Newt Gingrich promises that if elected president he will ignore the rulings of the Supreme Court, or, presumably, those of any other court, if he disagrees with them. I’ve news for Newt. His sentiments are passe. Millions of Americans already regard the posturing of the political class, and the institutions they manipulate, with suspicion veering on contempt. The fact that a candidate for the nation’s most powerful office can speak as Newt does without being laughed off the stage is a reflection of a crisis in political culture almost too frightening to face.
Behold the death of citizenship.
Speculation about what makes life together possible is as old as our civilization. Political philosophers have advanced all sorts of theories to explain how it is that people accept the right of strangers to force them to act in certain ways. Theories of legitimacy explain the mysterious transformation of naked power into a sense of authority. Those in power are regarded as legitimate when they issue commands or make rules that are willingly followed. No compulsion is needed to force a people regarding their government as legitimate to obey the rules.
The difference between power and authority is easily illustrated. If a man approaches me with a gun drawn and pointed at me, odds are I will hand him my wallet. I am afraid of that gun. He is stranger to me, but he overpowers me with his display of lethal force.
Change the confrontation ever so slightly. A stranger still approaches with gun drawn. He still demands my wallet. But now he is dressed in the uniform of a local police department. My will is still overborne. I still comply. But I do so with a lesser degree of apprehension. That’s because the uniform conveys a sense of his right to engage in this sort of conduct, a right a stranger not so cloaked does not enjoy.
The difference between the two confrontations is a sense of legitimacy.
Citizenship involves a shared sense of legitimacy, of a common commitment, or at least comfort, with a given set of institutions, roles and the customs supporting them. Cicero once observed that what makes a community is not just common interests, but a shared conception of justice, or right.
And there’s the rub. I do not believe there is a shared conception of justice or right in the United States any longer. I notice this daily in what I see not just around me, but in my reaction to the world.
The other day, I was engaged in some banter with a federal prosecutor during plea negotiations in a criminal case. She was driving too hard a bargain. My client might be willing to consider five years in prison, but not ten. I pushed back. At one point I encouraged her to look across the aisle, to see the world from a different perspective. "There’s room on this side of the aisle for you," I said, parodying the old Christian camp tune about the room on the cross for all of us. She responded with a jab: "Will I make more money? It certainly would not be a morally driven decision."
The response startled me. Does she really believe that what she is doing has anything to do with morality, or with justice? Yes, she works for the Justice Department. But it never occurs to me that the prosecutors’ work has anything to do with morals, or for that matter with justice. I regard them as occupying powers, with the capacity to mess with people at will. They are adept at manipulating complex rules that imprison and sometimes result in the death of clients. But "morally driven"? What has what the Justice Department to do with morals?
So I face my own deep-rooted sense of loss. I do not regard the government I fight each day as possessed of much legitimacy. It has vast power and it is to be feared. But the rule of law has little to do with justice. It is a power trip. The criminal code, rules of procedure and court opinions that make the system tick are a form of geometry. I spend my days calculating how vectors will affect my client’s life chances. Priests, social workers and philosophers can address the soul’s deeper needs. I am a mere mechanic.
So I get it, Newt. You feel the same way.
So do millions of Americans. They Occupy one town or another until they are driven off by men with guns, men doing the bidding of those who pay for the candidates who run for office so that they can write the rules that protect those who prosper under the status quo. Yes, I back off when your police officer threatens me with violence. But I back off out of fear, not respect, and certainly not because of a deep-seated conviction that I assent to the status quo.
My father was an illegal immigrant. I was born here, so I am a citizen. But I look at a continent of people who crept across the borders unlawfully and I see my father over and over again. I cannot muster the heart to persecute them for wanting their children to be like me.
I look at Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and see corporations set free to buy and sell the likes of Newt, and I am repulsed. These same corporations are largely exempt from taxation now. Decades ago, corporate taxes amounted to 31 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Today that sum is about one percent. Prosperity comes to the elite. The top one percent are masters of a continent looking more and more like a banana republic. One in six children live in poverty. Millions of Americans have dropped out of the labor market. Banks foreclose homes in reliance on bogus titles and the courts wink. We imprison people because we can’t make room for their hopes. And then we demand that folks lip synch the Pledge of Allegiance? Forgive me if the words grow stale on my lips, Newt.
The gap between the world described by our rhetoric and the words people use privately to discuss the world in which they live day by merciless day is the measure of our legitimation crisis. It is risky to utter words of discontent with the American dream. Why you just might get yourself thrown in prison, or indefinitely detained, or scorned. We paper over the divisions in our society with platitudes, a false sense of patriotism and, when that fails, with ostracism. It’s too scary to go mainstream with the truth.
So thank you, Newt. Thank you for uttering a truth many of us know. The emperor is naked, and shuddering as night approaches. People of color have know for lifetimes the sting of our hypocrisy. Hard times don’t erase the color line, they merely transform more of us into the dark form of exiles in our own land.
But now do us a favor, Newt. Swallow your tongue. Get out of the way. Change is coming, and you aren’t the solution. You’re just an opportunist in a tailored suit. There are no heroes in the Republican or Democrat parties. You’re just a busman serving drinks on the deck of the Titanic. Forgive me if I cannot give you the honor of serving as bellhop in chief.
Citizenship in a republic of common dreams is a thing of the past. Comes now the whrilwind. You helped create the chaos to come, Newt.