In Tucson, Did the Power of Passion Go Too Far?

The assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has focused a great deal of attention these past 48 hours on the tone and tenor of our political discourse.  I certainly agree that violent words or images ought to be used sparingly, if ever; whether from the left or the right.  Nevertheless, I have been thinking about things on a somewhat more basic level.  

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords


Motivation and passion are two critical concepts in politics.  The Founders created a system that works best when peoples’ motivations are not under attack; when we can give those on the opposite side of an issue credit for wanting what is best for their country.  In addition, the Founders were a passionate lot, and they assumed their decedents would be as well.  So they arranged a system to channel those passions into action while also balancing them to prevent overreach. Regarding motivation, there is something fundamentally wrong when those who hold a position characterize the people holding the opposite position as not caring about God, country, family; as having a set of values that is somehow un-American.  Whenever I find myself veering off into such a direction I think about three people much admired:  

I think about Mother Theresa.  A few years after her death, some writings of hers were found in which she admits (to herself and to God) a crisis of faith.

I think about James Madison.  Near the end of his presidency, he supported a bill to fund “internal improvements” (what we call infrastructure) because he believed it to be constitutional.  But when it passed and it was time to sign it, he vetoed it because he was no longer sure t it was constitutional.  And this was the “Father” of the Constitution!

Ronald Reagan.  He voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt four times.  He also signed four large (by today’s definition) tax increases into law (The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, an increase in the gas tax, passed late in 1982, Social Security reform in 1983 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986).  And he actually talked to the Soviets (for which he was greatly criticized at the time).

If Mother Theresa can have a crisis of faith, if James Madison can hesitate on what the constitution really called for in a particular case, if Ronald Reagan can vote for FDR four times, sign four tax increases and talk to the Soviets, if all those things can happen, isn’t it obvious that someone who cares deeply about God, country, family and values can come to vastly different conclusions about what those might mean in some particular instance?  Can anyone doubt the motives of these people I’ve just mentioned?

Regarding passion, the real genius of the Constitution is its reliance on balance of power.  Between House and Senate.  Between legislative and executive.  Between and among all three branches of the federal government.  Between federal and states.

But it also sought to balance the power of passion.  Passion is a critical element in the success of any leader, of any enterprise.  But it is not always a positive characteristic.  Having seen the destructive force of passion as evidenced by centuries of European wars, the Founders sought to create a system in which peoples’ passions would have an outlet at the ballot box and through their representatives.  It is a system that makes change hard, and that ensures that people will have their say.  When some believe (and this has happened on both ends of the political spectrum during my time here), in the throes of their passion, that losing an argument is the same as an attack on them and on their country; that is when we must take a step back.

I would argue that this is one of those times. And. it would have been even if the assassination attempt had not occurred. But it did, we can’t change that. So we can make sure that something good comes of its aftermath. The President, the Speaker and others have said and done all the right things over the past 48 hours. All of us who care about our country should do the same.

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One thought on “In Tucson, Did the Power of Passion Go Too Far?

  1. We see differences, yet we fail to seek an understanding of the distance. We have lost the art of public discourse, of intellectual exchange, and of respect for others values. It has become simply a matter of which side we stand on and how many we stand with. The true spirit of compromise which is what makes us move forward has been lost. We need it back. We need tolerance if we are to be a great nation. We need to feel safe in our ideals. After the cold war years and the strife of segregation, one would think we could see the danger of ideas in isolation.

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