Concurring Thoughts on Senator Ron Johnson

This post is in response to George Thomas’ post of December 5, 2020. Thomas and Weiner are both regular contributors to our platform.

George, I agree entirely. Senator Johnson’s remark about change is also anti-conservative. Burke wrote that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Rather than the Burkean model of changing in order to preserve—the difference between reform and revolution, and the sense in which the Civil War amendments animated the unfulfilled principles of the American regime—Johnson’s standard would freeze the status quo at any moment in time. But which moment in time? The onset of the New Deal? The last day of the Obama presidency? Trump was elected as a change candidate. Does he hate America?

I wanted to focus, though, on another illustrative Johnson remark, as paraphrased in the Bulwark piece: that Johnson isn’t worried about Trump’s assault on the election because the institutions of American democracy are strong enough to withstand it. That is true if the temporary fiduciaries of those institutions, like Johnson, actually utilize them rather than describing them as a Platonic form that exists to be contemplated outside the cave. These abstract appeals to the Constitution by public officials unwilling to use the concrete authority it provides are as problematic as Trump’s explicit assault. 

This is happening all over, even among those participating in the assault. Several dozen Republican legislators in Pennsylvania just asked Congress not to count the state’s electoral votes. They hold a majority in the state legislature. Constitutionally, they have the power to act on this desire. What they want is the have-it-both-ways option of demanding it without doing it. 
The Madisonian regime is not an abstraction. It depends on the active use of power. Johnson can’t rely on generic institutions of democracy as his own passivity contributes to their corrosion.

One thought on “Concurring Thoughts on Senator Ron Johnson

  1. Greg’s point about institutions is particularly important. Institutions are not just abstractions they are lived practices. There is nothing inevitable about the persistent of America’s political institutions. The Constitution is not “a machine that will go itself.” And we tend to forget that James Russell Lowell’s famous phrase was given in an address preoccupied with the possibility of constitutional degeneration. Not only does this point to the necessity of reforms to preserve our political institutions as Greg suggests, it speaks to why the current moment is fraught with danger.

    Figures like Senator Ron Johnson assume, despite their actions, that American democracy will persist, without doing the hard labor required to keep it working. Yet contrary to the cynicism of Senator Mitch McConnell, the future will not take care of itself. Especially as the likes of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as Ben points out, are willing to tear down American constitutional democracy. Over at Slate, Will Saletan has a terrific piece on the GOP’s unleashing a right-wing insurrection against the Constitution’s peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t a game.

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