By Alex Lee. Lee is a philosophy professor in Anchorage.
Two weeks ago I sent Senator Dan Sullivan a letter expressing my concerns over a vote on the nomination of Judge Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court. My letter was simple:
Dear Senator Sullivan,
In 2016 you said, “The decision to withhold advancement of Mr. Garland’s nomination isn’t about the individual, it’s about the principle. Alaskans, like all Americans, are in the midst of an important national election. The next Supreme Court justice could fundamentally change the direction of the Court for years to come. Alaskans deserve to have a voice in that direction through their vote, and we will ensure that they have one.”
Do I not now also deserve a voice in this direction of change?
I got a response this week from Sullivan’s office extolling the many virtues of Judge Barrett while highlighting the constitutional right of the Senate to vote on her nomination. It said nothing of the ‘principle’ Dan Sullivan, and many of his Republican colleagues, invoked four years ago. I am left supremely disappointed—not in the outcome, but in my Senator’s indifference to my voice today after appealing to the democratic value of my voice to defend his opposition in 2016.
I want to know why my voice no longer matters. I think the answer is at the root of our country’s growing political division: we have forgotten the difference between what we want and what principles we want to uphold.
I may disagree with Senator Sullivan about many things. We may want different things for our future or we may agree on the future we want, but disagree on how to get there. That’s fine. Disagreement and discourse about policy and political philosophy is part of a healthy democracy, but any politician willing to flagrantly take on or abandon principles in order to chase a result is simply being dishonest. Shouldn’t we all stay accountable to shared principles of democracy, fairness, and liberty?
Senator Sullivan wielded a meaningful principle of representation when it suited his view, but will not stand by that principle now. Either he did not really believe that Alaskan’s deserve a say in Merrick Garland’s nomination (presumably using all of us as a political tool to defend the position that served an outcome he wanted), or he believed in the principle and should not vote on Judge Barrett’s nomination until after the November election, even if it doesn’t best serve the short-term outcome he would like.
Here’s a thought experiment: suppose last week we ordered pizza for an outdoors socially-distanced gathering. I wanted pepperoni, while you wanted mushroom. We got pepperoni after I explained that everyone else would prefer it.
Fine. As Mick Jagger once said, “you can’t always get what you want.”
Suppose this week we are buying pizza again, but now I want ham and pineapple. You point out that our friends don’t like fruit on their pizza and suggest we choose another option. I say, “tuff luck, I’m the one with the cell phone calling in the order.”
Moving from chorus to verse, you might now feel like you’re, “gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse…”
Chasing what you want by any means necessary is wrong for three reasons:
- It makes things worse off in the long run by degrading faith in our institutional processes, discouraging compromise, and fueling polarization.
- It is a failure to uphold basic interpersonal obligations by presenting bad faith arguments and by treating people as mere means.
- Its breaks the social contract by changing the metric by which decisions are made amid debate.
I was so disappointed in the stock response I got from Sullivan’s office, because it defended his vote without acknowledging the contradiction such an argument poses to his 2016 position, showing a normalization of blatant hypocrisy.
This, by the way, is also why political adds are so damaging. No matter who wins, half the population ends up thinking of that elected representative as their enemy. Sullivan has called his opponent, “anti-Alaskan” because he has a liberal perspective. No, Dan, he just disagrees with you, and that’s okay. Let’s talk about it, because we all want to make our state better.
Nationally, an increased dissonance between our goals and our principles is eroding trust and civility. While this is true on both sides of the aisle, Republicans are in power in the Senate and White House, so right now the buck should stop with them.
Okay, some of you are thinking, “so, the problem with politicians is politics?…duh!” While this is hardly a revelation, by identifying this age old problem, we are also identifying the solution: politicians can bring the country together by setting aside politics.
Senator Sullivan should stop using the term ‘Alaskan’ as synonymous with ‘Republican’ (only about 25% of the State is registered Republican). He should join Senator Murkowski in putting principle ahead of party and withhold a vote on Judge Barrett until after the election. It might not be the easiest way to get a justice Republicans want, but it would be an honest buy in to the precedent he argued for. At the very least, he should tell me and the other 150,000 constituents who disagree with him, why he cared so much about our voice when it got him the pizza he wanted, but no longer cares now that some of us might not want pineapple.