Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The New Secesh

As someone who gets deeply invested in politics, I understand the despair that can set in when one's candidate loses. My first three votes for president went to losing candidates, and despite better luck recently, I'm still batting under .500 in presidential elections (4 wins, 5 losses).

So I'm fairly tolerant when anyone says something along the lines of "If [opposing candidate] wins, I'm moving to [Canada, Costa Rica, etc.]." I'm tolerant of it because the sentiment is roughly this: "My side lost, so I must either accept the will of the majority or separate myself from the country." In short, despite the frustration, it accepts the legitimacy of the process.

These thoughts were prompted by the secession petitions which have popped up ever since President Obama's re-election. Evidently petitions requesting peaceful secession coming from all 50 states now have been started on the White House website.

These are not serious proposals, of course. They are the equivalents of temper tantrums by spoiled children angry that they did not get their way.

But they are, I'd argue, different from the "I'm leaving the country" response. They question the legitimacy of the process based on a particular outcome, and that is an extremely dangerous idea.

I've noted in numerous posts (for example, here, here, and here) that today's Republicans increasingly evoke the mindset of the pre-Civil War secessionists. The point is not that they are neo-Confederates (though a few are), but rather that they take the same approach to politics: confrontational, refusing to compromise, and--as the secession sentiment makes crystal clear--more interested in achieving preferred outcomes than in preserving the democratic process.

This silly secession talk is part of a pattern among far too many Republicans: we can't win with the rules as they are, so let's change the rules. Too many young people and minority voters are voting? Pass laws making voting more difficult. Don't have a majority in the Senate? Filibuster every substantive proposal the majority puts forward, effectively requiring 60 votes to pass anything.

But the impulse toward secession is by far the worst. It is, at its essence, a repudiation of democracy--particularly coming, as it did, only after losing an election. Just like the secessionists of 1860, these tens of thousands of Americans who have signed the petitions are reacting simply to the fact that their guy lost. They are repudiating the process because it produced a result they do not like. What they are saying, in effect, is that if they do not win, the process itself is illegitimate.

After Lincoln's election in 1860, a Georgia secessionist argued that since Lincoln's policy was (in his mind) "treasonable and revolutionary," the election itself was "void." The states that had given him their electoral votes had become--by virtue of their political beliefs--"disenfranchised of all constitutional right to cast them." Secessionists claimed to themselves exclusive right to determine which elections were legitimate and which were not. And it just so happened that ones which they lost were not legitimate. Had that very same process produced a victory for their preferred candidate, John C. Breckinridge, there would have been no talk of secession.

That's what makes all this loose talk, even among some ostensibly serious people, so dangerous. It is not just the emotional outburst of disappointed partisans. It goes to the heart of what makes our system work: the willingness to accept outcomes that we do not like because we agree beforehand on the rules and that the process is fair.

The secessionist mind values results over process. It believes that our constitutional processes are not valuable in and of themselves, but only insofar as they produce the correct results. It says that the policies we favor are more important than maintaining a fair process that is equally open to all. It says that if the majority disagrees with us, we do not need to accept their judgment--instead, we can withdraw entirely from the process and create a new political unit that will do what we want it to do.

Once we start down that road, the republic truly is in danger.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"My father was a good man"

"My father died when I was forty
And I couldn't find a way to cry
Not because I didn't love him
Not because he didn't try
I'd cried for every lesser thing
Whiskey, pain and beauty
But he deserved a better tear
And I was not quite ready."

--Guy Clark, "Randall Knife"

My father died on October 19. For me, the tears came readily enough. It was the words that wouldn't come.

At some point during those surreally busy days after his death, as my mother and sister and brother and I made the arrangements, my sister Kathy mentioned to me that she was writing a letter to place in our Dad's casket and suggested I might want to also. My brother Brian wrote one too, I think, and he also wrote a beautiful eulogy that he delivered at Dad's funeral Mass. On the morning of the funeral, I saw my Mom sitting at their kitchen table, writing a letter to Dad through her tears.

But I wrote nothing.

To paraphrase the lyric above, I'd written for every lesser thing, but he deserved a better word and I was not quite ready.

In the three weeks since the funeral, I've wanted to write and been unable to find those better words. I've posted on Facebook many photos of my Dad--maybe unconsciously thinking of the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Last week, I found myself thinking of this Guy Clark song. I think it had been waiting quietly in the shadows of my mind ever since Dad's passing. I've always loved it. It brought tears to my eyes long before I ever really feared feeling the loss that it captures so beautifully. But I didn't want to hear it now, didn't want to think of it. I didn't think I could bear it.

But when it stepped cautiously into the semi-light, the line from the song that came to mind was a simple one:

"My father was a good man."

I realized then that those were the words that came to me first. When Dad died, I wanted to let people know quickly, and so posted this on Facebook:

"Thomas Joseph Byrnes, January 22, 1926-October 19, 2012. A good man. A good life."

Those words don't seem nearly adequate. They can't capture 86 years of life, 65 years of marriage, five children, seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren (with another one the way), his Navy experience in World War II, his business career, his devotion to his church.

But for now, they are the only words I have. My father was a good man.

I'll never be the man he was, but hoping that someone might think the same of me when my time comes is aspiration enough for me.

Maybe there are no better words than that.

My father was a good man.