Thoughts on Election Eve
First, let me be clear – I’m still retired. The fact that this is my third article on Bearing Drift in the span of week does not mean that I’m back or that I want to be back. Second, this article is more on the lines of a Shaun Kenney-style stream-of-consciousness than it is a reasoned argument, and it’s longer than most anything I’ve written in a while. There is no tl;dr here. If it’s too long for your sensibilities, then I’m not writing this for you anyway. This post isn’t about any one issue or thing, just some thoughts I’ve had over the last few months that congealed into an article while I was sitting in New York for work.
I keep coming back to the issue of birthright citizenship because, for me, it seems fundamental to my problems with what the modern GOP has evolved into. We’ve lost our sense of tradition, our desire to stand athwart history yelling “STOP” as Buckley spent his career doing. For conservatives and Republicans (because, largely, the terms have become synonyms, even if some people will want to carve out my eyes for saying so), “because we’ve always done it this way” has long been a perfectly acceptable answer to any policy question. Now, unfortunately, we’ve been infected with this belief that no matter how old or venerable something is, if it gets in the way of whatever narrative we wish to throw out, we can toss it aside and take up something different.
And sometimes the something different is something we’d have held antithetical just a few short years ago. The whole birthright citizenship thing is a perfect example, because you have conservatives today claiming that heredity is a better system for determining citizenship than place of birth.
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t read it with my own eyes. Andrew McCarthy, in his latest at National Review Online, wrote, “…The citizenship of the child derives from the citizenship of the parent,” and also called this a “venerable rule.” He goes on to argue that our policy should be that, “Children born in the United States should be deemed Americans only if their parents are U.S. persons…”
I think most of the arguments he makes are bunk, conflating the process of naturalization with the concept of how citizens are created – Congress can change the process of naturalization at will under its Article I powers, but the process for creating a citizen is governed by the 14th Amendment, and that makes birth primary. Sure, Congress can create a system whereby the child of an American born overseas is automatically naturalized at birth, but they aren’t natural born citizens – at least, whether they are is still debatable because it’s never been tested in a court. I refer you to all the talk about Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
Fundamentally though, I think we tread on dangerous ground when we start talking about heredity as a basis for determining anything in America.
Heredity is a dangerous concept for Americans. We inherently don’t like it. We don’t like thinking about it or talking about it. While we are all often superconscious of where we came from and our ethnic and national heritage, we shy away from basing any of our political or governmental concepts on anything remotely close to heritage. This is one of the reasons why issues of race and gender are so difficult still.
That’s why I scratch my head over the whole debate over birthright citizenship amongst conservatives. There are two basic ways citizenship is currently determined in the world today. It’s either something based on where you were born – the doctrine of jus soli (right of the soil) – or it’s based on who your parents are – the doctrine of jus sanguinis (right of the blood). Given how much Americans dislike the idea of hereditary anything, especially nobility, it only makes sense that for much of our history, the primary means of passing down citizenship – the sine qua non of what it means to be American – wasn’t based on who your parents are or were. Today, like much of the developed world, we’ve moved into a system where the citizenship status of parents is considered in determining citizenship for a child, but that’s not the system we’ve used the most or how the country was originally founded, and it’s not the way that’s codified in our founding document.
And that’s for good reason – anything hereditary was viewed as suspect when we severed our bonds with the old world. That was an old-world way of thinking. In the new world, we would accept any who could make it here and who wanted to join us with open arms, as long as they were willing to give up their old allegiances and embrace the Constitution and America. Today, those arms are folded, and our heads are cocked to the side in skepticism. We didn’t used to be that way.
It still boggles my mind that so many tradition minded people – at least, those of us who still think ‘conservative’ means more than just “pwning the libs” – seem willing to jettison the idea of birthright citizenship, which has a noble American tradition behind it, in favor of a system that smacks of old world nobility and aristocracy.
I suppose it’s only inevitable that our dislike, fear and distrust of the mother country would dim over the years, especially as we’ve been introduced to so many foreign cultures that are radically different in culture and language. Americans and Britons are closer in terms of norms and cultural mores than any other peoples separated by so great a distance on Earth. And many of the things we found most distasteful in our overseas brethren have dulled with age.
Just look at how American tabloids fawn over the British Royal Family. Social media goes nuts every time someone in royal family has a kid, royal weddings are ratings winners on TV, and the memories of the Revolution, 1812, the burning of Washington, the impressment of our sailors, the constant border skirmishes and the like that used to stoke hated of Great Britain have given way to a deep infatuation with our former enemies. This has, apparently, also lessened our fear of the use of heredity in political life. We’ve seen pushes from the right to end the estate tax, and now we’re seeing calls for ending birthright citizenship that would leave us with just the right of blood for passing down our Americanism to our kids.
We’ve never had a political or true economic nobility in America, and those who were part of old American aristocratic families were always careful in how they presented themselves. If your surname was Adams, for example, you carried a pretty heavy burden – two presidents, and countless other famous names in your line. Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton all dealt with the positive and negatives of being part of American “royalty.” And in all of those instances the name could be a net negative as much as a positive. Just ask Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.
We’re different than our friends across the ocean in that regard. Prominent families in the United Kingdom were looked up to. Here, it’s a mixed bag.
Just look at the differences in how these family names are treated. Some of these British noble family names became so prominent that they began to move from surname to given name. Common first names, both in America and the UK, like Byron, Douglas, Hamilton, Howard, Mortimer, Neville, Percy, Russell, Scott, Spencer, Stewart and Stuart all came from the names of the most noble families in Great Britain, surnames of Kings, Dukes, Earls and the like.
While some people have named their daughters Kennedy, Morgan or Reagan, you aren’t going to see people naming their kids Adams, Roosevelt, Bush. Nor will you see names like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Gates, Bezos, Buffett, or like on the list of “top baby names in America.”
Maybe that will be different in a hundred years, but for now it seems unlikely. While we’ve eased up on some of our concerns about heredity, some remains. We don’t want to turn America into a mirror of the UK, and for good reason.
The passage of nobility down through heredity was a concept that the framers wished to avoid. Many, if not all of them, were what would have been considered the middle class back then – many were rich, but they were commoners with no title among them. Beginning in the 1700s and accelerating into the 20th century, thanks largely to the industrial revolution, was the great merger of the landless, title-less middle class with the aristocracy in the UK.
Prior to the industrial revolution, title to land was what created wealth. Peasants who owed taxes to their lord, or tithes to the church, were what created wealth. The nobility, at least the male members, did not work. At best they were expected to provide soldiers and their martial training to their liege as needed. That began to change in the 1600s with the New Model Army that created a trained, professional corps of soldiers outside of the nobility to serve as the backbone of England’s army. Over time, this resulted in the aristocracy spending much of their time in leisure activities and politics, and less at war and in money making activities. By the mid early 19th century, money making activities like working a trade or being a merchant or trader were looked down upon by the nobility as below their station. Eldest sons were expected to take up the training they would need to manage their estates. Second and lower sons were bought commissions in the Army or sent to sea for a naval career. Some went to University and ended up in the ranks of the clergy. Daughters were expected to marry above their current station, or at least to bring wealth to the family.
For the middle class, the merchants, traders, capitalists, and industrialists who were making money hand over fist in the new economy, their greatest desire was to move into the nobility. Some bought titles, and others married daughters and sons off to the noble families, moving their way up. The goal for a noble family was to increase its wealth and esteem. The goal for common, but rich, families was to increase their rank. Duchesses wanted their daughters to become queens, rich traders their title-less daughters to marry baronets. A noble family that fell on hard times was just one lucky marriage away from regaining their wealth and status.
And all the while, regular people lived their lives without spending a lot of time thinking about how fair it all was. That system, to me, sounds horrible. It’s all based on luck and timing, and I find almost nothing about it appealing.
America has always been different. It’s baked into our DNA to fear hereditary anything, whether it’s monarchy, aristocracy, or even things like the “corruption of blood” that was worked on those found guilty of treason or other infamous crimes. That punishment was specifically barred by the Constitution because of the abuse the framers remembered. Things like the estate tax were put into place to stop what was perceived as the inherent danger of generational wealth and the passing down of great landed estates in perpetuity. We spent much of the revolution fighting the ideas of heredity, and one of the great experiments in America was allowing a general kind of equality of opportunity that gave men (at least, white men) a chance to rise above their station based on how hard they worked and the innate gifts they possessed. That’s how men like Ben Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others, who came from poor or modest backgrounds rose to the pinnacle of success in America. That’s the message that we sent to all around the world – that no matter how mean your station was in the beginning, through hard work and good behavior you could rise up.
I recall a soliloquy from the Civil War book, “The Killer Angels.” I remember it being used almost verbatim in the movie “Gettysburg,” which was based on the book. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who would end the war a Brevet Major General with the Medal of Honor and go on to serve as Governor of Maine, told a group of mutinous soldiers, “This is free ground. All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something.”
That is a fundamentally American attitude, put into the mouth of one of America’s true heroes by one of her great authors. Yet how many people, right now, in America, still believe those sentiments are true? That they’re anything more than hokey nonsense that old white guys think to themselves to justify voting Republican?
The same sentiment, in rougher terms, was expressed in the book (and film) by Chamberlain’s friend and Sergeant Buster Kilrain, a veteran soldier and Irish immigrant, who took Chamberlain to task later in the book for being too idealistic.
Kilrain, talking about the same subject said, “What I’m fighting for is a right to prove I’m a better man than many … No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree. There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters is justice. ‘Tis why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I’m Kilrain, and I God damn all gentleman. I don’t know who me father was and I don’t give a damn. There’s only one aristocracy and that’s right here –” Kilrain said in the book, with a tap of his finger to his head.
Those passages have always stood out to me because they encapsulate many of the ideas I have about America. Coming from modest means myself, I have always known that I could only thrive and reach my full potential in a place where birth was not a negative factor. My parents weren’t rich or well educated, and we didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid. But regardless, I took advantage of the gifts I was given and strove to make a name for myself, and do better than my parents did and in that respect I have succeeded.
That’s the American Dream in a nutshell – every American wants his kids to do better than he did. It’s not all about money, although that can be part of it. It’s not always about education, or the size of your house, or your career. It can be as simple as growing up safe, or doing the things the parent wanted to do but never could. But that was always the dream and it still is.
There is a fear among some in the population that we’re losing sight of the American Dream, and that it’s harder now than ever for Americans to achieve it. I think most of that is bullshit, but the part of it that is true is likely true because so many have gone from so little to so much that there’s not a lot of room for our kids to achieve more than we have. So for some we shift the dream away from achievement and focus more on well-being. We want our kids to be happy, to marry for love and for life, to raise their own families and get the joy we got out of doing it, all while staying safe and enjoying the benefits of being American. Yet the fear that we won’t be able to do that, or that someone is going to take that away from us, is potent and a serious motivation in politics these days. That’s all it really is – fear – but fear is a powerful motivator.
That fear is thriving right now, and it’s stoked by both political parties for their immediate gain, at the expense of the long-term health of the body politic. Democrats scream about how Republicans will take away health care, voting and abortion rights, their trade policies will tank the economy, and all the hard work over the years to expand opportunities for the oppressed and the underrepresented will be taken away. Republicans, on the other hand, scream about the loss of the American Dream, how illegal immigrants will come take our jobs and tax money through welfare, how our traditional values are being tossed aside and fundamentally American things are vilified or ignored. Both sides stoke the irrational fears against “The Other,” although “The Other” takes different forms for each party. For the Democrats, it’s the unhinged Trump supporter, sending mail bombs and shooting up synagogues, racist cops killing unarmed black men and the alt-right, white nationalists carrying their tiki torches in night time parades and driving cars into protestors. For the Republicans, it’s radical islamists, Antifa, and illegal immigrants, football players who kneel for the national anthem, gays pushing their ‘radical’ agenda, and millennials who either expect to get paid six figure salaries for doing entry level work, or who never move out of their parents’ house, spending all day playing Call of Duty and getting fat.
Both sides have their boogeymen. The left has talk radio, the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump. The right has the mainstream media, George Soros, Hillary Clinton. It all just morphs into a swirling jumble of shit and filth rapidly spinning in a toilet bowl that seems clogged and ready to overflow, instead of carrying the waste out of the house.
Going into Tuesday’s election, I know people are concerned with how divided our country is. But I was at a dinner the other night, and it reminded me that where we are now is nothing to where we’ve been in the past.
I was at our annual industry awards dinner in Manhattan. Seated at our table was a Japanese merchant ship captain, the head of the seafarers union in Japan. He was probably a few years older than me, but not many. We had a pleasant conversation, me in my suit and he in his traditional Japanese formal wear. We listened to speech after speech referencing the Merchant Marine’s efforts in World War II.
I realized, sitting next to him, that my grandfather was in the Navy, in the Pacific. In all likelihood, his grandfather and my grandfather were fighting against each other in the greatest war that has ever gripped our two nations. Yet just two generations later, their grandsons could meet as friends and break bread together.
No matter how divided things get, how bleak we think things are, remember that in just a few short years everything can be different. We’ve proven that again and again in America. I’m confident we can do it again. We’re only one election away from change.
Even as every election becomes “the most important election of our life-time” and each one sees people going to the polls motivated by something other than choosing the best person for the job of representing us in our governing bodies, I still have hope. I know that folks will go vote on Tuesday and the reasons for doing so will be myriad and often have little or nothing to do with governing well. But that’s one of the hard parts about representative democracy. For every person who goes to the polls well educated and possessing of conviction, there are dozens who show up because they hate someone or something, they want to “send a message” to somebody they don’t like, they know somebody or somebody’s family, or they just always show up and vote, even if they don’t know who is running just because they can. Yet the uninformed, “low-information” voter’s vote has just as much value as the vote of someone who has spent the time and done the research to make an informed decision and there’s no way around that. In fact, it’s just another form of conceit and condescension to think that one’s own motivations for casting a ballot are more pure or more thoughtful than somebody else’s. Even if it’s true.
We spend so much time coming up with rational ideas and ways to reach the electorate, ways to persuade and convince that are based on the idea of people thinking about their decisions in a rational way yet we refuse to accept that most people are fundamentally irrational. They don’t always do what’s in their best interests, If it’s even possible to know what those are. They spend money they don’t have, get into relationships they shouldn’t, buy things they don’t need, and often vote against people who are qualified, who can do the job and are willing to be honest and put their hearts in it, instead allowing idiots, morons, and crooks to win high office while good people don’t. All because the crooks are better at the long con than the honest folks are.
And the guys in elected office aren’t that much smarter. They do irrational things all the time. The Congressman who steals from his campaign accounts, or bangs an intern knows what’s going to happen if he does that stuff. He’s seen it before. He knows all the cautionary tales. But he does it anyway, and it’s completely irrational. How many times do you have to get busted sending random people photographs of your junk before you figure out that’s probably not a good thing?
Thus, we end up having elections, which are predicated on the concept that the American people will make rational decisions that are best for the country, when we know that concept flies in the face of reality.
The funny part is how often they actually do make the right decision. They aren’t perfect, and for every electorate that gave us a Buchanan or a Nixon, there’s one that gave us a Lincoln and a Roosevelt. It’s one reason why I still believe God is watching over this country.
People are irrational. They do irrational things. But we have built a political system that needs rationality to survive. We hope that rational people will run for office and win, and that they will govern rationally, even knowing that they are just people. For the most part, the system has worked well.
Today, though, it seems as though the rational part of the population has given up. I consider myself part of that rational part of the population, and I can tell you how I feel. I’m tired. Really tired. The spark and fire I had for wanting to serve in public office is gone. The joy I felt at getting into arguments and debates is gone. Why? Because it’s always the same thing, and it doesn’t change. Things we were arguing over thirty years ago we’re still arguing over today. Some things have advanced, but many have not. And it just gets old. How many times can you see somebody repeating a bullshit claim that you know has been refuted – that you yourself have refuted dozens of times – and not get frustrated? My wife hates it when she must repeat herself, whether it’s to me, to the cat, or the kid. Imagine feeling that way every time you go to work. It’s untenable.
I said it the other day, when I watched as, yet again, streams of comments came in on the reprint of my birthright citizenship article from three years ago, many of them disagreeing with me, one calling the article “garbage” and another calling me “shit for brains.” No matter how much time you take, how long you research and fact check, there’s some asshole out there who will take a giant dump on your efforts simply because you told them something they didn’t want to hear. It gets old. I’m tired of casting pearls before swine, trying educate those who don’t want to be educated, they just want to be titillated. They want to laugh or feel superior. They don’t want to feel uncomfortable, or take a minute to question things they’ve taken as holy writ. But that’s how you learn.
So many of us who are rational are taking a step back. That gives the irrational people the floor, and they get to do what they want. So, while the irrational people play their games and have their fun, the rest of us are just trying to live our lives and be left alone.
But it’s never that simple.
These leads me back to where I started when I started talking about birthright citizenship. Most of what these illegal immigrants want is a chance at the American Dream. But we’ve demonized and demagogued them so much that nobody is willing to accept that at face value anymore. No matter how many pictures of a young girl sleeping on the remains of an old town, following the caravan from central America to the our border you show them, somebody’s going to whip out an image of angry men giving the middle finger to a camera to show what “those people” are “really” like.
It’s absurd, but it’s politics. Division has always been easier than solidarity. Instilling fear has always been easier than creating compassion, sympathy, or empathy. When Government stepped in to fill the role that religion used to play for many people (giving them something larger than themselves to believe in), and began solving problems instead of being a referee, it got much, much easier to demonize other people who might come in and take up more of Government’s time than those who are already here.
That’s one of the biggest gripes, and I’ve even found myself making it – those of us who pay the most in taxes use the fewest government services. Other than infrastructure, which benefits the rich and the poor largely in equal measure, those who pay the most in taxes rarely see the day to day interaction with government that those who are less fortunate do. Our kids go to private schools, they buy books instead of borrowing them at a library, they aren’t looking at police to fight crime or the court system to avenge wrongs done to them or get themselves caught up in the law because of bad behavior, they have private health insurance, they don’t need federal loans for college, or loan programs to buy a house, they aren’t joining the military or working a federal civil service job, and they aren’t using the social safety net programs like unemployment, welfare, social security and the like. Their two most frequent touches with government are paying taxes and voting. And it’s easy to complain about how little in benefit those people get to what they receive.
People don’t tend to like paying the bill for somebody else unless they get something out of it. There’s no pride in paying your taxes, no personal satisfaction in knowing you helped somebody else who needed it. At least, not for most people. Most people view taxes as something akin to jury duty – something to be avoided at all costs, not the responsibility of being a citizen of the greatest country on earth, the greatest nation in history. We just bitch that we spend money so illegal immigrants can get a handout. It goes against how we were raised, every religious group’s teachings out there (except maybe the Satanists), but it’s still how many people feel. Even if they know they’re not being fair, they still feel that way. It’s irrational.
Even the most rational people can be irrational sometimes. The fact remains that we all get plenty out of paying our taxes, even if we don’t get direct benefits.
That’s part of the point of having a social safety net. We put services out there for people to use when they’re at rock bottom so they have a fighting chance to get back to a good place where they don’t need constant touches from the government to succeed. The only problem with that whole concept is that it relies on the idea that Americans, or those who come here hoping to become Americans, want to better their conditions – that the amount of benefits they receive from the government don’t make being at the bottom more attractive than working hard to get off the dole. That’s always going to be a balancing act. Fortunately, it looks like we’re balancing it better now than we have in a while, given that we’re at 3.7% unemployment and we’re hitting record numbers of the employed in the United States today. Even with those stats on the books, we still get the whole “they’re coming to take our jobs” line of reasoning that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if everybody’s got a job.
So when it comes to something like birthright citizenship, all the screaming and complaining just doesn’t make much sense to me. The concerns about “birth tourism” don’t either, because the people who are engaging in that behavior aren’t the poor who are coming here to get access to our welfare state. If there’s no obvious cost to the taxpayer, I don’t know why people get angry about the whole thing. Granted, I agree that it’s gaming the system, but it’s gaming the system at no cost to anybody, so it’s an obvious pretext to claim that ending birthright citizenship is required in order to prevent it. We could just as easily ignore the whole thing with no harm to anybody. Which, frankly, is probably the best way to deal with it. Until it becomes a problem, let it go. We certainly don’t need to embrace heredity in citizenship to deal with it.
Which leads me back to where I started. Many of the arguments I’ve seen against birthright citizenship from conservatives, including from conservative attorneys and law professors, I find truly disheartening. Not only do they make arguments that they know will never stand up in a courtroom – the discussion of the intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment being a key one – they seem to be appealing strictly to the population on a political level, not trying to explain and argue the law. McCarthy’s article, for instance, over and over again conflates the difference between naturalization and the creation of citizens. Hans von Spakovsky’s article is just as bad, leaning heavily on the authors of the 14th Amendment’s intentions when he knows as well as anybody that legislative intent is dead last on the list of persuasive authority when it comes to statutory interpretation – at least for conservatives like me who have adopted Justice Scalia’s belief that “the text is the law.”
So why do they do it? I don’t know. Even rational men can be irrational.
What I do know is that if I have to choose between a traditional means of determining citizenship that isn’t based on who my father was and one that basically hands citizenship down like eye color and height, I’m going with the former. I don’t want my destiny determined by my DNA, my skin color, who my father was, or what he did in his life. And I don’t want my son to be handed something he didn’t earn just because I did. He gets it because he was born here, and what he makes of it is up to him. He determines his destiny, not me.
Okay, I’ve said my piece. Go vote tomorrow.