Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Loyalty and Legitimacy...Can We Look at Ourselves?

I have gotten curious about the word legitimate in our political milieux (plural, divided, polarizing…), particularly as I feel the wide divergences (the ‘gap(s)’ to be bridged) and a rather chosen short-sightedness, even acute amnesia, in the more liberal-progressive voices in our midst. Legitimate today seems most bandied about in the flurry of our presidential election politics, but not surprisingly, the ‘sides’ are using the term in different ways. 

An easy Google starting point, just to lay some groundwork: Legitimate in its adjectival form means conforming to the law or rules. The verb form, to legitimate something, is to justify something or make it lawful. Merriam-Webster gives a bit more nuance and depth, of course. 1a: “lawfully begotten,” and 1b “having full filial rights and obligations by birth,” as in a legitimate child, or more often in a dispute over patronage or kingship, an illegitimate child. Legitimate here is historically significant for patriarchal-aristocratic lineages and succession, but rather offensive in contemporary speech. No child is illegitimate today; every child is a human being in need of honored dignity and opportunity. I’m struck by 1b, of course, the idea of being born into obligations. We’ll come back to that.

Then there are adjectival definitions 2-4, which are more often the contours of our current predicament: 

  • 2: “being exactly as intended or presented; neither spurious or false” (a legitimate grievance); “being an actual example of something specified” (a legitimate threat to national security); “genuinely good, impressive, capable of success” (a legitimate contender for the Gold medal)

  • 3: “accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements” (a legitimate government) and “ruling by or based on the strict principle of hereditary right” (a legitimate king)

  • 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” (a legitimate expenditure) and “fair or reasonable : VALID” (she raised some legitimate concerns)

My curiosity here first arose in a piece by Heather Cox Richardson on the necessity of a
loyal opposition in any healthy democracy. It landed next on the multiplicity of uses we can see for legitimate in our current civic worlds. I’m not sure where these two strands will meet as we listen together, but they seem connected somehow, with both needing more conscious attention. I’ll start with the Richardson bit on loyal opposition, then weave in what I see with legitimate.

“This recognition of a loyal opposition was key to more than 200 years 

of peaceful transfers of power….until now.”

Each morning, I receive an email from Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who teaches 19th century American history at Boston College. (These words above are hers…). I’m most intrigued by her recent book--How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America--though I’ve not invested time or money there yet. Christmas is coming… But this daily email is a calming thing for me--a slow presentation of facts in the news day, supported by links to the sources she’s relying on for what she says. It doesn’t have flashy news-media ‘eye-grabbers’ or advertisements. It doesn’t try to catch my attention with salacious or volatile prose. It’s a gentle overview of the news, given her social location and historical expertise in American political history, especially. I’ve been making the rounds of other news outlets for headlines--Washington Post, BBC, The New York Times, then a smattering of others including Fox News via Flipboard. But this morning email feels like a deep breath of something grounding and sane.

I am well aware that part of the reason why it calms me is because she writes and convinces through a communication style I value. The words aren’t flashy. She is persuasive within well-supported fact-based language. She is well-versed in American history that becomes relevant, or she makes so relevant, in her daily review. I love the sense of continuity in our country’s history I gain from her expertise. I appreciate the distinctive things she teaches me ‘on the sly’ as I’m ‘reading the news.’  Because of course I’m easily dis-eased by news events these days, whether it is the salacious news coverage of the Trump family losing status and power while grasping for it, or souring it for the Biden/Harris Administration, or the silent majority of Republicans watching this play out in the news each day, refusing to speak into the maelstrom of refusal and denial. This daily email affirms the things I yearn to have affirmed...a sense of logic, New England rationality, our American history (both proud and shameful aspects of it), and a clear head amidst entertainment politics.

It was informative to read the various developments of a news cycle last week, within her historical argument for the purposes of a loyal opposition in a healthy democracy. In the centuries before the founding of the Colonies-Become-States, you either agreed with the king or you were a traitor, who then often lost everything--standing, resources, even life. Eventually, in England, the idea of the loyal opposition emerged. One could criticize the policies and actions of the king and be loyal to the country (and keep one’s head firmly planted on one’s shoulder, Richardson jests). In this context, Richardson is pointing out that we have lost the felt-sense of “a loyal opposition.” The polarization of our country today means “the other side” is consistently delegitimized and condemned as ‘unPatriotic.’

A clear view from the liberal side: Loyalty to the country we all share means dissension and confrontation of Trumpist Republicanism and its dissolution of governmental institutions created to protect-support all of us... A view from the conservative side: Loyalty to the country we all share means honoring Trump’s presidency as legitimate, regardless of whether you agree with him or not. The question of the health of American democracy lives and breathes in this tension AND I will suggest that all of us have something to learn from ‘the other side,’ no matter how distasteful we may find it.

Richardson’s prose points to the obvious in the  news cycles. A majority of Republicans are refusing to honor that Democrats have legitimately won this election and will now legally govern. She cites a “generation of Republican rhetoric claiming that Democratic votes are illegitimate.” 1986, Republican operatives began to talk about cutting down Black voting under a “ballot integrity” initiative in hopes that would depress Democratic votes. Then developments like these in 1993, 1994 on into the 2013 Shelby v Holder decision in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Richardson next summarizes the increase of gerrymandering-- manipulation of census and redistricting--which manipulates the power of the vote from the inside of government, wrestling it away from any ‘one-person-one-vote’ power of the people to speak plainly. She covers other topics here, but she concludes, “Aside from the outcome of this particular election, this attempt of Republican leaders to delegitimize the Democratic Party is an assault on our democracy. Here’s why…” 

She outlines the development of a loyal opposition in English history, and the natural development of it in the early United States, with the Jeffersonian Party that formed in response to George Washington’s power as First President. “Democracy requires at least two healthy political parties,” Richardson reminds us, “so there is always an organized opposition to the party in power.” This does two things…”it enables people to disagree with current leadership while staying loyal to the nation, and it provides a means for oversight of the people running the government.” Given how “loyalty to country we all share” is configured today--a classic either/or with an old white man straining for authoritarian (or at least oligarchic) rule at the center--we no longer remember the healthy practices of loyal opposition all of us will need over years of citizenship. It’s like the gloves are completely off, with blood everywhere...

So what do we need to learn collectively to honor, allow, attempt to reinstate for an honest, trustworthy loyal opposition to breathe...a way of being in our country that by definition will be dissenting with the party in power? What are the boundaries and grounds of healthy dissent, of resistance of the inhumane?

My gut sense is that there is some movement for us here in considering legitimacy and its uses in public discourse. It became a tag-word for me, of course, because of the everpresent focus on the legitimacy (or not) of the presidential election results, painstakingly certified by local officials in counties and then states across the nation and daily-hourly undermined by President Trump in his tweet streams and farces of legal challenges thrown out by judges for being farcical, all iced with right-wing media selling advertising to willing (and fearful) publics. It was helpful to receive Richardson’s historical overview, pointing out the Republican intentional focus on strategies for attacking the legitimacy of the (Democratic) vote, or any vote that would push Trump out of power. Suppression of the vote, gerrymandering districts so to corral power by the current party in power is a longstanding, historical practice of politicians forgetful or neglectful of their constituencies in more immediate contact with power-mongering in Washington. Which of course is a liberal-leaning way to describe what-is before us.

The Republican use of the word legitimate seems to land solidly in MW’s #2, with some #4 thrown in. [2: “genuinely good, impressive, capable of success”; 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.”]  Republican tactics rhetorically focused on phrases like “ballot integrity” and “too easy access to voting” seem to arise in response to Democratic “get out the vote” movements that strive to empower anyone and everyone who is eligible to vote to vote. Before I say more, it seems wise to recognize that we need both of these forces for balanced elections with deep integrity. We need the expansive everyone who is eligible and we need the specifications of what eligibility means. 

In this frame, so far, these Democratic ventures are legitimate in the #2 sense--genuinely good, impressive, capable of success--and so Republican strategy has been to focus on legitimacy in the #4 sense--conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards (or arguably eroding the standards themselves, so to honor only those purposeful for the tactic). A fine tension, workable just as it is...except when a country’s history and systemic refusal of black-brown-PoC is explicitly and tacitly ignored. I struggle to understand these Republican strategies as patriotic or humane. But I also struggle to understand my husband’s conservatism that will choose an institution over a people, community, or person. Yet he does, and he still loves people. The important point here is that the tension is needed and the use of legitimate speaks to different things. We talk past each other (big surprise). We cannot welcome all who are eligible unless we are also clear on what eligibility means.

The other focus of the word legitimate I will tend to today has longer reach back into these last four+ years, arguably even longer in the rancorous discourse(s) between Democrats and Republicans. #NotMyPresident points to this phenomenon, almost independent of ‘side’ and presidential administration. 

Almost independent of ‘side’ and administration

What I wish Richardson had seen and named aloud for her readers is the trajectory of Democratic rhetoric challenging the legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency these last four years. We are all reaping what all of us have sown, in some fashion.

One of my own family’s truisms can speak to this...from an exchange mirrored back to me for years as I was growing up. Somewhere in my youth, I learned that “It’s not fair!!!” had some social capital, some political capital in my family...until it didn’t. I would exclaim, “It’s not fair!!” and at first, I’d get the balancing attention I sought. But eventually my folks, wise to the competitive-sibling dynamics unfolding, would respond, “No, it’s fair. You just don’t like it.” In my family today, smiling, we know “It’s not fair” now means “Lisa doesn’t like it.” Today’s Democrats desperately need to learn this distinction, particularly as our democracy appears to be so incredibly fragile right now... which we have contributed all along. It's so easy to condemn current Republicans who voted for Trump because the Biden-Harris Administration is now certified as Elected. But complaining about their refusal of the election seems more and more petty to me, coming from liberal Democrats who refused and called Trump illegitimate. Say the man's character horrifies you. Say America is not the America you thought it was. Be horrified by the threats to our democracy and do everything you can to protect it. But own this is who we as a collective selected, against our own collective best interests. We have fertilized these seeds for four years, even longer...

Four years ago, the top-echelon of Democratic Party leadership honored the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, though none of them liked it. [#3-4: “accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements” (a legitimate government); 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” (a legitimate expenditure) and “fair or reasonable.”] Hillary Clinton conceded the day after Trump’s projected ‘wins’ (which must have been excruciating). The Obamas peaceably welcomed the incoming Trump administration, honoring the institutional legitimacy of it all (also bowing to Obama’s relative quiet amidst the four years of administration debilitating or trying to debilitate most of these institutions…). Countless others honored in actions that spoke louder than words: Trump’s presidency was indeed legitimate. But a stunned, liberally-based Democratic Party did not like it...was repulsed and horrified.

It then became easy and commonplace to argue that Trump was illegitimate, his presidency was a tweet-storm debacle. #NotMyPresident and excoriating refusals of the man, the Office, the Administration. [#2: “being exactly as intended or presented”...“genuinely good, impressive, capable of success”; 4: “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards” “fair or reasonable”]. All sentiments I understand in a deep-belly way, of course. I have tried (mostly) to hide from the news and participate in activist-advocacy ways for an honoring and rebuilding of our governmental institutions. But let's own up and see us all creating this threat...

Richardson’s email last week snagged something in me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but finally could name when looking at legitimacy. Her fierce passion--deeply appreciated--is all about the current Republican Party’s refusal to honor the (now-certified) results of our Presidential Election, showing a clear victory for President-Elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. She brilliantly outlines the development of the loyal opposition and argues a historical trajectory of Republican conservatism that has undermined the viability of honorable dissent in the face of an increasingly autocratic President.  And yet it is the Democrats of these last four years who have composted and fertilized the seeds of illegitimacy already all around us. And we are now surprised? A bit naive, don't you think?

Always, always here, it seems like all of us need to take a look at this man, our current President, Donald Trump, and see him as he is leaving the current stage (thank heavens) as who we are in some way. The aversions will be strong, and they will be different for each of us...but until more of our collective is willing to do just that, he--or authoritarians smarter and more malicious than he is--will return. Until we learn a new way...together...a new way in which everyone commits to help the current party in power to succeed on behalf of all of us.

The cynic in me says we have four years to learn a newer, better way. Let's not waste it by focusing on Trumpers. Can we look at ourselves? Really LOOK? Then LEARN? Perhaps a legitimate American is one who is willing to see his/her own shadow projections, constantly pulling them back from the political opposition to see what in that judgment speaks/points within. Perhaps every American is now born with the obligation to pull the projections back home and one action at a time, change the culture of discourse. Hmmm....

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