The Truth About Consequences: Conservatives, Progressives, and Accountability Moments

This article is re-published from Campaign for America’s Future. The original can be found here.

Whew. Run your bank into the ground? Hey, it was our fault for not keeping a better eye on you. Here’s some cash. Since you’re rich guys, we trust you to do the right thing going forward, so we’re not going to bother you with a bunch of rules and oversight—but you promise to be good now, ‘K?

Also, you Bush guys and CIA operatives who thought torture was a fine idea? Yeah, we know we’ve signed a bunch of treaties that unequivocally require us to bring you up on charges; but we’re looking forward now, not back, so, y’no, whatever. It was pretty ballsy of a few of you to actually admit to committing war crimes in public. We know from “audacity” (it’s our middle name, in fact), and that was audacity with the gain turned up to 11. I mean, really: We’re impressed. Shocked and awed, even. But we’re not gonna hassle you about ancient history, because it’s so much more important that we keep our eyes firmly on the future. Just promise you won’t do it ever ever again, all right?

It’s interesting to watch the Democrats trying to work some life back into their long-neglected oversight muscle. Thirty years of conservative misrule have muddled Americans’ understanding of words like responsibility, accountability, discipline, and punishment to the point where nobody knows that they mean any more—and don’t seem to want to know, either. The social conservatives go on and on about the evils of postmodern morality and situational ethics; and on this score, I can’t quite summon myself to disagree. It’s been as though nobody on Planet Washington ever had a parent who was able to explain right from wrong, or demonstrate the role cause-and-effect plays in the ethical universe. It’s like a moral-gravity-free zone.

Stuff happens. Whatever.

I am neither an ethicist nor a philosopher. But I am a mother, and know a thing or two about disciplining children. (I’ve got a freshly grounded teenager pouting upstairs right now who would be delighted to tell you all about it. At length. With loud choruses of what a Mean Mommy I am. What he doesn’t know is: I take that tune as a clear sign I’ve done my job right.) And, as an observer of the differences between conservatives and liberals, I know that our attitudes toward discipline—whether it’s children or adults who are being called to account—is one of our core areas of disagreement.

Understanding that difference may explain something about how we got here.

For conservatives, the goal of discipline is to assert the power of external authority. In their worldview, most people aren’t capable of self-discipline. They can’t be trusted to behave unless there’s someone stronger in control who’s willing to scare them back into line when they misbehave. Don’t question the rules. Don’t defy authority. Just do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine. But cross that line, dammit, and there will be hell to pay.

In this view, the whole point of punishment is for greater beings (richer, whiter, older, male) to impress the extent of their authority upon lesser beings (poorer, darker, younger, female). I’m in control, I make the rules, and I’m the only one of us entitled to use force to get my way. Since emotional and/or physical domination is the goal, the punishments themselves often use some kind of emotional or physical violence to drive home that point. Spanking, humiliation, arrest, jail and torture all fill the bill quite nicely. I’m not interested in what you think. Do as I say, or I will be within my rights to do whatever it takes to make you behave.

Note, too, the hierarchical nature of this system. Those at the top of the heap enjoy the freedom that comes with never being held accountable by anyone. This exemption is implicit in conservative notions of “liberty,” and is considered an inalienable (if not divine) right of fathers, bosses, religious leaders, politicians, and anyone else on the right who holds power over others. The privilege of controlling others’ liberty, without enduring reciprocal constraints on your own, is at the heart of the true meaning of “freedom.”

Liberal parenting books, on the other hand, talk a lot about “logical and natural consequences.” Since liberals believe that most people are perfectly capable of making good moral choices without constant oversight from some outside authority, the goal of discipline is to strengthen the child’s internal decision-making skills in order to prepare him for adult self-governance.

Wherever possible, parents are encouraged to do this by letting misbehaving kids live with the natural consequences of their own bad choices. I’m not mad at you. I still love you. But you spent all your allowance on Tuesday, and now you get to be broke until Saturday—and I’d be lying to you if I let you think that the world works any other way. Since you two can’t figure out a peaceable way to share that toy, I’m going to take it away. Now that you’ve annoyed the bus driver to the point where the principal had to call me and put you off the bus for a week, you’re not going anywhere else for a while, either—including that big event this weekend you’ve been looking forward to for the past two months.

Ah…I’ve said too much. But you get the point: Conservative discipline is all about reinforcing power hierarchies and achieving control through “respect” (that is: fear), and liberal discipline is about teaching accountability and reinforcing the consequences of one’s own choices. And I think the muddle we’re hearing out of Washington these days is based on the seriously crossed wires between these two ideas of accountability. We’re all using the same words, but we’re also all hearing very different things.

Let’s be clear: Our system of laws was built entirely on the liberal model. The objective of a hearing, investigation, or trial is to dispassionately discover the facts of the matter, and make sure that the consequences are as natural and logical (read: fair) as possible. We’re not judging your inherent worth, just your actions. We are forbidden from using force, or punishing you just to prove to you that we can. We have a sacred obligation to ensure that the consequences are more or less proportional to the crime. A good chunk of our Bill of Rights is devoted to making sure the conservative notion of punishment—the arbitrary exercise of power for power’s sake—doesn’t ever become part of our system of justice.

Given that, we need to be very concerned that the Democrats, as the liberal party, have apparently completely forgotten how any of this is supposed to work. These days, when you broach the subject of holding someone accountable, they physically seize up. You can actually see the wave of terror gripping their bodies. Over the past 20 years, they’ve completely internalized the conservative frame that “accountability” can never be anything but an ugly partisan witch hunt designed mainly to take out enemies and bludgeon the other side with the full fury of state power. The idea that such moments might be (and, in fact, very often have been) something noble, fine, cleansing, and healthy for the country is almost beyond their comprehension. Pecora? Truman? Ervin? Church? That was a long time ago. We couldn’t possible do that sort of thing any more.

When you think about it, it’s not hard to see how this dangerously uniform bipartisan consensus against creating actual “accountability moments” came about. The bracing revelations of Watergate were followed by the Church investigations and Iran-Contra—all of which were liberal-style open inquiries that sought nothing more than to establish the truth and restore justice, but shook conservatives to the core. What the Democrats saw as doling out logical and natural consequences (break the law, go to jail—what’s so hard about this?) the conservatives experienced as being on the receiving end of an authoritarian-style punitive smackdown. They were powerful people, above punishment. This wasn’t ever supposed to happen to them. (How dare they challenge our authority?) Being who they were, they couldn’t help seeing it as anything other than pure payback, a raw demonstration of power. And the only appropriate response was to show the Democrats how very, very out of line they were—by disciplining them in the conservatives’ preferred way, with a show of unrepentant and overweening force.

Which, of course, led to the full frontal assault on Bill Clinton. They had to teach that boy who was boss, and get him back in line. The Democrats, in turn, were so stunned by the ferocity of the whole thing (there was nothing logical or natural about any of it) that they decided, en masse, to make sure it never happened again.

Unfortunately, they did this by giving up and swallowing the conservative frame whole. Yep, we get it now: “accountability” is only ever a synonym for “ugly brutal partisan persecution,” and we don’t want any part of it. Even more unfortunately, this abdication happened just in time for the arrival of George W. Bush—who, as his own parents might be the first to tell you, is the one president in history most likely to grab hold of that lack of oversight and run with it all the way to the end zone, thus clinching the all-time record for Most Fascist President.

I don’t have research on this, but I’m pretty sure that after eight years of the most lawless presidency in history, most of us had “restoring real accountability” fairly high up on the Hope and Change list when we cast our votes for Barack Obama. We were craving that even-handed, reasonable, cleansing moment—a season of transparency that would show us where we went wrong, let some air and light into the wounds, and allow us to begin to heal. He sounded for all the world like the kind of morally serious person who understands the difference between right and wrong—and between that kind of old-fashioned even-handed inquiry that simply finds what it finds and deals with miscreants without fear or favor, according to the demands of the law; and a partisan witch hunt that’s conducted for no higher purpose than terrorizing your opponents into submission with naked displays of unchecked power. He seemed like just the guy to do it.

So the last thing we expected was to hear him warbling that same terrified-Democrat line, starting within days of his inauguration. Fortunately, as outrage over the torture memos spreads, both the President and Congressional Democrats seem to finding their moral feet again. And not a moment too soon, either—because if they blow this one, it’s nothing short of the end of America as we know it.

When the administration says that “we’re not looking backward” and “we’re not out to assign blame or punish anyone,” what it’s really saying is that there no longer any real relationship between cause and effect in our government. The very idea of consequences has absolutely no meaning. If you have access to enough money and/or power, there is nothing you can say or do, no amount of money you can steal, no lie perfidious enough, no fraud brazen enough, no treason heinous enough, to get you so much as called up before a hearing to explain yourself.

And that’s a truly frightening development. A government that cannot fairly, honestly, transparently hold people to account—where, in fact, nobody can apparently even imagine that such a thing might be possible—is by definition, no longer a government of laws, because the law depends on a strong relationship between cause and effect. When our leaders have so thoroughly internalized the idea that the only possible use of justice is to use government force to seize political advantage or economic power over other people, we’ve pretty much irrevocably passed the point where we are now a government of men. When even liberals resign themselves to those medieval conservative ideas about justice as our new national norm, they have failed the country—and we have ceased to be America.

The truth about consequences is this: There can be no restoration and reconciliation until people are reassured that the outcome will actually matter, that the real story will be told, and that people will be held accountable for their choices. They are also the very definition of justice, and the necessary precondition of freedom. The most important change we need right now is leaders with a quickening sense of liberal discipline—including the self-discipline and moral courage to stop looking the other way.

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