Once in a while, disparate news events make visible a thematic convergence, something wonderful or disturbing that had been coursing unseen through the culture. Since the mass murder of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the nation’s attention has frequently been riveted by events that call into question what we owe to one another and what we owe to ourselves. Can we, like the inspiring, relentless parents of those dead kids, rouse ourselves to care about our fate?
Invoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books, “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?”
Let’s clear one thing up. “Right to work” laws, which permit employees working at a unionized workplace to refuse to join the union or to pay the union the cost of representing the worker, are designed to weaken the economic and political power of organized labor and, by extension, wage workers. Full stop. They allow workers to “free ride” all the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement (increased wages, benefits, rights to adjudicate a dispute with a supervisor, safety and health requirement beyond those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, etc.) negotiated by the union without paying any of the union dues their fellow employees pay.
George McGovern, the former Senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic candidate for president who died Sunday at the age of 90, was perhaps the greatest exponent of an alternative American patriotism of the end of the 20th century. In this respect, McGovern’s predecessors were men and women like Jane Addams, W.E.B. Dubois, and William James. Historian Jonathan Hansen has described this critical patriotism well as the “claim that critical engagement with one’s country constitutes the highest form of love.” The critical patriot rejects the conventional patriot’s belief that loyalty to the state and, especially, to its military aims should be reflexive and unconditional. Critical patriotism fears that the patriotism of flag pins and yellow ribbons is, as Todd Gitlin has written, “affirmed too easily.”
When Arlen Specter, the former Pennsylvania Senator who died Sunday at the age of 82, was negotiating to become a Democrat in 2009, he believed that he would retain his GOP-acquired seniority on the Senate committees in which he served. Specter thought he’d gotten a commitment from Majority Leader Harry Reid—Specter’s switch would not only help him avoid a primary challenge from the right, but would give the Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. However, the Democratic caucus resented the idea that Specter could jump ahead of lifelong Dems on the seniority list. Reid was thus unable to keep the agreement with Specter. Losing the committee seniority, Specter said, according to Politico, “was the worst moment of my life.”
The worst moment of a then-79-year-old man’s life? Think about that. Specter had, by then, lost his parents. He had gone through several bouts of cancer, a benign brain tumor, and cardiac bypass surgery in the previous decade. He had two children, and surely there were difficult, even frightening moments in the course of their lives that would deeply concern any parent. He had been married for 57 years, and even the most loving relationships go through some tough times.