Hypocrisy is commonplace in our politics, but usually politicians attempt to maintain at least the appearance of logical consistency between their public pronouncements and their cherished ideological positions.
Not so Mitch McConnell, who issued a statement yesterday decrying the fact that several corporations, along with Major League Baseball, have taken action or commented negatively on Georgia’s new, controversial election law. The statement is rife with the usual McConnellite hypocrisy, such as his indignation at what he calls “a coordinated campaign by powerful and wealthy people to mislead and bully the American people,” which would seem to describe to a tee the behavior of a majority of his party from last Election Day through January 6.
But leave that aside. What’s stunning from an ideological perspective is his frontal attack on established constitutional rights, accompanied by what seems to be an overt threat of governmental intervention to prevent or punish their exercise:
“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government. Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
Pause for a moment to take that all in, particularly the bizarre construction of a “constitutional order” from outside of which governmental action is criticized. It’s in opposition to so many elements of traditional Republican – indeed, American – principles that it’s a challenge to sort through them all. But let’s try.
McConnell seems to have forgotten that in a constitutional democracy, the “private sector” is his and every politician’s constituency, that the people who elected him are not a “parallel government,” they are the government – of, by, and for the people of whom he and his fellow politicians are mere representatives. This is the primary justification for the radical populism that has become the heart of Republican ideology, yet McConnell spurns it, suggesting that, especially if we’re “woke” (an expression used more by right-wing politicians and pundits than by those they’re mocking for it), we ought to hush our mouths and let the professionals go about the business of governing the rest of us.
Perhaps by the “private sector” he just means big corporations, legal entities that ought to shut up and remain politically neutral if they know what’s good for them. Unfortunately, there’s that Supreme Court case that Republicans are so fond of – Citizens United – that established the right of corporations to advocate for political outcomes, and is the reason opaque legal entities can pour billions of dollars into the coffers of their favored political figures year after year.
Most startlingly, McConnell raises the specter of “serious consequences” to companies that say things he disagrees with, and goes on to characterize their saying those things as “outside the constitutional order.” This is nonsense, constitutionally speaking, a disparagement of the First Amendment, which dictates that government shall “make no law” infringing free speech. That prohibition is the essence of constitutional order, though McConnell’s vision of that order seems to be big government, reaching out to control the behavior of the private sector.
McConnell doesn’t say what “serious consequences” there might be to corporations and individuals who constitute this parallel government, and no doubt he’s talking through his hat. But when a US Senator starts talking about punishing speech, we’d all better sit up and pay attention.
McConnell and his fellow conservatives may not like the fact that economic tactics are being brought to bear in opposition to a piece of legislation widely perceived as racist at worst and deeply partisan at best, but that’s another consequence of the free market they’re quick to claim is in the nation’s best interests when the subject is health care or climate change.
The First Amendment guarantees not that there will be reverence for whatever legislation emanates from Georgia, but rather that there need not be any, just as there is no such protection for the opinions of the “far-left mobs” McConnell so fears. All the Constitution does is to forbid government from tilting the scales of debate. The rest is up to us.
The Founders believed in the long game, that from the rough-and-tumble of free argument, a democracy would eventually distill good ideas – and good laws – from bad ones. The First Amendment directs that Congress will make no law restricting free speech and a free press, not that the people will make no fuss about laws they don’t like. It protects speech that isn’t worth listening to – McConnell’s statement of yesterday, for example — and presumes that we’ll know it when we hear it. That’s the actual “constitutional order,” McConnell’s strange version of it notwithstanding.