Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that “for every action
there is an equal and opposite reaction.” His three laws of motion,
published in 1687, formed the basis of classic mechanics, and are
still useful today --- although they have been superseded by
principles of special relativity. Physics studies were not my
favorite subject in school, but I long ago learned that it pays to
honor the forces of nature.
What does this have to do with American politics?
Apparently more than we perhaps realize.
In recent years, a number of traditional political practices,
protocols and courtesies have been abandoned, especially in
Washington, DC, by both major parties and by many institutions.
These include abandoning the filibuster rule in the U.S. senate,
changing long-respected procedures in both houses of the
Congress; overtly trying to persuade presidential electors to
change their vote; not honoring a president’s established right to
nominate supreme court justices, lower, federal court judges and
cabinet officers; eschewing excessive leaks from government
officials; limiting the use of confidential media sources; confusing
the national “front-page”news with the free speech prerogative of
the “editorial page;” and the general debasement of the language
of debate and discussion.
I want to make it quite clear that I think that individuals of both
major political parties have done these acts. Nor am I, by any
means, the first to call attention to these phenomena.
At this particular moment, the “transgressors” mostly appearto
be Democrats because Republicans are in power. But when roles
were reversed, and the liberals were in power, conservatives
were often doing much of the same.
One case in point: In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated
Abe Fortas to the supreme court after he had persuaded Associate
Justice Arthur Goldberg to resign from the court to be U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Fortas, a long-time friend
and counsel to Mr. Johnson, was then confirmed by the senate.
Three years later, after Chief Justice Earl Warren’s retirement
and just before the end of his presidential term, President
Johnson nominated Fortas to be chief justice. Conservative
senators then blocked the nomination, and the following year,
new President Richard Nixon chose a conservative Republican to
be chief justice. Fortas was forced to later resign from the court
following a personal controversy which had no part in his failure
to be confirmed as chief justice. When President Nixon then
attempted to replace Fortas, his first two nominees were
blocked by the Democrats. In 1987, chairman of the senate
judiciary committee Senator Joe Biden, then also a candidate for
president in 1988, led a successful effort to block Robert Bork’s
nomination to the supreme court by President Reagan on purely
ideological grounds (Judge Bork was then one of the nation’s
most distinguished conservative legal minds). In 2015, President
Obama nominated highly-qualified (but liberal) Judge Merrick
Garland to the supreme court to replace the late Anthony Scalia.
The Republican-controlled senate then refused to hold hearings on
the nomination which then died on the election of a new president.
When President Donald Trump chose Judge Neil Gorsuch, a
respected conservative, to fill the vacancy, senate Democrats
threatened to deploy the filibuster rule to block Mr. Gorusch’s
confirmation. This obstacle was overcome when the senate
abolished the use of the filibuster to block a supreme court choice
by the president, and Mr. Gorsuch was finally confirmed by a
A few years before, when the Democrat’s controlled the senate,
and Republicans were holding up President Obama’s lower
court judicial confirmations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
decided to abolish the filibuster rule for all but supreme court
nominations, and he further shut down virtually all opposition
debate on legislation --- both major departures from U.S. senate
tradition. Using an arcane senate rule to eliminate the filibuster
when his liberal party was in control, however, enabled the
conservatives to eliminate it a few years later to their advantage.
This illustrates my political corollary to Newton’s Third Law of
Motion --- which is:
“For every major new partisan political action, there will likely
be an unequal and opposite reaction.”
In 1998, Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton, but failed
to convict him in the senate. Although Mr. Clinton had lied under
oath about a mostly private matter, the senate (and public opinion)
did not feel the matter was sufficient for removal from office.
Today, many Democrats and their followers in the media openly
discuss impeaching President Trump without even any evidence
of wrongdoing, but only unsubstantiated charges. Nevertheless,
impeachment is seriously treated in the anti-Trump national
media as if it were possible under what is now known.
The new chairman of the Democratic Party employs frequent
obscenities against his party’s opponents, and a Republican
nominee for Congress physically attacked a journalist questioning
him. On campuses across the nation, well-known speakers are
prevented from appearing by radical students and faculty under
the rubric of “political correctness.”
I suggest that these careless departures from comity, courtesy
and cooperation (perpetrated by some on the left and the right,
and in the media) will not go unanswered. But the reactions, as
intimated by my corollary above, do not necessarily lead us back
to where public discourse and behavior might best serve the
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.