It’s the institutions

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Your Humble Blogger wrote to his US Representative today:

I write in concern about the President’s verbal assault on your colleagues in the House of Representative.

I feel it’s important for the House to respond as an institution to this latest outrage. We live in parlous times, and certainly there are more important things in the lives of Americans than a few personal insults to public officials. However, I think that this latest outrage attacks the institutions of our government on a level that demands an institutional response. This is not a matter of policy, where people of good will may disagree on means or ends, but a matter of the institutional integrity of the House of Representatives. If all your colleagues of either Party can, on this occasion, say specifically that the President should not tell Members to “go back” to where they came from—regardless of those Representatives’ actual heritage or personal history—then it will make a difference in how this whole sorry episode is experienced around the world. If the House acts with resolve and with one voice, the nation will respect it.

I am sure that you personally are opposed to such vile statements. But I do not feel that individual statements are enough, in this instance. I hope that as an experienced Representative, you are in a position to work with your colleagues toward an institutional response that is specific, focused and clear.

Unfortunately, it seems that Speaker Pelosi is placing this latest outrage in a partisan, rather than an institutional context. In her (effectively open) letter to Democrats in the House, she writes (in part) “our Caucus will continue to forcefully respond” and “Please join us in supporting a forthcoming resolution sponsored by Congressman Tom Malinowski, who was born abroad, and Congressman Jamie Raskin, along with other Democratic Members”. I admire Speaker Pelosi immensely, but I'd rather see the House as an institution respond to this as an institutional attack, which it seems to me it obviously is.

Perhaps I am wrong—this is, after all, a President who says racist stuff all the time, leading a Party that has relied on racial resentment for as long as I’ve been politically aware. Maybe we should be looking at this as a personal attack, not an institutional one. I believe that Our Only President doesn’t appreciate any difference. But I think there is one.

On some level, it doesn’t much matter if the President of the United States is, in his heart, a racist or not. It doesn’t even matter very much if the President of the United States vilifies Americans in racist terms (and/or highly gendered ones). It’s unpleasant, and there’s nothing good about it, but the damage done is largely superficial and personal. The policies that ruin people’s lives are far more important than the words on his phone, much less the feeling in his guts. So if you take this bit of filth as one with the others, it is enough for individuals to repudiate it, for their own self-respect. But also matters if the institutions of the government are in some sort of balance. It matters that the House and the Senate are willing to politically act in their own interest. It matters when the Senate sits idly while the President replaces confirmed appointees with unconfirmed acting ones, or when the Executive advises its people to defy legislative subpoenas. And it will matter if the House treats this insult to its Members as an individual matter, not an institutional one.

I’m going to connect this to another thing—several friends of mine have, on occasion, mockingly referred to Our Only President by his grandfather’s birth name, criticized the immigration status of his wives and children, and joked about deporting him. Now, I find that offensive, and I have objected to it on several occasions. But my friends are private individuals, and whether it’s in conversation or in the semi-public arena of the internet, their behavior reflects on them as individuals, and is subject therefore to their own judgment. I mean, that stuff does in fact ripple through our culture; I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be held to a high standard by the community for the damage done to the community. I’m saying that I would hold them to a standard as individuals, and I consider their insults to immigrants to be insulting to me as an individual and to immigrants and their descendants as a class (a rather large class). And it strikes me as a very different thing when the President of the United states says that his political opponents in Congress should go back to where they came from. That seems like an institutional issue.

And if it isn’t an institutional issue, then it’s pretty much the same thing as my obnoxious friends, isn’t it? The obnoxious stuff that the President says is important because of his office. The obnoxious stuff that the President says about Members of the House are important because of their offices. The person in the White House has never accepted the notion that becoming President naturally means giving up some of a private individual’s leeway, or so it seems. It’s important, then, to remember that it does—that the President has not just the power of his office but its responsibility as well. That’s why I want the House to respond as an institution, to make it clear that this is not just some guy, however famous, taking ignorant cheap shots at people who he dislikes and who dislike him. When, someday, this historical moment is no longer now but then, and there are different people in all those offices, the institutions will still matter. I hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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