De Forma Rules: A Higher Allegiance in American Politics

“The more laws, the less justice.”

“While there is life, there is hope.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero 

***If you have not yet read the previous post, “Honor in the Absence of Enforcement: Cicero’s Ethics Applied to Madden ’04 and American Politics,” you will probably want to do so here.

As should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog, I have never been afraid to voice my disdain for the state of America’s political affairs. For a long time, however, occasionally “voicing my disdain” was the only political activity in which I engaged. After the thrill of voting when I was eighteen I proceeded to abstain from the 2004 and 2006 elections and adopt an attitude of generalized indifference and disgust toward the political world. It was not until around 2008 that my interest in real-world politics showed the first signs of awakening.

I am not a particularly quick waker. Usually it takes a solid half hour (more during winter) of grumbling and tossing in the morning for me to convince myself that it’s worth leaving the safety of my blankets and getting out into the world. Once I finally do, I usually find that life outside my bed is not the grim specter I had supposed it to be. But the actual getting up part…that’s a doozy.

Just so with politics. The “waking up” part of my political life has been a long, drawn-out process handled with a dignity that is roughly equivalent to my petulant approach to waking up in the morning. It took being forced into a political theory class with a professor I loved on a campus filled with busy-bodied activists to get me to even consider majoring in a political field, and even then I refused to get involved with the ubiquitous campus Dems or the beleaguered Young Republicans. Instead, I limited my work to a local social justice group and some exit polling. I declined to major in American Politics because I wanted to be as far away from the ugliness of political reality as possible and chose instead to hole myself up with Socrates, Cicero, Locke and Gandhi. I did so because I felt that their ideas – in marked contrast to the capitol building – actually held within them the seeds of hope.

Still, in the five-plus years from that spring of 2008 to now I have had relapses. During several stretches I have gone months on end without even glancing at the news, partly because (as now) I see little to no value in the majority of issues covered, but also partly because seeing all the events unfolding in the world often fills me with frustration and a sense of my own impotence. But slowly, surely, my sense of duty has coaxed me, mumbling, bleary eyed and generally recalcitrant, from the blankets of complacency and into the world of the real.

Hence this Thought Blog. Hence my occasional excursions into world news. And hence my need for heavy doses of the Daily Show to help me retain my sanity. The real world can be a terrifying place.

But 2008 was where it started, mostly because of my neighbor Mark. Mark and I met in the hall of our apartment building one day and quickly discovered that we shared two passions – one for the ever-hopeless Cleveland Brows and one for ideas of justice. In both passions Mark was by far the more vocal. During the fall his mood rose and fell – mostly fell – with the fate of the Browns. And during election cycles his mood rose and fell with the Democrats.

Our proximity and confluence of interests meant lots of conversations in the hallway. Later, when the weather brightened, it meant tossing frisbee or a football in the field just across the parking lot. Two topics always dominated: politics, and the Browns.

One conversation I particularly remember occurred sometime during the heated campaign season between Barack Obama and John McCain. I don’t remember the specific set of ads responsible – it was probably more than one – but I do remember voicing my outrage at the entire political climate during election cycles. “Why is every politician – every single one – willing to sling mud at their opponent through disgusting smear campaigns that only make both parties look awful and lower the level of American discourse?” I asked Mark, who had majored in American Politics, as we threw the frisbee one spring day. “It’s sick and depressing.”

“Yeah,” he agreed as he tossed the disc back. “But you know, there are lots of studies out there showing it works. We studied it in school. And as long as people keep voting for negative campaigners that’s just how it’s gonna have to be.”

“I just can’t believe it works,” I said. “I mean, everybody hates negative campaigning. I’ve never heard a single person say they liked it. Yet the votes say otherwise. What gives?”

“I don’t know, man,” said Mark, shaking his head.

“That’s not the only thing that gets me though,” I said, hurling the frisbee and continuing a tirade reminiscent of the one to which Aaron and Levi had been subjected four years previous regarding a certain best/most infuriating video game ever. “Because even if people show a pattern of voting for the mud-slingers, any politician with a shred of authenticity should still refuse to join in the negative campaigning. They should do it out of principle. Out of common decency. These personal attacks and distortions of facts don’t belong in our public sphere. They ruin the political discourse and make it impossible for voters to make truly informed decisions.”

“I agree with you, man. But the ugly truth is, as long as they’re doing it we” – despite my protestations, Mark always counted me as an honorary Democrat – “have to, too. Otherwise they’ll be free to take potshots at us with no payback. That’s just the way it is. These issues are too important for us to give up any advantage we can take, even if it means negative campaigning.”

I returned the frisbee in silence, unable to argue against his logic but unable to shake feelings of revulsion for the tit-for-tat reasoning behind it. I felt simultaneously that he was right and that I wished with all my might that he wasn’t.

He continued, growing more animated. “You know what I think we ought to do? We ought to make copies of news articles about all the scandals the ‘moral majority’ leaders have been caught up in. You know, these folks that keep claiming they stand for Christian values and sucker all the religious fanatics into voting for them. They’re truly evil people.” Tapping his near-infinite knowledge of the political events of the past decade, he cited a litany of examples of Republicans who had stood on a Christian-centric platform but been caught in scandals ranging from embezzlement to bribery to affairs with interns.

He went on. “Then we ought to go out on Sunday mornings and put all those copies on the windshields of all the cars in the parking lots of a few of these local mega-churches. Really put it up in their faces so they can’t ignore it. Somebody’s got to show the Christian Right how they’re being played and how their leaders are hypocrites.”

Something happened in that moment. The switch that had first begun to be flipped years before when I gave up my argument with Levi and Aaron over Madden ’04 had finally, after all this time, reached that critical point where it clicked. The final straw had been laid atop the pile and broken the camel’s back. Mark’s sadistically brilliant plan seemed poetic to me and I had at last been convinced that this world, being an ugly place, sometimes called for ugly tactics. If others were willing to play dirty, then in order to compete we had to as well.

We never did it. Some combination of busyness, laziness and maybe – just maybe – a hint of latent guilt stayed our hands. But an important thing happened that day. I discarded my conviction that one ought to honor the political game’s spirit rather than its rules. Just as I had done with Madden years earlier, I gave up my own definition of fairness and traded it for the one being used by those around me, only this time my thoughts affected the real world and not the virtual one. I discarded my idealism and subscribed to the widely accepted idea that what is permissible is also acceptable.

Life is filled with such choices between idealism and pragmatism – between what ought to be true and what is true. And many times for me, a person who has a natural tendency to err on the side of idealism, it can be difficult to discern where idealism becomes fantasy and ceases to adhere to the limits of a flawed world. I imagine the struggle for a pragmatist is much the same, but opposite. The pragmatist must find the line where realism becomes cynicism.

What makes this distinction difficult is that life is in constant motion. While some years down the road it may be easy to differentiate between cynicism, fantasy and reality in a past choice, the advantages of hindsight come only with time. But at the time of decision-making we are not granted this luxury. We must make our decisions on the spot, subject to the limitations of perspective inherent in being an earthbound creature. In the hubbub of daily activity it is often, then, exceedingly difficult to judge what is ideal versus what is illusory; what is practical versus what is cynical.

Life is also harsh and uncertain. It is inevitable that we will make mistakes due to our finite perspective and that sometimes the outcomes will be painful. Err too much on one side or the other – push into the realm of fantasy or cynicism – and you court disaster.

Nothing is more common in human history. The proponents of communism at its inception – especially theorists like Marx and Engels – could not have known that in attempting to create a world in which everything was shared equally they were actually opening the door to severe poverty and oppression. In fact, it was their hatred of poverty and oppression that caused them to dream of something better. In the whole course of human events, few more beautiful ideas have emerged than that of communism.

But their vision was too idyllic; it was not fit to be employed in the world in which we live and with people the way they are. We are not yet enlightened enough for such selflessness. We are too narrow-minded, too greedy, too exploitative for a system that hinges on broadness of perspective and humanitarianism. We know that now, having the examples of the former Soviet Union and the present horror of North Korea to guide us, but they could not have known it then.

It is possible to stray too far on the side of pragmatism as well. Recently our government has been guilty of this, spying extensively on its own and other citizens in its effort to enhance our “security.” In doing so they have discarded the ideals of liberty, openness, independence and individualism and have endorsed cynical theories of expediency and of ends justifying means.

Unlike the lesson of communism, we have yet to see the effects that will emerge from the public’s shattered trust and the suspicion fomented in other nations by this invasion of privacy and autonomy. But little good has ever come from shattered trust. At best it is just another brick in the wall between the American people and the leaders in whom they have placed their grudging trust. At worst it is another blow to the foundations of our once-hopeful nation.

Yet mistakes are inevitable in a world in which the gift of hindsight only comes long after decisions must be made. If we cannot prevent these mistakes, we should at least learn from them. This is precisely what I aim to do in this blog.

Ten years on from my glory days in Madden ’04, six years removed from those frisbee-throwing sessions with Mark in the suburbs of Columbus, it has occurred to me that I made a mistake in both instances. The mistake was actually singular in kind but took four years to bloom into full form. It started when I gave up my argument with Levi and Aaron over abusing Madden’s programming and crystallized in my conversation with Mark about political campaigning. It has to do with games and the way we play them. About what is permissible versus what is acceptable. About the external enforcement of law and the internal enforcement of honor.

Every game has rules, but these rules are of different kinds. There are de jure rules, which are rules codified into law and enforced by some authority; and there are de facto rules, which is a fancy way of saying “what you can get away with.” These kinds of rules get a lot of attention in the fields of law, philosophy and sociology.

But yesterday I realized there is another set of rules. These rules are neither written into law nor determined by society’s behaviors but are implicit in the very structure of the game itself. In keeping with the tradition of giving Latin names, I call these the de forma rules. These are the rules, whether they are codified or not, which must remain true in order for the game to be be played as intended. In other words, these are the rules that make football football, a senate race a senate race, and the Miss America pageant the most frivolous tradition ever conceived by Western society.

Madden ’04 is a football video game. Accordingly, the de forma rules of Madden ’04 are those rules which are necessary to make it – as far as technology allows – an accurate simulation of an actual game of football.

In Madden ’04 there is no de jure rule against lining up RE #59 a yard outside the tackle box and taking advantage of the left tackle’s nonexistent brain to get to the quarterback. The game pamphlet doesn’t forbid it. Little zebra-striped referees don’t trot out onto the virtual field, penalize you for “systemic abuse” and tack on a fifteen-yard penalty. There are no structural barriers either in writing or enforcement to stop you. And there are obviously no de facto rules, either, since all it takes is jamming your joystick left and ignoring your friend’s complaints and the cry of your conscience to do so.

What Levi and Aaron were arguing all those years back was that since there were no de jure or de facto rules against rushing around the right end, that meant it was okay, and I think most people who played the game would probably have agreed with them. But what I was arguing – though I didn’t fully understand it yet – was that their actions violated the de forma rules of the game. In doing so the game’s integrity as a virtual representation of actual football was undermined.

When they abused the system, the game became not an authentic simulation of football but something different entirely. It became not a game of play calling, strategy and execution but one of manipulating the system on which the game was built. You didn’t win by outthinking or outplaying your opponent in any way that resembled the real contest of football. You won, instead, by manipulating some brainless player model into failing to process that you were even there. By violating the de forma rules we were winning a game, but it could no longer honestly be called a game of football.

Four years later in my conversation with Mark, the subject was different but the concepts exactly the same.

In the American game of politics there are no de jure or de facto rules preventing candidates from twisting each other’s words, airing vitriolic and misleading ads, or using petty tactics to make each other look bad. What is more, there shouldn’t be. There is no way to perfectly legislate for every lyrical twist one person can put on another’s words, for one thing. The human imagination is far more agile than dried ink from a pen.

But a more fundamental truth is that people shouldn’t always need legislation to coerce them into doing the right then. Sometimes – far more often than Americans take for granted these days – people should act decently just because it’s decent. If we, as America is perilously close to having done, devolve into a society that depends on law rather than morality to govern all relations between citizens, we have sunk to a place from which no law may dig us out.

The game of American politics, like all games, does not only consist of de jure rules of law and enforcement and de facto rules of everything that can be gotten away with. It consists of de forma rules, the keeping of which is necessary to ensure that what we are living in is indeed an authentic republic.

But it is not. We believe we are living in a representative democracy in which the informed decisions of voters ensure the election of a government that rules by it, for it, and of it. But we are wrong. We are wrong because in order to have a representative democracy, the de forma rules of a representative democracy must be kept. Change the de forma rules and you change the game. Change the rules by which it is elected and you change the government itself.

Here are the de forma rules for a representative democracy such as the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison intended in their writings on the subject:

Representatives are to represent the issues as they are, in the fairest possible light, avoiding at all costs anything resembling fabrication or obfuscation. They are to be civil to one another and give credence to one another’s arguments, or at the very least attend them with respect. They are to submit to rules of procedure – such as allowing a member to speak her peace and yield the floor on her own terms – both in letter and in spirit, i.e. facilitating and civilizing debate rather than stifling it. And they are to compromise both out of a sense of political efficacy and out of simple decency, knowing their views are but a small representation of the many that flow out of a multicultural society and that compromise is necessary both in terms of efficiency and in terms of justice in a republic.

These are the rules that ought to be followed. They are the de forma rules written into the theory of democracy and into the structures of our Constitution; they are conditions on which democracy is dependent if it is to function well and fairly. If it is, in other words, to be truly called a “democracy.”

But they are not the rules by which modern politicians (and indeed any politician since Washington’s inaugural election) have played the game. We – and not just our legislatures – have become a society preoccupied with only the first two kinds of rules. We respect de jure rules because we are likely to get in trouble if we do not; and we respect de facto rules either because we can get away with it or, as was the case in Mark’s and my conversation that spring day, because we perceive everyone else as doing so.

Our politicians are much the same, only their sensitivity to de jure rules is much higher than our own. An anonymous citizen can get away with a great many “little white sins,” but such is not the case for a politician, for whom even the slightest indiscretion is an invitation to the lapping hyenas ready to pounce at the tiniest show of weakness. But what moral authority they may gain from their scrupulousness in the de jure realm, politicians rapidly give up in the de facto realm, which they exploit to a level that would make most common citizens blush if not rush to the confessional.

The de facto rules of American politics – practiced indiscriminately by both major parties – are these:

Representatives are to present the issues in a warped and twisted way, such that voters have little to no understanding of the actual matter at hand, especially on integral points. Debates are to be argued in exaggerated and fallacious terms and, no matter how mundane, are to be presented as issues of life and death, good and evil, black and white, freedom versus repression. Representatives are to maintain a posture of infallibility, never adapting even in the slightest from their original position no matter how persuasive the arguments to the contrary. If anyone does so – if they admit to even the smallest error and adjust their position ever so marginally – they are to be labeled a sellout and a traitor to their party and to voters and blackballed from running for office again. Rules of procedure are to be exploited to the fullest in order to circumvent the process of popular rule should it appear that standard procedure will not result in a favorable vote. And at all times opponents are to be painted as villains, liars, lackeys and cheats, and are never to be listened to, even out of civility, in any circumstance.

These de facto rules of exploitation, manipulation and distortion are followed without exception while the de forma rules implied by our government’s creators and by the great thinkers of popular rule – the customs required to ensure legitimate democracy – are ignored, undermined and twisted. The tenets on which our society ought to be based – those of civility, maturity, decency, dignity and honor – are not given the barest fraction of thought in he public sphere. In fact, many of both politicians and voters will laugh you under the table if you bring them up. We live in a nation in which the de forma rules of our democracy are constantly undermined, abused, exploited and ignored.

But de forma rules are not rules of coincidence; they are rules of necessity. They are as they are because without them democracy can never flourish. In their absence a nation is doomed to fester, as our nation is festering, into complacency, inefficiency, injustice and decay. It does not take a political analyst to see that these are the political vices that most rabidly plague America today. The de forma rules by which democracies are supposed to be governed exist to forestall this kind of decay, but we have discarded the authentic rules for another kind, and in so doing we have traded our integrity – and with it our long-term stability – for victory in a game that can no longer truly be called a “representative democracy.”

Yet, despite our dire straits, there is hope, and it rests, as always, in we, the people. We are the ones who decide whether the exploitation and avoidance of the de forma rules of democracy go rewarded or punished. We have the power – if only we knew what power we have – to change it all.

Allow me to refer to a mind greater than my own in noting that when the rules that govern civil society are repulsive, the only moral act a good citizen may make is to disregard them. The immortal words of Henry David Thoreau still ring true today: “Must any man, even for a moment, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?…The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

The de facto rules of today’s politics are dishonesty in discourse, inflexibility of opinion, unwillingness to compromise, bipolarization of issues, immaturity in conversation, manipulation of rules, generalized incivility and the lack of even the simplest forms of decency.

But these rules will only exist for as long as concede to play by them ourselves and keep rewarding our representatives when they do. When we cease to accept them and cease to reward others for doing so, the rules will change

We can still redirect the course of our democracy onto a higher path, one that will see it sharpen rather than decay; one that will let us view the differences that distinguish us – and which the founding fathers had the wisdom to protect – with admiration and respect for their reflection on our humanity, not with scorn and disdain for their divergence from our own.

But if this is to happen – if we are to rise to the ideals on which our nation was founded – we must first stop playing by the deformed and toxic rules that govern the day. We must stop perpetuating paranoid and hyperbolic articles on Facebook at Twitter. We must stop basking in the complacent shell of half-truth provided by news sources such as FoxNews and MSNBC that serve only to conveniently affirm perspectives we happen already to hold. We must do more than this. We must branch out to other sources and see alternative points of view even if those points of view make us uncomfortable.

Especially if they make us uncomfortable.

We must improve the quality of our daily conversations. We must learn to speak more courteously in everyday life. We must stop clouding the air with generalizations that are derogatory and inaccurate and show more care in using sweeping terms to describe groups like “liberals” or “conservatives,” “the right” or “the left.” These words, on occasion, can adequately describe broad swathes of thought. But too often they are used as simplified and inaccurate generalizations designed to prove a point, not to accurately represent a real subsection of society.

We must learn to act like mature adults capable of exchanging opinions civilly. We must stop exaggerating our opponents’ arguments, as would a child, and start instead to portray them honestly and with respect. If our position is right, we should not have to stoop to petty methods in order to win an argument. We need also to cast off the naive discourse of black-and-white, good-and-evil that dominates our political conversation because it reflects an overly simplified view of the world and serves to alienate us from one another by putting us at opposite — and fallacious — extremes.

And above all we must – we must – stop voting for the self-centered, immature, grandstanding politicians that make such a mockery of popularism. In other words, just about everyone that currently occupies Capitol Hill. We must learn to think beyond the simplistic and stagnant “D vs. R” paradigm we’ve been taught and make use of our full power as citizens to try – at least try – to elect people who will make this country and this world a better place. If you vote for an obscure third party or write in the name of someone you know and whose integrity you trust, you may not win this election. But at least – at the very least – you won’t be complicit in the depressing spectacle that fills our papers day in, day out with its childish pettiness and the painful reality of an American promise unfulfilled. Instead, you will have done the maximum any individual can do to change the world.

You will have changed yourself.

Let us find a way to stop forfeiting our conscience when the de facto rules run against it. Let us in remembering the de forma rules of democracy find a way to retain our own integrity even when the world chooses not to. Let us unburden ourselves of America’s current legacy of opportunism, manipulation and winning at all costs and trade it for something more akin to what was once envisioned when we were thirteen colonies rising up against an empire.

Let us cease, for once, to settle for momentary expediency at the cost of long-term growth.

Let us learn to reach for something higher.


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