What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: Sister72
The events of 9/11 have drastically altered the political scene in the years since. Perhaps never since the Reichstag fire has an event been cited so frequently by government leaders defending their desire for increased power, budgets, and wars.
It has been said, then, that 9/11 changed everything. The world changed on that day, and therefore our foreign policy must change to accommodate the modern political scene. We must face new realities, we are told, that previous legislators and framers could never have imagined. 9/11 rendered parts of our Constitution anachronistic, so we should trust in our leaders to keep us safe.
The problem with this line of thinking is that 9/11 didn’t change everything.
Allow me to draw a distinction between two types of political thinking.
Practical (or Reactive) Politics
Practical politics constitute the standard in Washington. This political system leads the legislator to assess the current situation, gauge popular trends and constituency support, and make a weighed vote based on an assumed best response.
However, practical politics is also reactive in nature, as it is entirely dependent upon the current situation. If children lack health care, the hole is patched and SCHIP promoted. If our troops in Iraq are without a certain type of armor, the budget is increased. If waterboarding is all the rage in the media, appropriate legislation to “get the job done” is pushed through.
Reactive politics changes with every shift in the wind. If political trends are of a conservative flavor, the reaction by most will follow that direction. Should the wind change—due to a new party given majority control, world events forming popular opinion, etc.—the politics will likewise change.
The accelerated attacks on liberty started quickly after 9/11. Within weeks, the PATRIOT Act was overwhelmingly passed by Congress. Though the final version was unavailable up to a few hours before the vote, no Member had sufficient time to study it. Political fear of not doing something, even something harmful, drove the Members of Congress to not question the contents, and just voted for it. A little less freedom for a little more perceived safety was considered a fair trade-off, and the majority of Americans applauded.
Thus is the true nature of practical politics: it is emotional, reactive, and adaptive in nature. Whereas yesterday it was for a cause, today it very well may be against it.
The other type of political thinking revolves around principles. The mark of a statesman (as opposed to a politician), principled politics is identifiedx1 by its consistency and repetition. The principled politician will say the same things throughout his career, regardless of world events, popular trends, or personal experiences.
Being consistent, principled politics resists pressure to conform to popular opinion in the heat of emotional experiences. Even when his country is attacked, the statesman falls back on undergirding principles for guidance and options. He does not create nor support legislation that seems to put an immediate fix on the problem, but rather shows respect for the law by only promoting legislation that operates within the boundaries previously established and agreed upon.
Despite decades of war, famine, natural disasters, and economic turmoil, the observant reader might find a notable constancy in the words of the statesman over a long period of time. Principled politicians can never be accused of “flip-flopping”, for they remain firmly bound to principles which endure.
While such statesman are often the targets of those who paint them as “uncompromising” and “unwilling to bend”, those who follow principles implement the wise counsel that:
You may be flexible on strategy, but must remain consistent on principle. (Anonymous, via Quoty)
9/11 and Principles
Despite the 9/11-inspired fearmongering and never-ending war on terror, the tragic events of that day have not changed everything, nor should they have changed much. Enduring principles—when properly implemented and respected—will see our nation through both trial and triumph.
It is only when principles are cast aside for what is “practical” that we spit in the face of historical lessons, cultivated wisdom, and rational thinking. Reactive politics have, since 9/11, brought us an ever-increasing number of bills from Congress that perpetuate our nation’s problems.
Most importantly, the return to principles requires first that we learn and understand them, for we cannot live what we do not know.