Roving thoughts and provocations

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Edmund Burke Against Grover Norquist

David Levine

Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Taxpayer Protection Pledges—a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax—and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider it.

The idea of committing candidates to a rigid position as a condition of their being elected seems to be catching on. In Iowa, in anticipation of the caucuses there, Bob Vander Plaats of the conservative religious group Family Leader has issued a “Declaration of Dependency” committing a candidate to marital fidelity along with advocacy for the Defense of Marriage Act and opposition to pornography, to Sharia law, and to “uneconomic anti-marriage aspects of welfare policy [and} tax policy.” The pledge demands, as well, that its subscribers recognize “overwhelming statistical evidence” that married couples “enjoy better health,” and it requires the appointment of “none but faithful [i.e. religious] constitutionalists as judges or justices.”

The Family Leader pledge has become infamous for its claim that “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his [sic] mother and father in a two-part household than was an African-American after the election of America’s first African-American President.” That claim ignores the facts that owners could ban marriage of slaves, prevent their education, sell man and woman apart, beget their own children from the woman, and work the children from an early age. The ridicule that was directed at this passage made Vander Plaats remove it from the pledge. Nonetheless, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum had signed it, even before the part about slavery was removed. They are therefore committed to belief in the pro-family record of slaveholders, as well as to all the other tenets of Mr. Vander Plaats.

There is no reason other groups should not issue their own pledges, given the success of Norquist’s. This signals a return to what was known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as governmental “instruction.” Constituents issued instructions on how to vote, and candidates for office bound themselves to follow such instructions. Otherwise, it was said, how could a member of Parliament be echoing what his constituents thought or wanted? The obvious objection to this is that it makes office holders impervious to changed conditions, new evidence, the learning experience of exchanges with his fellows, personal growth, or crises of one sort or another. It would render parliamentary discussion otiose and ineffectual.

The best attack on instruction occurred when Edmund Burke, standing for election to Parliament in 1774, addressed the electors of his district, Bristol. The idea of instructions had been raised in the campaign, leading Burke to renounce their “coercive authority”:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasure, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Burke makes clear what the real meaning of the Norquist pledge is for those who subscribe to it. They are signing over their souls. This first oath they take, as candidates, makes the next one they take, as office holders—the oath to preserve and protect the Constitution—an empty gesture. That oath, sworn to God, may call for changes of position in a crisis or where better knowledge has become available. They cannot preserve and protect the country if their hands are tied and their minds closed. Their participation in congressional discussion, if that discussion affects taxes in any way, becomes a charade. This is the situation Burke denounced:

What sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments…Authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience – these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land.

That means that most Republicans in Congress have signed a Mephistophelian pact. They have left behind their consciences in the pocket of Grover Norquist.

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