When Governing Becomes An Aesthetic Act

Often these days it seems legislators put more effort into the naming of bills than into analyzing the details of new laws and their likely impact upon the citizenry. In April, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced the Ensuring Lawful Collection of Hidden Assets to Provide Order Act, or “El Chapo” Act, proposing to channel the assets seized from drug trafficking towards border security and funding for the proposed border wall.

There is a certain insipid humor to the two-bit wordplay in the title of the bill and its pithy catchphrase “El Chapo will pay for it.” It has all the precocious wit of grade school boys who have figured out how to spell out rude words on a calculator. One can’t help but smirk, albeit begrudgingly, either with approval or disdain, which is precisely the point.

Such behavior is very much in keeping with the clique-driven culture of modern day party politics. It evokes a sense of snotty superiority; the subtle dig at opponents boosts efficacy. That they are sticking it to their detractors is in many ways more important to the party faithful than the lower order political victories such bills represent.

Ultimately, however, this approach to legislation is a gambit. It focuses attention on the surrounding culture and not on serious questions such as, in the case of the El Chapo Act, whether it is appropriate to set a precedent where government uses criminal prosecutions as a source for revenue-raising and what implication this has for citizens and civil asset forfeiture.

Instead, the voices that matter — the politicians popular on the cable news circuit and the blue-check-marked pundit class — are busy adopting a serious mien and using grandiose language to describe how legislation like the Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness (Mar-a-lago) Act and the Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement (Covfefe) Act represent a dangerous drift away from a culture of political civility.

Certainly, this cycle is tedious and inane. There’s very little of anything genuine, and even less of anything substantive. Still, it cannot be dismissed out of fatigue or a belief that such squabbling is ultimately irrelevant.

From a cultural, as well as philosophical, standpoint, such behavior is deeply troubling.

While too much is made of whether America’s political culture is “healthy,” the abuse of the legislative process warrants alarm. Politicians who put forth bills with titles that have been torturously twisted to spell acronyms that subtly jab at political opponents do more than affront good English. They emphasize petty, ephemeral victories of one party over another and convert Congress into an arena for internecine feuds.

The virtue of the legislative process, which should be concerned with the appropriateness of laws in context of government’s Constitutionally delineated powers and the preservation of rights, is perverted. Matters which bolster the standing of a politician, or a partisan line of attack most likely to score points with the base, become priorities.

This is a government of aesthetics. It is a vaudevillian side show, more concerned with short-term bolstering of the party in the polls than in any long-term sense of public efficacy. Clever snubs of opponents and explosive bursts of passion are more important than cogent arguments. The former are played ad nauseum by the media, which is just as willing to play the breathless carnival barker as the studious and ever-so-serious councilor determined to probe the depths of the political psyche to root out its problems. Political power becomes a tool for bolstering position, though it retains a mask of compassionate altruism. Legislators greedily snap up the archetypal role of the selfless public servants, nobly laboring for the common good. Nevermind the dais of power from which such caricatures speak. It is, to borrow a phrase from the inimitable Pete Townshend, an eminence front.

This politics of dross not only damages the long-term welfare of the nation, both by inflaming an acrimonious partisan divide and eroding the substantive values which are the bedrock of government, it is utterly contemptuous of the intelligence of the voter.

It is solely focused on short-term gains, using platitudinous shows of defiance in Congressional sessions to whip the base into an impassioned frenzy and get out the vote. The sanctity of the voter-representative relationship is reduced to a gluttonous symbiosis. Voters trade in their regard for character and value, which are supposed to form the basis of the bond of trust which representatives, in appointing themselves champions of their constituents’ interests, undertake. In return, voters receive fleeting emotional gratification and some legislative concessions — policy initiatives that sound beneficent but often do more harm than good to budget baselines and the tenacity of civil liberties. Politicians are rewarded with a bigger stage for their pantomime.

But a government of aesthetics also raises some troubling philosophical questions about the ends, or telos, of politics. Aristotle, whose book The Nicomachean Ethics is in no small part concerned with teleology and its relation to virtue, distinguishes between ends that are final, which have intrinsic value, and those which are a means to something else and have extrinsic value. Intrinsic ends are more worthy of pursuit because they contain intrinsic virtues, and self-sufficiency is the most total of these.

Self-sufficiency is certainly a laudable end for individuals. It is a goal very much in keeping with the pre-eminent values of America, namely respect for self-sovereignty. But individuals are an autonomous and complete being; the same cannot be said for government.

Which begs the question: self-sufficiency for whom? There is no single, animating will to government, or at least there shouldn’t be in any nation which makes a pretense at limiting the power of elected officials. Yet, government does have an intrinsic end, which is, simply put, to get out of the way of individual self-sufficiency. Government is there to empower individual conscience’s right to determine and seek out its own ends by placing limitations upon its self. In other words, government self-regulates so that rights can flow freely. Politicians, then, should not strive to make government self-sufficient, but should take all steps to aid self-sufficiency in the polity.

But the aesthetic bent to government turns self-sufficiency from an intrinsic to an extrinsic end, and seeks to animate not individuals, who properly have agency, but government, which should not have a will, even in a limited, partitioned sense. When government, through members of its organs, which are empowered to act in its name, has cognizance, it begins to grow a conscience of its own, which means it will pursue its own ends. Politicians who use legislation as a platform for partisan superiority, rather than to answer a genuine political need, introduce consciousness to the legislative body. It begins to make value-judgments, and it is not long before the fairly innocuous crime of using legislative titles to score petty political points morphs into something far more serious: the determination of whose needs are more legitimate than others.

Government is not a producer; the only way it can pursue intrinsic ends involves protection of abstract concepts, such as rights. Anytime substantive material needs are addressed, something must be taken from someone. Suddenly, there is a hierarchy of needs. This not only violates the parity of individual rights, the protection of which is government’s most sacred trust, but introduces the possibility of willful abuse.

So long as government thinks, it is effectively alive, which means it is subject to the same primal drives as all other beings that draw breath. The most fundamental of these is the need to survive. A cognizant government is now competing with citizens for the right to survive; it cannot help but prioritize its own ends, which, because government has the ability to exercise and define legitimate force, will end in suppression of the polity.

And therein lies the very real perniciousness of a politics of aesthetics. What begins as something small and silly very quickly snowballs and becomes an existential crisis. Politicians perverting the political process to bolster their party seem to simply be engaging in crass self-promotion, a matter of poor ethics, but not meriting serious alarm. But in reality, they are altering the very nature of government. And it is not they alone who are guilty; also complicit are members of the polity who tolerate a culture that short-sells liberty for promise of material security.

The power of this culture is somewhat understandable. Aesthetics are, after all, powerful. They appeal to emotions which are raw and, if they are to be properly enjoyed, defy analysis. It is a high without consequence, the exchange of something for nothing. Emotionalism, the lifeblood of aesthetics, is based in rhetoric, it’s about words, and every good parent teaches their children that words have no real staying power.

Besides, those who benefit, who are caught up in the freneticism of the moment, are allowed to feel part of the action. Partisan epithets are a sly wink-and-nod to members of one’s party, an acknowledgment that they’re part of the joke, a joke that might be petty and juvenile, but is excusable because the other side does the same thing when they get the chance.

This spirit of partisan fraternization, which might go some ways towards squaring the public’s low opinion of Congress and extremely high incumbency rates, emphasizes the here and now. It does not encourage long-term considerations. It cannot, for the obvious question members of the polity, whose needs are pandered to in the furtherance of the quest for political power, ought to ask is: what happens when another group from whom more can be extracted comes to the forefront of the public? Asking the question lays bare just how mercenary the aesthetic front of politics is. But it requires a culture of individual self-sufficiency. And self-sufficiency has rewards, but they are difficult to attain and cultivated over a long-period of time. Aesthetic politics exploits this and provides instant gratification, putting self-sufficiency even farther out of reach.


Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.

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