” which assures that discussion will continue without descending into violence or anarchy. It seems like a small thing. But then achieved order always does — until it is lost.
Ultimately, to revert once more to David Axelrod’s word, that is what is at stake in the Obama administration’s efforts to dispense with the political process for the sake of obtaining its cherished “results.”