This piece has run as an op/ed in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).
Justice has been called the most important virtue for a society to have. And, since before my age broke double digits, I’ve had a passion for justice. Which makes it distressing for me to have discovered, many decades into my life, that so many of my countrymen do not seem to care much about justice.
But perhaps I should start by addressing the famous question, “What is Justice?” The best answer I can give describes how the world would be if justice played no role. From ancient Greece came this description of such a world: “The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.”
In other words, “justice” is the concept civilized people have used to correct the wrongs done by “might makes right.” Justice says that those without “might” have “rights” that entitle them to more than having to “suffer” whatever the strong – because they can — selfishly decide to seize for themselves.
“Justice” represents an ideal that serves as an antidote to the poisonous rule of raw power.
How does this conflict between “justice and “the rule of power” relate to America? For starters, one can see the ideal of justice informing the main concepts of our founders.
The idea that “all men are created equal” asserts that needs of the strong and the weak are equally deserving of society’s concern. The idea that government derives its “just powers” from “the consent of the governed” declares that rulers are obliged to wield their power in ways approved by those being ruled. And in the election process – where, as the Supreme Court eventually put it, “one person, one vote” is the rule – power gets equalized, thus eliminating the distinction between the “strong” and the “weak.”
In today’s America, there are many battles that can be seen in terms of whether the strong will be enabled to wield their power to get what they can, forcing the weak to suffer what they must.
One such battle is over who gets to vote. In the past decade, millions of Americans have become unable to vote because of various voter suppression measures. Most prominent among these have been the “Voter ID” laws, passed by one of our major parties, in states across the nation, on the fraudulent basis that they would solve a virtually non-existent problem of “voter fraud.” Those Americans whom these measures effectively prevent from voting are among the most vulnerable – weakest—of our citizens. Government will no longer need their consent.
Another battle over justice, involving our elections, concerns how easily the inequalities of wealth in America can be translated into inequalities of power to the election process. The (virtually indefensible) Citizens United decision – handed down by five Supreme Court justices (all of them appointed by one of our major political parties) – magnified the power of those already the most powerful by virtue of their riches. Moving the nation from “one person, one vote” increasingly toward “one dollar, one vote” weakens the say of average citizens on the nation’s destiny.
Many other political battle lines in America, of course, are drawn between the richest and the rest. In every such battle, that very same political party consistently weighs in on the side of the richer — and thus stronger — at the expense of average citizens. For example:
- The distribution of the tax burden, where one of our political parties just passed a measure that transfers nearly a trillion dollars to the billionaire class and the corporate system, with minimal and only temporary benefits for average Americans, while piling more than $1 trillion in national debt onto future generations.
- The balance of power between our great corporations and the people who work for them, as one of our major parties has worked for more than a generation to weaken workers’ power. The result has been an ever-declining part of our national wealth going to wages and an ever-increasing share going to corporate profit.
- The battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, whose mission was to protect average citizens from being deceived and exploited by giant financial institutions—an agency which one of our major parties has opposed and has now essentially neutered.
Still more of our political issues bear upon the relationship between stronger and weaker groups of people.
Take the treatment of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. America has long been a diverse society, but from its founding the power structure has placed white over non-white, European over non-European, Christian over non-Christian, and male over female. Recent generations have seen the weaker of those pairs gain some ground, but the originally stronger groups remain clearly dominant.
One of our two main political parties has placed itself squarely, and consistently, on the side of those long-dominant groups.
Indeed, I can think of only one issue on which today’s Republican Party sides with the weaker side: that is the issue of abortion, where the “stronger” party is the mother and the “weaker” party is the fetus inside her.
The question arises, why on this issue, and only on this issue does the GOP stand for “justice” for the weak? After all, nowhere in all of human relationships are we more likely to find selflessness, rather than mere selfishness, than in a mother’s relationship with her child.
From my observation, it does seem that for some Republicans, with the abortion issue, it is indeed a concern for the vulnerable that’s being expressed. But with others, it seems rather that the relationship involved is not that between mother and child but between a male-dominated society and the woman that society seeks to control.
So the picture, regarding even the issue of abortion, is mixed.
All of which leads to the question: what does it say about the moral nature of a political party if – almost without exception – it consistently sides with the strong against the weak?
Andy Schmookler — who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author of an ongoing series, “Press the Battle: Fighting for the Soul of America(ns).”