Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A busy political day

As I noted yesterday, I had a full plate of state-level political leaders on campus today.

Governor Sonny Perdue addressed an auditorium full of students, faculty, staff, and guests this morning, focusing on the themes of trust and leadership. Without explicitly referring to Aristotle, he offered a concrete example of why the optimal size of a political order is one in which everyone is a friend of a friend. For Perdue, trustworthiness has to be established personally, and hence all politics must ultimately be personal. Hard to manage in a state with over 8 million inhabitants and in a reelection campaign whose budget is approaching $15 million, but worth holding up as a touchstone. Stated another way: character matters, and you can tell a lot about a person by looking at his (or her) family.

As you can tell, this wasn’t a political speech, but was meant rather to reach a college-age audience, who have likely given more thought to family and friendship than they have to political life. It worked as a civic lesson, and it worked as a way of conveying the dignity and decency of public life. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more appropriate message to counter the premature cynicism of so many of my students.

Perdue connects well with his audience and impressed the unscientific sample of students with whom I spoke afterward. The student introducer and questioners also acquitted themselves well, the former managing to convey something of the Governor’s personality and the latter posing questions that were well-formulated and respectful, focusing on the Governor’s promotion of Georgia’s international profile and on public support for private higher education.

A short while later, I hosted Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-time Georgia state legislator who has focused much of her career on child and family issues. As she is unopposed for reelection, she could be very forthright and pointed in the issues and questions she raises. A slightly left-of-center Democrat (who once had statewide political aspirations), Rep. Oliver argued that state government spends too much time and effort on economic development and not enough on education and health care. We worry too much, she argued, about jobs, and not enough about the 40% of those who enter high school in Georgia, but do not graduate.

While she tried to cast this contrast in terms of class (with governors--including her old State Senate suitemate Sonny Perdue, once a Democrat--spending too much time associating with the "super-rich" who bring capital and jobs to the state), I think that there’s a more plausible explanation. Rep. Oliver spoke movingly about the plight of a "permanent underclass," of toddlers who, without state intervention, would be at the mercy of their drug-addicted mothers. It’s extremely hard, she said, to know what to do. How do you intervene? How many chances at rehabilitation do you give the mother? (If I’d been anything other than the good host, I might have asked her here what she thought of state funding for faith-based drug rehabilitation, but I held my tongue.) In short, there are limits to what the state can do in dealing with problems that she came very close to conceding were intractable. And surely there are even greater limits to what a state can do in the relatively short terms allotted to political leaders who have to be able to point to successes in the face of an adversarial environment if they’re to win reelection. It’s much easier to point to the billions of dollars of new investment and the thousands (or tens of thousands) of jobs that have been created on your watch. Those are metrics everyone can understand and about which it’s relatively easy to boast. And, of course, jobs are, for the most part, uncontroversial (unless they’re held by illegal immigrants).

After listening to Rep. Oliver, I’m reminded of something that Rousseau said (which I’ll have to paraphrase badly, since I don’t have the text in front of me): today’s politicians talk incessantly about commerce and money; their predecessors spoke about morals. Rep. Oliver doesn’t want them to talk about money so much, but I’m not sure that she wants them to talk about morals and character in a way that might--just might--begin meaningfully to address some of her very real concerns regarding the least among us.

All in all, a busy and interesting day. The more I listen to these state-level political figures, the more I’m convinced that Georgia has an impressive stock of genuine public servants. Sounds corny and pollyannaish, I know, but I haven’t encountered a stinker yet. (People assure me that there are some, but they seem to be allergic to speaking at Oglethorpe.)

Discussions - 9 Comments

Bottom line, Ms. Oliver wants to spend more on problems that it’s not possible to spend our way out of. If that’s her solution, who cares how she dresses it up? Sheesh. Will this NLT search for the New Democrat white whale never end?

Please don’t assume that when I organize a lecture series, I’m doing it on behalf of or for the sake of NLT or the Ashbrook Center. (That’s Peter Schramm’s job, and he does it exceptionally well.) I have a somewhat different agenda, given my situation and the program I direct, and strive to be "fair and balanced" in my invitations. That people with whom I disagree are serious, challenging, and thoughtful just adds to the spice of my life.

To be clear, the point of the lecture series is not to find the "true right" (and I’m not attributing that agenda to the Ashbrook Center), but rather to offer students different models of public engagement, from all reasonable portions of the spectrum.

Well said, well done, Joe. You (and the other Peter) regularly place "Georgia on my mind."

2: I have no problem with your lecture series. I wouldn’t presume to "lecture" you on that. Nor did I.

My beef is with the continual postings on this conservative blog site that attempt to find 1) reasonable Democratic leaders, and 2) ways in which the Democratic party can win (genuine) Christians back into their fold. This Diogenes’ search seems, to me, to blur the bright-line distinction that conservatives should be drawing between today’s rotten, cynical, radically dangerous Democratic party and the reasonable people who belong on, and largely support, the center-right without being fully educated as to the utter rottenness of the Democratic party.
The less confused these good folks are, the better.

In your case, most recently, I simply observed that Ms. Oliver doesn’t seem like much of a change agent in the Democratic party, but rather, like a typical spending addict. The fact that she is a personally OK individual and doesn’t talk like a typical hard-left statist is interesting -- if one is drawing up invite lists. Otherwise, not.

Ah, now I see what your problem is...not my lecture series, but rather my interest in religion and politics as an observer and commentator.

Two quick points: first, there doesn’t seem to me to be anything wrong with casting a critical glance at what religious folk and political folk say about and do to one another (as if the two categories were even separable anyway). These are matters of interest and intellectual stimulation, regardless of one’s practical political agenda, although I suppose that one could regard one’s practical political agenda as so pressing as to suppress any intellectual curiosity whatsoever. I have to confess that, though I feel a sense of urgency about our political life, I don’t yet feel pressed to man the barricades and regard everyone who doesn’t agree completely with me as an inveterate enemy.

Second, please note that I wrote of casting a critical glance. Even if you do want to engage in (I hope, metaphorical) partisan warfare, you need to know something about what your opponents are thinking. You understand them better if, at least initially, you take them seriously. Having experienced at various times in the past ideological dismissal by those who disagreed with me, I strive to make certain that my first move isn’t ideological dismissal.

Bottom line, I just think you’re soft on many Democrats who don’t deserve it. We can agree to disagree on whether you are, and on whether that’s OK. Frankly, I don’t think it makes for interesting political analysis, but, again, others clearly disagree.

Since I’ve been described as "to the right of the Attila the Hun" (a direct quote from a former President of my institution), thanks for the ammunition with which to respond.

Just out of curiosity, what sort of analysis would you like to see on this site?

If I may intervene in this discussion -- I’d suggest more links to people like Dennis Prager, who correctly identifies the leadership of the Democratic party as not so much crazy as morally corrupt. The fact that there are some folks in the Democratic party who make reasonable noises now and then simply isn’t news.

As for those who say you’re "to the right of Attila the Hun," I would say: no worries. This is the same mindset that calls Bush a wild cowboy for saying "I’ve got a job to do, and that’s protect the American people." You are not, as far as I can tell, to the right of GWB, let alone Mr. Hun.

Academe isn’t the agora; Joe’s intellectually critical stance is appropriate for the groves; one thing I don’t like about ’partisanship’ (which the great political scientist and partisan Republican Harvey Mansfield defends as the legitimate animating core of politics) is its tendency to demonize one’s political opponents. We in academe cannot and should not indulge in that impulse. As I’ve said elsewhere, I cannot abide Ann Colter.

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