A strange thing happened last week — Republican Senator and presidential hopeful Rand Paul took to the floor of the Senate for a marathon ten-and-a-half-hour speech, in an attempt to filibuster the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. (OK, it wasn’t technically a filibuster, but still.) He described the Act as “the most unpatriotic of Acts,” which is probably true, but still startling to hear from a member of the GOP, because it was George W. Bush who signed the act into law in the first place.
So there he was, Rand Paul, the libertarian icon who may or may not be named for She Who Shall Not Be Named, wobbling wearily as his filibuster entered its tenth hour, arguing against the Patriot Act. A thing that someone on the left should have been doing, except that no one was, perhaps because there really isn’t a “left” in US politics anymore, or if there is, it was busy answering questions on Reddit.
Politics may or may not have always been like this, but today our discourse isn’t about the idea that people who disagree with you are wrong, so much as that they’re bad. The left thinks the right is morally bankrupt because it privileges profit above compassion and capital above labor; the right thinks the left is some sort of Trojan horse for the morally evil doctrine of socialism; the extreme right thinks everyone else is going to hell because Jesus.
There’s pretty much no common ground between these points of view anymore, if there ever was — each side objects to the other side’s very existence and denies its right to govern. This leads to rhetoric that has absolutely nothing to do with policy — or, indeed, reality. You rarely hear Republicans attacking the details of Obama’s policy, just its existence and its perceived moral virtue. (And you rarely hear Democrats attacking Republican policy, largely because there isn’t really anything to attack.) So it is that we end up in ridiculous situations like what’s becoming an annual tradition of brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.
In this political climate, it’s almost impossible not to buy in to moral judgments of the people on the other side of the fence. The thing is, of course, that beyond actual Sith Lords like Dick Cheney and recidivist racists like the late Strom Thurmond, no one is entirely good or bad. People are people, and they’re an amalgam of good and bad qualities. A “good” person can do terrible things. Hitler was nice to dogs. And so on. This is why people are judged by their deeds, not some sort of perceived innate moral worth.
This is especially true of politicians, or at least it should be, given that politics is the art of compromise — and of being compromised. Instead, we tend to see politicians as cardboard cut-outs, one-dimensional figures who are either the goodies or the baddies. It’s fascinating to contrast this to the current cultural fondness for characters like Don Draper and Walter White, complicated and ambiguous figures who clearly embody qualities both good and bad. We’re used to thinking about TV characters this way, but not the people who run the country.
I remember hearing a story about then French president François Mitterrand being bewildered by the gigantic furore around the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair, and confiding in Clinton that everyone in France knew he cheated on his wife, but no one cared because it was a personal matter (and anyway, it was assumed that pretty much anyone in a position like his would have a mistress, if not several). Whether or not that story’s true, it has a point to make — I don’t care whether Bill Clinton was cheating on Hillary (and anyway, one suspects she was more than capable of dealing with him on her own). I care that he canned the Glass-Steagall Act and signed the first incarnation of the DMCA into law. Like the man himself, his presidency was a mixture of positives and negatives. Whether the former outweighed the latter is really the only meaningful metric of its worth. Instead, America still judges his performance as president by where he put his cigars.
Similarly, depending on your point of view, President Obama is either a fundamentally good dude with a tough job, or a Kenyan Muslim who is somehow distantly related to Osama Bin Laden or something. It doesn’t matter whether either of these things is true, because history will judge his worth as a president the way it judges every politician — by his deeds. It doesn’t matter whether Obama really is as good a guy as his fist bumps suggest, and I wouldn’t care if he did turn out to be a secret Muslim (which, of course, he isn’t) — I care about the availability of healthcare, and whether American drones are blowing up children in Pakistan, and the fact that there are still unfortunate prisoners consigned to the oubliette of Guantánamo.
All of which brings us back to Rand Paul. If I could vote (which I can’t, because I’m Australian, blah blah blah), I doubt I’d ever vote for him, but credit where it’s due — trying to filibuster the Patriot Act was admirable. Paul’s reasons for opposing the NSA’s creeping power might be more grounded in libertarian paranoia than anything else, but in the end, it’s his actions that matter. The Act is a bad piece of legislation, and would be a bad piece of legislation if it were introduced by a Republican president, or a Democratic president, or a cheese sandwich. (And, of course, totalitarianism isn’t the exclusive preserve of either wing of politics.) If more Americans would take a utilitarian view of politics and leave the moral grandstanding to the demagogues of the extreme right and left, we might be able to actually get something done.