Deal W. Hudson
December 18, 2017
Frank Buckley, a law professor at the Scalia School of Law at George Mason University, has written an extraordinary book that deserves to find a wide readership and, hopefully, to wield considerable influence on the future of U.S. politics. Why such large claims? Simply put, “The Republic of Virtue” pinpoints and clarifies the issue of political corruption responsible for the widespread confusion, frustration, and growing cynicism about the power of the presidency and the sadly comic mayhem exhibited by the Congressional branch of government.
What seems an impossible task is achieved by Buckley by skillfully weaving together seemingly disparate main narratives — the debates over the Constitution, the Clinton Foundation scandal, the corruption of the Mississippi judiciary, and the search for campaign finance reform. Several shorter narratives — the IRS persecution of Tea Party groups, the 1972 bribery trial of Sir Francis Bacon, and the 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, shed further historical light the issue of the corruption in American politics.
It’s interesting that Buckley relegated “corruption” to the subtitle of the book, giving pride of place to “virtue,” but his reason becomes apparent as he traces the self-conscious attempt of the Founders to write a Constitution that would avoid the corrupt practices that dominated the British political system. The end sought by the Founders was precisely a framing of what would become, “The Republic of Virtue.”
The word “virtue” throws many people off who immediately associate it with the Neo-puritan demands for men and women in politics who have never misstepped in matters either sexual or obedience to the demands of political correctness. The virtue the Founders had in mind both more simple to explain and reasonable to expect — to put the interests of the nation, its common good, ahead of personal interests such as money, power, and advancement. Republican virtue requires the sacrifice of self-interest to the good of the nation. The Founders took as the “ideal of Republican virtue” the founder of the Roman Republic (509 B.C..), Lucius Junius Brutus, who overthrew Tarquin the Proud but subsequently had two of his sons executed for attempting to restore the monarchy.
At the heart of his book, Buckley describes how the focus of the Constitutional Convention was to prevent “importing corruption” from the Britain they had rebelled against. Thus, they were determined not to have a strong presidency, a monarch-in-disguise. Thus, “Our government was designed to resemble a parliamentary regime, with the president selected by the House of Representatives or by electors exercising their own discretion.” Buckley argues for the superiority of a prime minister who must defend his government on a daily basis in a House of Commons, rather than a President who is nearly impossible to remove from office and are “relatively immunized from accountability.…”
This is not to suggest that the author, a Canadian by birth, is snootily anti-American — far from it. He points out that the final outcome of the Framers’ deliberation was masterful compromise between the competing faction of those wanting a powerful central authority — the Federalists — and those who wanted to preserve the power of the States. For example, when the Framers decided on “electors” it was assumed that presidential elections would end up in the House of Representatives where the president would be chosen, where an educated elite would make the final decision. This assumption preserved the kind of “filtration” process favored by James Madison and others would did not trust the unwashed and uneducated to elect a presently directly. “In essence, they [the Framers] thought they had agreed upon a Congressional elected president.”
Buckley lithely points out that the delegates could not have anticipated the broadening of voting rights to all adults, the direct election of Senators (17th Amendment), and the resulting choice of electors directly by the voters. The process of filtration was doomed without the delegates in Philadelphia knowing it, and as a result: “The Framers meant to produce a corruption-free government, but like a boomerang their Constitution flew back and hit us on the head.”
The growing power of the presidency, spurred by the introduction of the spoils system by Andrew Jackson in 1828, was not the only way the Constitution failed to meet its goal. The separation of powers itself, as Buckley argues, created a government susceptible to corruption “in ways the Framers would not have imagined,” for example, members of congress who are able to channel tax dollars to their local districts through “earmarks” Did you know, for example — I didn’t — that there over fifty Robert Byrd Centers “for This or That” in West Virginia? Earmarks are a way spending federal money without interference from the executive branch while buying the good will of voters for next election.
Interestingly, another result Buckley descries is “technological change and the rise of democracy broke down the electoral process that were expected to filter out ignoble politicians.” The author, as far as I can tell, does not tie this insight specifically to any of the further narratives; however, I see them closely connected to his discussion of bribes, “crony capitalism,” lobbying, and campaign finance through which money passes hands in exchange for political influence and, most of all, legislation.
What all these have in common are certain degrees of hiddenness, actions either deliberately secretive, hidden from view by legal means, or by the difficulty of tracing the paperwork. It’s commonsense, in my opinion, to think a person’s character, nobility or ignobility, is measured by what he or she will do when no one is watching or no one will find out (supposedly).
Buckley provides plenty of examples of financial corruption where large sums of money are taken by elected politicians in exchange for influence and legislation that will gain the buyer many times what was paid. But rather than spending much time of condemning these practices, he offers some very sensible suggestions for reform which could actually be done without causing further harm: 1) Require all political contributions be anonymous; 2) Restrict gifts from pay-for-play donors; and, bar certain donors from accepting positions in government and prohibit congressman and their staffers from becoming lobbyists after they leave government.
This gist of his argument, which I find compelling, is as follows: Actual anonymity would end the quid-pro-quo expectation between the donor and the politician. Donors groups such as government contractors should not be allowed to donate to the politicians who pass the appropriate bill, an obvious conflict of interest. Donors compete for various appointment goodies, such as ambassadorial posts which leads to wealthy but unqualified individuals representing the U.S. around the world, and former Congressmen and staffers are often influenced while in office by offers of employment in a lobby firm if they lose the next election or chose to “cash in” by stepping down.
“The Republic of Virtue” is a rich book, well-written, often humorous, and impossible to summarize in short review such as this. But as I said at the outset, Frank Buckley has put his fingers on what is alienating the American voters from politics, and he has offered both an explanation of what has happened and prescription for what needs to be done.
Read Newsmax: Buckley’s ‘Republic of Virtue’ Chronicles America’s Fight for Integrity | Newsmax.com
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