Most American politicians can be placed somewhere on a continuum, between the desire to use their office to solve and manage actual problems of society, to the drive to impose their ideological vision upon reality, whatever it takes. Increasingly – and tragically – while Democrats have become the party of problem-solving, most Republicans seem to have lost interest in any actual, pragmatic policies. When epithets like “socialism” and conspiracy theories like the birthers’ dominate a political party’s discourse, clearly that party’s relationship to reality has become pretty shaky.
Which brings me – once again! – to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. It is hard to think of an office holder less interested in performing the actual responsibilities of his job. Those responsibilities are laid out at the AG’s official website. They are serious matters, involving the provision of all manner of legal support to the operations of Virginia state government. They require vigilance in tracking down and bringing to justice all manner of criminals, from the pettiest sex offender to the loftiest corporation. The Attorney General has grave responsibilities to keep Virginia citizens safe and secure, to keep Virginia agencies functioning on a sound legal basis, and to keep the public informed and engaged on all of the above.
How much of his time and our money is Cooch spending on performance of his Constitutional duties?
Go to his office’s “News Room” and you’ll see a whole page of news releases about his legal challenge to the President’s health care law. Yet this lawsuit does not fit anywhere within the stated duties of the Attorney General, and cannot be considered an appropriate part of any state government’s role since the concept of state nullification of federal law was discredited by a little civil war you may have heard about some years ago.
The extraordinary contradiction between Cooch’s attack on University of Virginia for conducting climate change research, on the one hand, and defense of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church for disrupting American servicemen’s funerals to protest against gays, on the other, shows his loyalty, not to any core American principle like free speech, but only to whatever advances his ultraconservative agenda.
Clearly, he is not interested in being the chief legal problem-solver and advocate for Virginia’s residents. Instead, he sees his office as a platform for advancing an extreme right-wing religious/ideological agenda. And that’s a problem for those who care about effective democratic (with a small “d”) governance. Because the record of ideologues who capture government institutions is not a pretty one.
The great political philosopher Hannah Arendt capped off her three-volume study, The Origins of Totalitarianism, with the conclusion that at the heart of the power of the Nazi and Soviet regimes over their people was how they used ideology to warp reality. Ideologies, like religions, are designed to provide total explanations for everything that happens in the world. They are in that sense, comforting, particularly to loners using their TVs or computers as their primary connections to the rest of us. Ideologies, as Arendt describes them, start with a single premise and expand upon it by using “logic as a movement of thought – and not as a necessary control of thinking.” In other words, you start with premise “A” and use it to derive “B”, which leads to “C” and “D” and so on – until you have “explained” everything without having to deal with any actual empirical evidence.
The problem with hijacking the logical process in this way is that it takes ideologues and their devout followers farther and farther away from verifiable reality. If you start with the premise that all truth and wisdom come from the Bible and the “free market”, and then consider that climate change is not accounted for in either, it must seem “logical” to therefore conclude that climate change is simply a vast hoax perpetrated by commie environmentalists who oppose both God and capitalism. And taking this “logic” a step further, scientists who find evidence of global warming must be faking their results and perpetrating fraud upon the rest of us. So to someone whose mind is that far gone along this ideological track, overturning a 200+ year tradition of academic freedom in order to pursue a scientist who dares to engage in such blasphemous research is the height of common sense and reason.
Indeed, to such an ideologue, just doing his job as it is legally defined must sound like the height of irresponsible absurdity. How can he do his job when the Federal government is perpetrating such horrendous crimes as attempting to provide health care to poor people? No, just meeting his responsibilities must seem as ridiculous to Cuccinelli as it would be for Clark Kent to simply perform his job as a journalist and skip all that Superman stuff.
Cooch is, as Dan Akroyd used to put it in his best Chicago deadpan, “on a mission from Gahd.” Unfortunately, that leaves Virginians without anyone minding the business for which the Office of Attorney General was created. You can bet that if the massive oil spill happening in the Gulf of Mexico were erupting off the coast of Virginia instead, BP would have nothing to fear from this AG. No, laws will not be enforced as they must in the Commonwealth for the next four years because our chief legal advocate is off on a crusade that will not do any of us a bit of good.
It’s a sad situation, and a rare one in American politics, where mushy moderates are much more common than radicals. But it’s a lesson for why we need to continue to elect problem-solvers, not ideologues, to public office, and why we need to strongly oppose Cooch not just for his individual policies or actions but for the whole dangerous tendency of blind extremism that he represents.