Many Canadians have expressed considerable bewilderment at what is going on in Washington these days. Oh civility, where art thou?  Why do so many members of Congress seem to be breaking bad and letting partisanship trump (oops, was that a pun intended?) ‘the better angels of their nature’?

Some points seem obvious.

The incumbency problem — the ease with which most members of Congress get re-elected reduces their responsiveness to the harassed electorate — like Walter White many members suffer from delusions of infallibility; and unlike Walter, almost never receive reality checks. (This speaks more generally to the strange hothouse atmosphere in political D.C. which, many have noted, seems more progressively detached from the rest of America with every passing electoral cycle.)  After two terms in the modern Rome on the Potomac, politicians aren’t only not in Kansas anymore, they only vaguely remember where Kansas is.

Another factor, a structural one, is the checks and balances built into the system from the first. The Founders of the American Republic were worried about a particular set of problems, among the foremost, the prospect that democracies would tend to become tyrannies of the majority. Some have suggested that the tripartite system they set up to keep the government oscillating towards some kind of golden mean between dictatorship and mob rule — the system with its separate executive, legislative and judicial branches — is simply too susceptible to gridlock in this age of influence peddlers, big money, and single issue fanatics. This is where many fans of the British parliamentary system will pipe up in admiration which can be fetchingly described as the dictatorship of the majority party in four year instalments. You may hate what they do, but at least they can do, just like our nuclear reactors.

Finally it is said that tolerance itself, one of the essential virtues required in the back and forth of democratic politics, is somehow leeching away into soil made arid by the overly-righteous and the too firmly convinced.

It seems to me that something is still missing here, that the heart of the matter is more elusive than any of these good postulations indicate. Let’s consider tolerance a little bit further.  Daniel P. Moynihan once said; everyone has the right to their own opinion; no one has the right to their own facts. It was Aristotle who first pointed out that the proper place for the operation of tolerance is the realm of opinion.  But tolerance is of no use at all in the realm of fact, except in the sense that it is a “breathing room” virtue, that is, it provides space and time for facts to be established holding us back from acting on our natural distaste for those who don’t see the obvious wisdom of our point of view.  As my mother used to say, your right to wave your fist stops at my nose, at least for a while — tolerance is useful here.

Be that as it may, the very notion that political action is useful at all is founded on the belief that human reason can establish a framework of truth after disagreements have been vigorously exercised.  The extraordinary success of modern science in reinventing our world is the most eloquent possible testimony to the power of validated fact.

It seems to me that in the political realm a very strange sort of creeping devolution is permeating the culture; it is not a lack of tolerance, it is a lack of respect for facts, or it is the feeling that it is no longer possible to establish what the facts are. There is no doubt that facts concerning human action in complex societies are harder to establish than the facts of chemistry. But it is as if, with respect to such things as the American health care debate, the political actors have just given up, their minds boggled by sheer complexity, hostage to experts who are, in my view equally bewildered or incorrigibly self-interested, they have staggered back into the realm of opinion where they can happily wave their fists at everyone else’s noses.

The politicos need to get a grip, build the house of decision using a scaffold of facts. The principle of non-contradiction is a fact – A cannot be not A. (Or in the drug-punctuated parlance of characters from my favourite TV show,”‘it is what it is, yo!” ) This was Ayn Rand’s favourite fact, the only philosophical principle other than those she espoused of course, she thought was worth anything. One cannot be partisan about the principle of non-contradiction without absurdity. Let’s start there, and build a structure using logic and testable assumptions. If public policy has gotten so arcane and abstruse that it is no longer amenable to rational analysis, if everything is immediately thrown into the arena of partisanship where the lions and the Christians are very unlikely to agree about anything much; we’ve really got a problem.

Comments welcome. Except for those who want to suggest that truth is always somewhere in the middle – a logical fallacy that drives me insane.

Added Thought

This piece was composed long before Donald Trump, the Prince of Magical Thinking, became President of the United States. I certainly stand by what I said then; but more needs to be said now. Workin’ on it.