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Political agendas

August 20, 2018

Bill Brydon

In Webster’s unabridged dictionary, agenda is defined as “things to do” or “a list of things to do.” First on the agenda for politicians is gaining power and/or holding on to it. This agenda item was primo long before Machiavelli wrote about it in the 16th century. Machiavelli was a student of history and his most famous book, “The Prince,” deals with obtaining and maintaining power, emphasizing the concept, “the end justifies the means.”

A list of those who practiced Machiavellian principles is long and includes almost all who have made a place in the history books. We can start as far back as Homer and the Bhagavad Gita. The list certainly includes Alexander the Great, essentially all the Roman Emperors, the Crusaders, Popes and Caliphs, most kings, dictators, presidents etc. and a few specifics, King Harold Godwinson, William the conquer, Ferdinand and Isabella, Cortez, Napoleon, Maria Theresa, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and on through all the so-called world leaders up to the present.

There would be few names in history books without Machiavellian principles; “Be both a lion and a fox and you can gain and keep power.”

The present situation in the US is this: the republican politicians control the senate, the house, the Supreme Court (the court) and the presidency (but only if you believe that Mr. Trump is a Republican.) And the moneyed corporations and the ultra-rich have power over the politicians; they own them.

The first order of business in our elections, most of which are more or less semi-legal, is to make sure that your party continues to win. Our republican friends have done well here. Their strategies include “dumbing down” the voters; attacking the press and controlling parts of it; pitting one group against another; hate mongering; white supremacy; Gerrymandering; obstacles to voting for all but republicans; lies, half-truths and fake news; and of course a “circus” to keep the people distracted. The politicians have succeeded in “dumbing down” the population so well that the voters (and the politicians) can’t tell when they are being lied to and can’t evaluate the news well enough to know whether it is fake or real. The education system has been degraded; people on the street often can’t identify the USA on a map, let alone identify a foreign country. Multitudes are reverting back to the superstitions of the middle ages, and science and critical thinking are being put on the evangelical inquisition block of any fundamentalist preacher who is loud enough to be heard. The denigrating and defaming of education and learning are alluded to toward the end of The Prince; “a well-educated populace poses a threat to those in power; subjects can’t have enough knowledge [or evaluation skills] to realize that they are being lied to” [and exploited.] Or Hitler’s vision of Slav workers “educated only to the level required to understand and obey orders.

Author Machiavelli didn’t mention present day tactics; voting, the press and the news as we know them hardly existed. But the methods of gaining power certainly did, and “the end justifies the means” dominated political agendas then just as it does now. The political “ends” are the same; the “means” have just been expanded.

So, what about specific agenda items? Machiavelli’s was the unification of Italy. Our politicians have lots. I will discuss some that involve the Court, since this is one of the rare times when one party has control of the legislature, the presidency and the court.

The first specific item, of course, is Roe vs Wade. About the only thing Vice President Pence seems to have on his agenda is overturning Roe vs Wade. I’m not sure Mr. Trump really knows much about it except that some of his more vocal fundamentalist supporters adhere to Mr. Pence’s focus.

The Roe case got to the Court first in 1971 and again in 1972; the court actually heard it twice. The first hearing was just after Justices John Harlan and Hugo Black retired, September, 1971 (both were dead within months). As replacements President Nixon appointed Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist, but they didn’t start until January 1972. The court’s decision after the first arguments was to re-hear the case after the new justices were seated. The second set of arguments was concluded in October, 1972; the ruling, 7 to 2 in favor of Ms. Jane Roe, (not her real name) was published in January, 1973.

Ms. Roe, an unmarried lady with two small children, was pregnant with her third child. She felt incapable of caring for a third baby which evidently was the result of being raped while working for a traveling circus. Because of the time to get the case to court Ms. Roe did not get an abortion; the baby was placed for adoption.

Her original case was filed in Texas against its anti-abortion law which allowed abortions only to save the life of the pregnant woman. A federal judicial panel was asked to enjoin the Texas District Attorney from enforcing the law. In June 1970 the judges issued a two part ruling: The Texas law was struck down as being a violation of the 9th amendment (“The enumeration in the constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”), but the judges did not issue an injunction. Both sides asked the Supreme Court to review the decision, and the stage was set for the court to hear arguments about abortion.

Justice Blackmun published his majority opinion in January, 1973, but had worked diligently on it for months, and almost all of the justices expressed well researched opinions. Abortion, of course, is not mentioned in the constitution. (Banning abortion started late in the 19th century because the risk of infection. From the 1970’s to the present, properly done abortion is safer than childbirth.) The major issue involved the supposition that the Constitution presupposes a “right to privacy.”

In late 1800’s, stemming from John Stewart Mill, liberty was defined as the “right to be left alone.” This concept appealed to Louis Brandeis, later a member of the Court, prompting him to write an article for the Harvard Review, “The Right to Privacy.” He called for shielding the private life, habits, acts and relations of an individual from unwanted disclosure. He did not address contraception or abortion, but the “right to privacy” in matters of procreation had its roots in his writing.

It should be noted that Brandeis voted with the majority in upholding state laws that allowed sterilization of Inmates of state institutions who were considered “feeble minded,” (Buck vs Bell, 1927). It was the time of the eugenics movement whose leaders also pressed for laws to promote “race betterment,” predating some of Mr. Hitler’s WWII ventures. Carrie Buck in fact was not mentally retarded; her crime was bearing an illegitimate child, the product of rape by a family member.

In 1942, Skinner vs Oklahoma, the sterilization decision was reversed. Oklahoma allowed forced sterilization of inmates with three felonies. Justice Douglas wrote for a unanimous court. “In evil or reckless hands,” Douglas said, “the power to sterilize can cause races or types inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear.”

The Skinner case confirmed a “right to procreate.” What about a right not to have children? Twenty three years later this was decided in Griswold vs. Connecticut in which a unanimous Court struck down a Connecticut law that banned the sale of contraceptives. Dr. Griswold was director the Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven. He had been arrested for giving contraceptives to married couples. Douglas wrote that the Bill of Rights erected a shield against what he called the sacred precincts of the marital bedroom.

All of the above cases and more were a part of the Court’s deliberations in the Roe case. I detail these as a means of showing how the justices create their various written opinions. In most cases they form an opinion about a case and then explore constitutional and Court law to justify, or sometimes change, that opinion. This seems to me to have been the case with Roe vs. Wade. Ironically two of the more liberal justices were convinced that the constitution guaranteed an inherent “right to privacy” and a “right to be left alone,” but only one voted in favor of Ms. Roe. The other, finding no reference to abortion anywhere, concluded that the legislative preempted the judicial.

The ruling in favor of Ms. Roe begged other questions which have plagued the court to the present time. Does the privacy right and the right to be left alone extend to abortion and to a pregnant women’s body? John Stewart Mill and his book, On Liberty, would probably answer yes.

Most of the above material about Roe vs Wade etc. is taken from Professor Peter Irons writings and lectures. I highly recommend his book, “A People’s History of the Supreme Court.”

So, what’s next on the current political agenda? Will it be LGBT rights (Bowers vs. Hardwick 1986)? Flag burning (Texas vs. Johnson 1989)? “Equal rights” could be high on the list (United States vs. Virginia 1996). Perhaps the “right to remain silent and to have an attorney” (Miranda vs. Arizona 1966). Is School Segregation on the list (Brown vs. Board of Education 1954)? Etc. Air and water pollution, Health care, Medicare and Medicaid seem targeted, as are national monuments and parks. Maybe the brashness will extend to repealing some constitutional amendments, such as XXIV, poll taxes, or XXII, term limits for presidents, or even XIX the women’s suffrage amendment.

Hopefully I’m being facetious about some of these, but recent statements raise concerns about many of them. Think about the up-swing of hostility to the LGBT group, football players kneeling or not standing for the national anthem, the Virginia rally of Ku-Klux Klaners and neo-Nazis called “very fine people” by Mr. Trump, the put downs of women’s rights, the incarceration of parents and children without due process, corporate primacy and their windfall tax savings, the sabotage of air quality and health care, and the apparent “open season” on people of color, of certain religions and migrants.

Two years ago this November Donald Trump was elected president by the Electoral College, not by the majority of the people. As Madeleine Albright says “……. never have we had a chief executive whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.”

Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government since it requires the widest spread of intelligence and judgement. Education may have spread, but intelligence is impeded because attaining it has been made difficult and people prefer belief to the exercise of judgement. We can’t let the politicians enthrone ignorance, bigotry and injustice just because they have created such an abundance of them.

Dr. Bill Brydon was born, raised and educated in Pocatello. He is a graduate of Idaho State University and the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. He is retired but had a practice in Pocatello specializing in pediatrics, allergies, asthma and immunology from 1962 to 1997. Brydon currently resides in the Gate City.

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