Abuses of Power

For the past couple of months, I have been watching the political shenanigans in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Maine and elsewhere with increasing disbelief, trying to figure out what has prompted such disdain for civility, democratic process and  individual rights.

In the latest bizarre twist from Wisconsin, the Governor and GOP leadership simply ignored an order of the federal court. The court had issued a stay of the law repealing collective bargaining rights, pending an evidentiary hearing on whether it had been passed in a manner consistent with the state’s open door law. The legislature could have abided by the order, or it could have held another vote, after proper notice. Instead, those in charge decided to thumb their noses at a court order.

The belligerent and tone-deaf Governor of Maine unilaterally decided to erase a mural that he didn’t like. It was on the walls of the state’s Department of Labor, and portrayed the history of the labor movement.

In Michigan, the Governor has proposed–and the legislative majority has apparently approved–a bill that gives him unprecedented, nearly dictatorial powers of the sort not seen in the United States (probably because those powers appear to conflict with our constitutional system of checks and balances).

In Indiana, the Republicans who now control both houses have been indulging in some of the most vindictive lawmaking we’ve seen. (A former student of mine who has been lobbying this session recently characterized the chamber as “the Hatehouse.”)  They are busily passing measures to marginalize gays, harass immigrants, and make it difficult if not impossible for women to control their own reproduction. (During arguments over the imposition of a three-day waiting period before women can obtain an abortion, a woman legislator asked that an exception be added for cases of rape; the sponsor angrily responded that such an exception would be a ‘major loophole’ because women would all claim to have been raped! The proposed amendment was then voted down.)

I could go on and on, unfortunately. But the larger question is: what is going on? What explains this epidemic of bullying?

I don’t know if I can explain the “why” of all this, but I think I can characterize the “what.”

One of the goals of this nation’s founders was memorably related by John Adams, who explained that the Constitution was intended to establish a nation of “laws, not men.” We would have a country where the rule of law trumped the exercise of raw power. No one was to be above the law, and the purpose of the law was to limit the ability of those in power to abuse that power. What we are seeing is what happens when people elected to office behave like thugs, using their positions for personal and political aggrandizement rather than for the common good.

The people elected in 2010 talk a lot about the constitution, but their actions betray their absolute ignorance of its central purpose.