Red and Blue, Ends and Means

I have posted previously about ends and means, about the fact that the American constitution is a prescription for process. The central premise of our system is a respect for individuals’ right to have different life goals, different ends–what the Greeks called telos. When citizens are expected to differ on fundamental questions of purpose and belief, what is needed is a set of rules governing their common lives, a process making peaceful and respectful coexistence possible.

The Constitution is thus a structure enabling a  “live and let live” philosophy.

This emphasis on process, on means, has been widely acknowledged by political scientists. In the political theory literature, there has been a lively debate on the question whether this emphasis is sufficient to produce “thick” bonds between citizens, but that debate has rested on a shared recognition of the American approach as procedural.  We are, as the saying goes, a nation of laws.

In that context, Rick Perlstein makes a point about today’s political parties that is well worth pondering.

We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon…

For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being “principled” means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being “principled” means. ..

as the late New Right founding father Paul Weyrich once put it, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Which was pretty damned brazen, considering he was co-founder of an organization called the Moral Majority.

Now, of course, for over a decade now, the brazenness is institutionalized within the very vitals of one of our two political parties. You just elect yourself a Republican attorney general, and he does his level best to squeeze as many minority voters from the roles as he can force the law to allow. And a conservative state legislature, so they can gerrymander the hell out of their state, such that, as a Texas Republican congressional aid close to Tom Delay wrote in a 2003 email, “This has a real national impact that should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.” Or you lose the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but win in the electoral college—then declare a mandate to privatize Social Security, like George Bush did.

Which only makes sense, if you’re trying to save civilization from hurtling toward Armageddon. That’s how conservatives think. To quote one Christian right leader, “We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means…If the method I am using to accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method.