Playing political games with the dead


Paul Wellstone’s memorial service was held in his native Minnesota, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was a gathering of Philadelphia Eagles fans. After all, who else boos at a funeral?

Apparently, Democrats do. The party that once excoriated Richard Nixon for his win-at-all-costs ethic has lost its conscience in the depravity that comes from misconstruing the proper role of politics. Elite democrats have perverted their understanding of politics such that they treat the end of politics as politics, rather than as other, greater ends toward which politics should direct us. Principles no longer precede power for leaders of the Democratic Party.

The memorial service for the late senator was particularly tragic because Senator Wellstone deserved much praise. Out of respect, people should have taken time to genuinely reflect on a life well lived in the service of fellow man and country. Instead, while some of the mourners arrived with an appropriately reverential attitude, the event rapidly degenerated into naked political opportunism that appears to have ultimately cost Wellstone’s successor, former Vice President Walter Mondale, the election.

Underlying the Democrats’ opportunism is the view that politics is an end in itself. This view is particularly dangerous when coupled with the argument made by many Democrats that the government is responsible for every aspect of human existence. The argument goes like this: If the government does not regulate something, it condones it. In other words, the state encompasses the sum of human existence.

The world is full of good things — family, faith, friendship and community spring to mind as some of the more obvious. These things are desideratum, goods in themselves robust with all that makes life worth living. But if these goods were subsumed entirely to the political world, and the end of the political world were merely political victory, then we would cease appreciating family as family and instead embrace it as a set of raw power relationships that could be manipulated in pursuit of political victory. We would live in a hollow world where human aspiration was flattened to a single soulless common denominator and the best among us could apply themselves to nothing more constructive than the scrabble for power. This is the world in which many Democratic leaders have been living since the Clinton administration’s victory of politics over principle. A notable exception to that trend was Wellstone himself, who was unbendingly principled without regard to the cost to himself (or others).

In such a world, friendship would also lose that which makes it good. Friendship has immense value in itself, without regard for how a friend or the institution of friendship in general can help you achieve political superiority. But if you believe the point of everything is achieving power, you cannot appreciate a friend as a friend — your friend becomes a tool to be used in furthering your selfish end. This is the ultimate Kantian no-no: Treating people as means to an end is verboten.

Minnesota Democrats dishonored this principle when they booed colleagues of the late Senator Wellstone who turned out to mourn and show their respect. When Democratic leaders later demanded that Republicans both at the event and elsewhere in the country stop campaigning and abandon their policy principles in honor of Wellstone’s memory, they were again attempting to pervert the outpouring of respect and grief at the loss of the late senator. By using Wellstone’s corpse as a bludgeon, these Democrats dishonored his passing and revealed the paucity of their own lives. It is right to mourn the dead, but wrong to pretend to mourn in order to bend the nation’s sympathy toward one’s selfish goals.

Democrats could have enjoyed a huge sympathy bounce without so blatantly exploiting the death of Paul Wellstone, and they knew it. The viciousness directed at now-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the other Republicans at the memorial service occurred because the Democrats involved could not think of other ways to act. These Democrats hold nothing sacred anymore; they do not know better than to use a memorial service as an opportunity to score political points. Everything for them is reduced to the pursuit of political points.

(As an unfortunate aside, I must point out that Republicans are not immune to this problem, but at the moment it still pervades the Democrats to a substantially greater extent.)

Aristotle recognized that the end of politics is to allow human beings to flourish. I won’t dwell on this (for fear of being Fennoed), but it’s an important point. Politics exists to protect and facilitate the things we hold dear. Politics is a means to an end. Those who fail to grasp this fundamental truth are a threat to our democracy. Politicians who are impelled out of bed in the morning by the desire for power are exactly the kind of people we should fight like hell to keep out of power, whatever their political party.

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