John Steen: We need to reinforce the effort to have a humanistic government

This commentary is by John Steen of South Burlington, who was a scholar and teacher of philosophy, had a 20-year career in health planning, health regulation and public health, ending as a professor of health policy. He is immediate past president of the American Health Planning Association.


“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.” — Albert Camus, “The Plague.”

I think that any Republican in Congress would avow never to be indifferent to the suffering of their constituents. Yet, they slavishly line up to oppose President Biden’s attempts to fund Covid-19 relief for those constituents, calling it a “blue-state bailout.” 

In doing so, they are ignoring their own political, communitarian obligations, not to mention social justice and mercy. That “blue-state bailout” is the support we owe for humanistic government, directed at trying to keep the least-resourced among us alive, much as we are trying to do through vaccination.  

I find it hard to believe that any Vermont legislator could be so viciously partisan. Do they want to be in a party that put harming the president above helping their constituents? 

Only seven Senate Republicans voted to convict the guy who incited and directed an insurrection against them, and now almost all of them are facing censure by their state parties. In Pennsylvania, a county GOP chair criticized one of those senators, Pat Toomey, saying, “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he was doing. We sent him there to represent us.” 

The blatant malfeasance of 43 Republican senators let the former president off without being made accountable for what amounts to treason, a judgment they refused to make because Republican voters reject it. Now they are stuck with the label of being the Trump Party, and of supporting whatever it is that their voters believe, because they believe it. Avenging an election stolen from Trump! Doing otherwise is betraying the trust of their constituents! Hopes of bipartisan governance have been dashed. 

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Republicans “would like to see [former president Donald Trump] play a prominent role in the Republican Party,” while overall, “Americans say 60-34 percent that they do not want Trump to play a prominent role in the Republican Party.” 

Furthermore, “A majority of Americans, 55-43 percent, say Trump should not be allowed to hold elected office in the future. Republicans say 87-11 percent that Trump should be allowed to hold elected office in the future.”

I respectfully suggest to our Republican legislators that they reflect on their Republican label and consider if it is not the right time to change it. Do they know that many of their constituents visualize them on a yacht surrounded by drowning swimmers while they refuse to cast any life preservers? And how long might it take for Republicans to realize that they were on trial in the Senate as much as Trump? That in acquitting Trump, they were convicting themselves?

Instead of supporting their constituents, Republicans are continuing Trump’s initiatives aimed at further weakening democracy by promoting measures to limit voting in the upcoming 2022 election. The Brennan Center reports that, by the first week of February, 33 states had introduced bills that would “limit mail voting access, impose stricter voter ID requirements, slash voter registration opportunities or enable more aggressive purging of registered voters from the rolls.” 

Arizona has introduced 19 restrictive bills, followed by Pennsylvania with 14, Georgia with 11 and New Hampshire with 10. These bills are so extreme as to eliminate the spread of Covid-19 as sufficient reason for obtaining a mail-in ballot.  

These are measures that promote a distrust of neighbors, strangers and government, destroying our communities, the very foundation of democracy. An internet community cannot make up for that; all it can do is encourage the spread of virulent ideologies in a culture war. People are led to extreme belief systems that reflect and magnify their existing prejudices. They need to have something to believe in, so they believe in what they most wish to be true. That has always been true in past pandemics too. 

The way out of this is for us to renew our belief in good science and good governance, controlling the spread of Covid-19, and returning our communities once more to a sense of normality. Doing that requires that communities support their members and provide good education, the imperative left to us from a century ago by Vermont philosopher John Dewey, whom we can thank for our enduring faith in democracy.  


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