The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Politics of Feeling

Posted on | June 14, 2013 | 40 Comments

“You can’t do that.”
   But it makes me feel good.
“It’s against the law.”
   Then we should change the law.
   Because it makes me feel good.
“Who cares about your feelings?”

Why does the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” appear in our Declaration of Independence? Most people don’t know enough about history or political philosophy even to understand why this is an important question. Instructed with the simple-minded sentimentalism of an elementary school pageant, people cling to the phrase — along with whatever other bits and pieces of their education managed to stick in their minds — with the fierce emotion of a toddler clinging to his mother. Urging such a person to examine the facts critically is likely to produce antagonism, as if you were somehow unpatriotic for insisting that actual history is preferable to flattering mythology.

Diana West’s new book American Betrayal dares to question some of the sentimental gush about the 20th century that too many of us have swallowed without thinking about it, and the problem is that once people integrate false narratives into their worldview, it’s very hard to get them to re-examine their erroneous beliefs.

That’s why I’m calling attention to “the pursuit of happiness,” that curious phrase of Thomas Jefferson’s which ought to arouse more curiosity than it usually does. There is a timely relevance to this matter, but rather than explain that “ripped from the headlines” factor up front, let me continue with the philosophical discussion and let shallow minds look elsewhere for something to arouse them.

The formula of rights that Jefferson meant to invoke in the preamble of the Declaration was “life, liberty and property” — John Locke’s summary of what fundamental goods of the citizen the government was supposed to protect as the justification of its existence. It helps here to quote Jefferson’s preamble at length:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Please read this carefully and ask, “What’s the point?”

How odd that Americans so seldom ask this question. Thomas Jefferson (who drafted the Declaration as part of a committee that also included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams) wasn’t engaged in some abstract philosophical discussion, after all.

The Declaration was written with a purpose: To rally support for the American rebellion, first among the colonists themselves; secondly, among the English people, as a means of undermining political support for the measures undertaken by the Crown to suppress the rebellion; and finally, as an appeal for support from England’s rival powers in Europe, especially the French.

We are in danger of missing the point of the whole thing if we fail to understand the Declaration in this historical context. Yet most Americans nowadays know so little of actual history that they lack the means by which to contextualize the Declaration’s phrases which, without any facts to encumber them, are allowed to float around in our minds as abstract ideas divorced of any real meaning.

Jefferson invokes “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” as necessitating the Declaration: “Americans are not illiterate savages,” he is telling his readership, whom he knows to include ministers in the courts of France and other nations. In deciding to separate themselves from England and taking up an “equal station” as a nation in their own right, Jefferson says, the American colonists understand that they must justify their cause in the eyes of the world — to recount the grievances of a people oppressed by unlawful despotism — as “the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The very eloquence of Jefferson’s prose, its calm and dignified language, was arguably the strongest part of his argument. It signified that these Americans were not (as the British Crown viewed them) an inferior rabble, but rather men of quality, deserving of respect.

Well, what about that curious phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”?

Whereas Locke and others spoke of “life, liberty and property” as the rights government was supposed to protect, Jefferson did not speak of “property” for two important reasons:

  1. The colonists’ dispute with England arose over issues of taxation. Other European nations, France among them, taxed their people far more heavily than anything that King George III and his ministers had inflicted on the American colonies. If Jefferson had invoked property rights, this may have been interpreted as questioning all taxation, and may have conveyed the impression that the Americans were rebelling for narrowly selfish financial purposes.
  2. There was, after all, the matter of slavery. Among the species of “property” held by Americans were about half a million African slaves, and more than a few opponents of the colonial rebellion had chastised them as hypocrites for demanding a liberty that they denied their servants.

Now, here we might digress into a long examination of this seeming contradiction in the Declaration, which expresses in such elegant phrases a philosophy of universal equality, even though the man who wrote it was the owner of more than 100 slaves. That discussion, however, would be irrelevant to my point, namely that Jefferson’s famous phrase “the pursuit of happiness” cannot properly be understood outside its historical context.

What did Jefferson mean by “happiness,” anyway? Considering that this phrase occurs where “property” would be found in the classic Lockean formulation of rights, Jefferson means “happiness” not as some mere sentimental feeling, but rather in the sense of “good fortune,” which to an 18th-century mind, would mean what we today mean when we say “success” or “prosperity” — the contented enjoyment of the accumulated fruits of one’s labor. Of course, the mind of an 18th-century colonial plantation owner is so remote from our own culture that we might as well try to understand the worldview of the Pharoahs.

Still, my point is exactly this: Our sentimental reverence for these phrases — “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and so forth — hinders our ability to think about what the Declaration was really all about, and unless we have the maturity to transcend our childish emotionalism, we aren’t really thinking, but merely feeling.

This is how we end up in situations where the discussion of public policy is warped by the claim that our arguments are wrong because we might make people feel bad about themselves.

You are a “hater” if you dispute the benefits of affirmative action — not because facts and logic contradict your argument, but because some people have convinced themselves that this policy is a reflection of their value as human beings. Thus, no matter how wrong-headed the policy or how harmful its results, your opposition is indicted as unfair because you’re making people feel bad — you hater!

Beyond that, however, is the point that Thomas Sowell hammers home in The Vision of the Anointed, namely that liberalism is about making liberals feel good about themselves or, as the book’s subtitle explains, Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.

This brings me at last to the timely importance of this long historical and philosophical inquiry: Immigration.

In no area of our contemporary discourse does the Politics of Feeling so completely distort our understanding. America’s right to establish and enforce its own immigration laws is fundamental to our national sovereignty. And yet we today hear self-described conservatives (!) arguing that the well-being of foreign criminals — the estimated 11 million illegal aliens who have subverted our laws by their unauthorized presence here — should be the foremost consideration in our debate over changes to our laws.

Yet if you make a point of these facts, you will be called a “hater,” accused of irrational bigotry against all Latinos, because calling attention to illegal behavior — and to the fact that Mexicans are the largest group represented among the 11 million illegals — somehow hurts the feelings of everyone with a Hispanic surname. One might even imagine, to listen to the arguments of the Open Borders Lobby, that laws against racial discrimination actually mandate that every American must love Mexicans, or else be guilty of thought-crimes.

After listening to these pious lectures a while, you can be forgiven if you feel the urge to scream at your television: “BUT THEY’RE FOREIGNERS WHO ARE BREAKING OUR LAWS!”

“At the essence of our immigration policy is compassion.”

Shut the hell up, Marco. You’re making me feel bad, hater.



40 Responses to “The Politics of Feeling”

  1. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    June 14th, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

    Politics lately make me feel sick. Especially our GOP elites.

  2. Christy Waters
    June 14th, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

    “But molesting young girls makes Senator Menendez feel very happy. Who are you to tell him he can’t?” Excellent post. Emotions are useful, but they should never be relied upon when making important decisions. It drives me crazy when I hear someone use the word “feel” in place of the word “think”.

  3. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    June 14th, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

    Well they were foreign minor girls, who had not come to the USA illegally. So I guess that gives you a pass if you are a Democrat.

  4. Mm
    June 14th, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    I’ve noticed, like you and Sowell point out, that the folks who cling to these ignoble causes practically live for the praise, no matter how small, of those they are defending. You see this embarrassing, fawning behavior in the WH Press Corps. Or should I say “corpse.” They have lost their moral compass in pursuit of feeling good, so they keep looking for those who will validate them. It turns into a type of worship, and the idols know how to channel all that energy to further their own ends.

  5. Christy Waters
    June 14th, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    Thomas Sowell is my intellectual porn. Love the man. All future GOP candidates should be required to pass the Sowell test. #NoSowellNoSale

  6. Charles
    June 14th, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    It is true that life, liberty and happiness evolved into life, liberty and property between the Declaration and the Fourth Amendment. But effecting safety and happiness in the Declaration evolved into providing for the common defense and general welfare in the Constitution.

    Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness includes spiritual as well as material well-being. You may not like it, but the idea has been there from the beginning.

    As far as accepting immigration, I think that value goes back to the Apostle Paul preaching to the Gentiles. Yes, they are outside the law, but the idea is to bring them in. It’s not so much distinctly American as Christian.

    I had an interesting visit last week to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. It turns out that many of the evils we are told are distinctly American are equally Canadian, from suppression of native Indian culture, to exlcusion of Chinese immigrants, to WWII internment of people of Japanese ancestry.

  7. John LaRosa
    June 14th, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    Great post, Stacy. I’ll even share this one without asking for an #unsustainablebartab credit.

  8. robin
    June 14th, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    Excellent. This shows thought and introspection; things that are sorely lacking today. Thank you.
    I’ve been giving a lot of thought to “God given rights” lately and I’m not so sure they exist, as we think of them. I’ve started to think God gave us responsibilities (e.g., 10 Commandments) but not necessarily rights. I’ve still got a long way to go before I reach a conclusion, though.

  9. JackOkie
    June 14th, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    robin: I see responsibilities and rights as two sides of the same coin. I certainly agree about the responsibilities God has given us. I don’t see us as little pawns God moves around; we’re on the spot. When I hear someone ask how God could have allowed the Holocaust (or other calamity / atrocity) to happen, I reply that He put us in charge, so the blame falls on the wicked (i.e., those who failed to carry out their responsibilities).

  10. RS
    June 14th, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

    The essence of our laws should not be compassion. If compassion drives the law, then there is none. Rather, there are simply fact scenarios and no one knows what’s allowed or forbidden until the all powerful government either ignores you or sends you away for a long time.

  11. Room 207
    June 14th, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    Concerning the “pursuit of happiness.” Up until the early 1800’s, the King James Bible used the word, “happy,” where today’s translations use the word, “blessed.” For example, the Beatitudes in Matthew begin, “happy are,” as in “happy are the peace-makers….” Jefferson, while apparently not a Christian, was a student of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. The word, “happy,” to him, and to any other literate English-speaker of the time, had the meaning of what we now call, “blessed.” That part of the Declaration could be “expanded” to read, “the pursuit of happiness and blessedness.”

  12. bruce
    June 14th, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

    Great piece. Helped me as a non-American understand you guys better. Couple of proofreading errors: ‘pursuit of history’ ‘In decided to separate’…

  13. Mm
    June 14th, 2013 @ 7:18 pm

    Good point. The essence should be justice, informed by compassion where appropriate.

    Individuals give up the right to personally exact justice as part of a social contract with the State, an entity that they, as members of a society, have created. In return for this authority, the State steps in the shoes of wronged individuals and seeks justice.

  14. Mm
    June 14th, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

    And I believe that this social contract is breaking down. For example, it is not inspiring to have the head of the FBI go before Congress and give every indication that the FBI is not investigating potentially criminal abuses at the IRS. It does not instill confidence in the citizenry when a deputy DA gets swatted, and the FBI yawns and appears disinterested. The State, which is supposed to be unbiased, at best is giving the appearance of favoring some over others, at worst, it IS favoring them.

  15. Mm
    June 14th, 2013 @ 8:37 pm

    And Peter Ingemi articulates this much better than I did:

  16. DaveO
    June 14th, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

    Rubio is not focused on Mexicans. He is focused on his own ethnic base: Cubans, and by extension Caribbean immigrants who form Rubio’s base in Florida. With Cuba poised to explode into liberty, Rubio is looking to ride that wave into the governorship of Florida. From there he’ll go for the Presidency.

    As for the Politics of Feeling: women are emotional and swayed by looks. Tap into that well of sentimentalism and idolization of beauty and one can go all the way to the White House. A man has to be emasculated to become as sentimental, but promise him freedom from accountability (abortion, social security retirement), and he’ll vote for whomever made the promise.

  17. CPAguy
    June 14th, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    Terrific! You sir, on well on your way to becoming famous.

  18. Garym
    June 14th, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    Our celebrity culture drives this.

  19. rmnixondeceased
    June 14th, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

    Every right has a connected responsibility to respect and defend that right in all others.

  20. robertstacymccain
    June 14th, 2013 @ 10:07 pm


    Thanks for the catches. I hate typos, but always manage to make a few.

  21. robertstacymccain
    June 14th, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

    The Vision of the Anointed is, to my mind, the best single-volume analysis of the liberal worldview ever written.

  22. robertstacymccain
    June 14th, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

    We have to understand that the rights for which the American patriots fought were the traditional common-law rights of the English freeman, which had been won through long years of struggle against the Crown. Sam Adams certainly saw it that way. The problem for Jefferson was that, when it came time to argue for separation from England, the colonists could scarcely invoke the rights of a citizenship they were essentially repudiating.

    The Declaration therefore argues that these rights are universal, but universalism tends to lead us off into believing things that are not actually true. This is why the historical context is so important.

  23. Adjoran
    June 14th, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    Anything up to and including a dead girl in your car earns a pass if you’re a Democrat.

  24. Adjoran
    June 14th, 2013 @ 11:07 pm

    The interpretation as “pursuit of prosperity” is quite apt for the time.

    There was another practical reason Jefferson was urged to change “property.” If King George III reacted as expected, the colonies were going to need an army to buy into the concept, and relatively few were property owners. The word conveyed the sense of “real property” which was a sign of wealth and privilege.

    Since nearly all the delegates to the Continental Congresses were property owners, the word might also have given the impression they were out to protect their own holdings against reprisals, which might not inspire poor young men to fight the well-armed British soldiers.

  25. rmnixondeceased
    June 14th, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

    Context, context, context! Without context all is mere hyperbole and rhetoric!

  26. Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…Leftist Politics Are About Feelings, Not Logic Or Reason | That Mr. G Guy's Blog
    June 14th, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

    […] Stacy McCain has a great post up about the politics of feelings. It’s well worth the read. Here’s a bit of it to whet your appetite: […]

  27. Bob Belvedere
    June 15th, 2013 @ 12:38 am

    New avatar not as good as the last one, Adj.

  28. Bob Belvedere
    June 15th, 2013 @ 12:40 am

    Leftism: Revisited by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn is a good companion volume.

  29. No Leftists, a right to PURSUE happiness does not include a right NOT to be offended | The Daley Gator
    June 15th, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    […] H/T to The Other McCain, who is also trying to set Libs straight on what he calls the “Politics of Feeling”. Go read what he says, good stuff, here is a small sample […]

  30. Christy Waters
    June 15th, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    I love it! I’m a huge Marx Bros fan.

  31. Adjoran
    June 15th, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    Atsa no good?

  32. PAcon12
    June 16th, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    This nation is not the Kingdom of Heaven, as much as any of us may like it to be. Is there any person, under any circumstances, who you would choose to restrict or delay from entering into the USA?

    In other words, should the USA have any immigration laws on the books at all? I pose this question seriously–to me this is the starting point of our immigration policy, but many of my liberal friends seem to have disregarded the question altogether.

    It is one thing to accept immigration; it is another to reward illegal actors to the detriment of legal actors. I would much rather take in the next 11 million in line, from wherever they may be, than the 11 million criminals in our presence today.

  33. Scribe of Slog (McGehee)
    June 16th, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    When people are “brought in” to Christianity, they do not simply get a button to wear that says “Christian,” with the right to help choose the pastor and deacons, and to make demands on the church treasury. They have to accept Christ into their lives and their hearts. They have to change themselves fundamentally and become Christian where it matters.

    So I don’t think unrestricted immigration is what Charles is advocating with his metaphor.

  34. Scribe of Slog (McGehee)
    June 16th, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    Preach it.

  35. ZION'S TRUMPET » There’s No “Feelings” In a Democratic Republic
    June 16th, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    […] The Politics of Feeling […]

  36. JeffM
    June 16th, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    Reading the Declaration in context is great, and I commend you. BUT …. it is even more important to read what it in fact says. “Pursuit of happiness” implies two things. It does not imply an enforceable right to achieve happiness. Moreover it implies a right for the individual to define “happiness” in his or her own way. That is why I think it dangerous to assume that Jefferson was subtly tweaking Locke’s concept of property. “Happiness” for many surely includes property, but, for many, it also includes many other things, for example freedom of religion or freedom of expression. In short, Jefferson was going far beyond Locke’s conception. I do not say this to disparage Locke, but to show how broad the conception in Jefferson’s mind was.

    Failure to understand that conception lies behind much of modern liberalism.

  37. Pathological Altruism and Idiot Compassion | The Necropolitan Sentinel
    June 16th, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

    […] Also related is Stacy's excellent post, "The Politics of Feeling." […]

  38. News of the Week for June 16th, 2013 | The Political Hat
    June 16th, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    […] The Politics of Feeling Why does the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” appear in our Declaration of Independence? Most people don’t know enough about history or political philosophy even to understand why this is an important question. Instructed with the simple-minded sentimentalism of an elementary school pageant, people cling to the phrase — along with whatever other bits and pieces of their education managed to stick in their minds — with the fierce emotion of a toddler clinging to his mother. Urging such a person to examine the facts critically is likely to produce antagonism, as if you were somehow unpatriotic for insisting that actual history is preferable to flattering mythology. […]

  39. Rob Crawford
    June 16th, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

    Except the illegals have no intention of “accepting America into their hearts”. Their contempt for our laws is the clearest illustration of that imaginable.

  40. Scribe of Slog (McGehee)
    June 17th, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    Which is why unrestricted immigration oughtn’t to be what Charles is advocating in his metaphor.