Sometimes the Left unwittingly throws gems our way. These come in rare moments of exasperation, rather than the usual poise the Left displays. The transformation of America, after all, requires quiet, subtle movements, coordinated with high-minded propaganda. That’s why moments of condescending contempt, accompanied by the Left’s sharpest weapon — mockery — are so revealing.
For example, during a recent White House press briefing, President Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, was asked whether Congress should have a say on the agreement with China that commits the United States to reducing its carbon output over the next ten years. Rather than taking it to Capitol Hill, however, Secretary Kerry submitted our “commitment” to the U.N.
In response to the questioner, Earnest said many members of Congress “deny the fact that climate change even exists. So I’m not sure they would be in the best position to decide whether or not a climate change agreement is one that is worth entering into.”
Earnest’s remarks show a contemptuous ignorance of the reasons behind our Constitution. The Senate’s involvement in international agreements that obligate the United States to sacrifices and the fulfillment of promises to foreign nations is not a mindless tradition, as Earnest implies.
In international affairs, Senate ratification of treaties indicates to the world that our commitments are not tied to the fancies or vanities of a single man, who will leave office after four or eight years. A concern for our nation’s reputation abroad — among the central issues Barack Obama campaigned on — requires that agreements be lasting, since respect from other nations comes in part from reliability and steadiness. Senate ratification provides this.
The Senate, as originally designed, was meant (insofar as possible) to preserve prudence in democratic politics by removing that body to a great extent from the influence of public opinion. This meant longer tenure in office and indirect election. This was done in order to create a deliberative body capable of seriously reflecting on the unknown continent of the future. As John Jay writes in Federalist No. 64, the Senate will possess “discretion and discernment,” as opposed to the “energy” of the executive.
The Senate should therefore be a kind of aristocratic class within a democracy. The advantage of this, as Tocqueville comments, is that “An aristocratic body is a firm and enlightened man who does not die.” Unlike the populace, sometimes taken in by manias, and unlike a particular president, who can be good or bad depending on the judgment of the electorate, the Senate should be more or less unchanging — a bastion of continuity in an unsteady sea of fears, hopes, and ambitions. For Madison in Federalist No. 63, the Senate possesses “sufficient permanency to provide for such objects as require a continued attention,” like foreign affairs.
When Earnest was asked to clarify his statement, he merely reiterated: “Well, again, I think it’s hard to take seriously from some members of Congress who deny the fact that climate change exists, that they should have some opportunity to render judgment about a climate change agreement.” That is, constitutional powers are revoked upon disagreement, making consent of the governed irrelevant.
Yet our political liberty is based on the consent of the governed, a notion often ignored by the Left. For liberals, freedom is self-actualization, whereby what is actualized is some kind of consciousness hitherto oppressed by stigma. As such, consent is not only unimportant, but can indeed be an impediment to freedom.
Among the reasons for the Left’s appeal is its seeming confidence. Unlike conservatives, the Left need not argue about principles and interpret their complexities. Monolithic, moralistic declamations are designed to convince the wavering and silence the unsure. Airs of superiority appear to be knowledge itself.
This is a favorite tactic of the Left, as demonstrated by the attempt by Representative Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) to browbeat universities into investigating professors who disagree with his opinion on climate change, or by the president’s blaming his daughter’s asthma on climate change. This is the theater of high-minded condescension that seeks to convince through a mixture of mockery and threats.
The consequences are not small. Such demagogic arguments do not present a standard of judgment but rather deride serious deliberation. Mockery and condescension are easy moralistic indulgences not worthy of a free people.
- Arthur Milikh is assistant director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the National Review Online