Our poisonous age of absolutism
Paterno, a former quarterbacks coach for Penn State University, ran for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2014 and consults on a variety of issues.
To a nation already drunk on the partisan pursuit of absolutist politics, it appears likely that the Supreme Court is about to uncork a 1973 vintage from Grapes of Wrath Vineyards called “Renverser Roe v. Wade.” The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was a controversial ruling then; it has remained so. Overturning it will unleash a new round of contentious politics.
This column is not about the legal merits of either side, but how this case adds fuel to the fire in our current age of 50.1 percent Absolutism.
A decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will set off a nationwide scramble to win elections and grab the reins of power at the state and federal levels. And for the most vocal and visible sides of the issue there can be no compromise. But these days that seems to be the case for every issue.
Absolutism is about raw power and is the plague of our current politics. Sides dig in with non-negotiable answers to every issue. Compromise and collaboration are never acceptable.
It is a philosophy that means that once one side hits 50.1 percent they use that majority to try ramming home everything they want. They use it to look the other way on ethics violations on their side, and to advance their agenda without input from anyone else.
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For the 49.9 percent in the minority, this new age means obstruction, refusal to cooperate in the hopes that things don’t go well and the majority will be transferred to their party.
For four years with a GOP president we heard all about infrastructure. And what happened when a Democrat got into the White House? Many of the GOP infrastructure hawks suddenly turned to “No” votes. Now many of them are now running around their districts taking credit for new infrastructure projects coming home. But that’s the nature of where we are.
To gain and then ensure a hold on power some will do anything. But there are two basic things that must be protected: the legal system and our election process.
The justice system is best when we remember that our system is founded so that innocent people are not wrongly jailed. And our election system is best when we make voting as accessible as possible for everyone. Retreating on those rights has become a cause because people who did not like the election results continually lie about nonexistent, large-scale fraud.
The right to vote and the right to due process are two sacred foundations of our nation’s governance. But absolutism with a splash of ascendant authoritarian impulses is a cocktail that threatens to poison us all.
The presidential veto and the Supreme Court remain checks in our unique system. Presidents must get elected and then face the people four years later, but Supreme Court justices armed with lifetime appointments remain in power until the hour of their choosing, or until they die. It is easy to see why some of them may attain an arrogance bordering on a god complex.
Congressional power, like the presidency, is ever-changing. So the question for a party with slim margins in Congress is how much party discipline leaders can command. In an evenly divided Senate like we have now, one or two senators can have the keys to an outsized amount of power.
For those who understand that governing is done through ever-evolving coalitions of convenience and consensus, these are bitter days.
The most mature leadership requires compromise, but for everyone willing to work with others, the party extremes are waiting with a primary challenger and an army of social media mobsters to inflame emotions against them.
Absolutism disguised as “integrity” or “consistency” resolves nothing and leads to constant cycles of conflict for those drawing their power from enduring strife. Hard-core extremists engage in politics is an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game.
And conflict sells. So the absolutists are addicted to the social media attention that is then rewarded by partisan news outlets. Those outlets’ viewers drink nightly from the unholy chalice of inflexible extremist ideology.
Aside from ideology, absolutism has even created its own set of “facts.”
I know it is not popular to say this but it must be said: We are not entitled to our own “truths” but rather we must accept the truth. Absolute certainty in someone’s own “truths” births a false worldview that creates the explosive emotions that lead to events like Charlottesville in 2017 or to the riot of Jan. 6, 2021.
As a long, hot summer approaches, the hand-to-hand combat in every state that may be unleashed by overturning Roe v. Wade is another fuse. That fuse is fertile ground for those who draw power from division, for those who drive anger.
These are people who wish to call into question every institution we have in this country, from the government, our elections and our judicial system to our education system and our media.
They do this to create the conditions where all trust is gone. And when trust is gone there is no hope in sitting across the table as sisters and brothers to forge the types of compromises that created our founding documents, the kinds of compromises that can bind us together again.
To reject the default position of distrust, to reject the sweet siren call of constant conflict; that is the challenge of our time. And it is only about to get even harder.