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Congress’s State of Nature

October 30, 2010

Since we are in a political science theory course, I constantly try to relate our readings to the current politics taking place in our world, and more specifically, our country.  If you turn on the various cable news shows or radio talk shows, you will most likely hear the term “party politics” or some other variation of this common phrase.  So much of our current domestic political environment is categorized by party.  The majority of registered voters in our country are either Democrats or Republicans, and this is represented in our Congress with almost all senators and representatives as a member of either party.

Both Hobbes and Locke state in their writing that opposing governments are in a state of nature since there is no overarching power or goal uniting them.  I agree with their assessment and want to extrapolate their broad definitions to our Congress.  As opposing parties, both the Democrat and Republican parties can be viewed as individual entities in a constant struggle with one another.  This begs the question, which state of nature most appropriately describes the Congressional environment?

Before I began looking for data, I hoped that I would find that the current state of Congress is more similar to Locke’s, for it is a more positive state of nature.  However, I do not believe that members of Congress follow the natural law outlined by Locke.  In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke states “no one ought to harm another in his life” (p. 287).  If you look at a congressman’s political identity as his life, then you would define many of today’s comments made by opposing senators and representatives as flagrant transgressions of this law.  One attack ad this fall was from Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle targeting incumbent Democrat Harry Reid.  Amongst other derogatory claims, the ad ended with “Reid actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders.”  In reality, Reid simply voted for the comprehensive health care reform law (commonly dubbed Obamacare).  In Locke’s state of nature, Angle would at least be punished for such a transgression, but in our world, she continued campaigning unscathed.

Whereas Locke’s state of nature is governed by natural law, the Hobbesian state of nature is that of constant conflict with one another.  In his words, “the time men live without a common power… is called war” (p.159).  As depressing as it may be to compare our domestic politics with war, I feel like Hobbes’s state of nature most closely resembles our Congressional environment.  Our current political realm is more polarized than ever with both sides hardly willing to compromise with the other to achieve goals together.  Instead, hateful and derogatory words are thrown back and forth as both try to vilify the other in the eyes of the public.  I think a useful statistic to measure cooperation is the usage of the filibuster (also known as cloture voting) in Congress.  For those unfamiliar, the filibuster is basically a stalling measure used by members of Congress to attempt to block a bill from coming to a vote.  In the graph provided, you will see that the number of cloture votes used has risen exponentially and that it doesn’t even include the past two years, where a record number of these filibuster votes have been employed.  The conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that instead of creating laws together and compromising, each side has been putting forth ideas that the other finds irreconcilable differences with and gridlocks its passage through Congress.

I must say I am discouraged with this finding that our Congress is in a state of nature more closely resembling Hobbes’s than Locke’s and would be interested to see if anyone disagrees with my morbid view.

2 Comments
  1. yequan permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:28 AM

    It is very interesting to compare political parties with the state of nature. If we follow the author’s path, it is more likely that Hobbes’ theory is close to the situation of domestic politics. Many times, we just see either party attacking the other or its candidates. I believe most people do not want to watch this one against the other last forever.

  2. jptrue permalink
    November 1, 2010 6:08 PM

    While I found your post very interesting, I have two thoughts on your argument:

    First, be careful about your use of the word cloture and filibuster, these are not terms applied to the entire Congress, but the Senate. Cloture is not the same thing as a filibuster. A cloture is a process that applies to the US Senate (not all of Congress) and ” The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster” (senate.gov). This might want to change how you interpret Congress as being being similar to Hobbes’ state of nature.

    My second thought is how you would apply the idea of property to congress in your analysis of Locke’s state of nature and congress. While I agree that Congress may be violent and brutish, I feel that a consideration of Locke’s view is not complete without considering how the protection of property applies to the model.

    Perhaps it doesn’t have to be a one or the other choice (For example, if Congress is so violent, how are their life politicians?)…maybe Congress exhibits traits of both states of nature.

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