Do the ends justify the means? This familiar question produces strong feelings precisely because its answer is necessarily complicated. Just about all of us admit to a scenario, such as the proverbial ticking time-bomb, in which we would countenance unsavory means if required to save lives. In general, however, most religious and ethical traditions teach that we are not permitted to use injurious or unethical means to accomplish even noble ends.
Constitutional republics, in particular, are based on precisely the opposite formulation: the means justify the ends. Whatever our personal interest in a given governmental outcome may be, citizens of a republic are required to accept unwelcome ends as long as the means by which they were achieved are proper. A guilty person may go free if a police officer or prosecutor acts illegally or unethically. The other side may win a legislative argument. The other party may win an election.
In recent years, Democrats have complained loudly that Republicans have breached the social contract regarding means and ends. Although I am politically conservative, I have agreed with some of those Democratic complaints, regarding such matters as legislative encroachment on executive power and the irresponsible rhetoric that preceded January 6.
My hate mail switches from Republican to Democratic, however, when I point out that our political history extends far past 2010. That many of the same Democrats who criticize Republican gerrymandering, for example, were once enthusiastic practitioners of Democratic gerrymandering, including Gov. Roy Cooper. That before there were Republican Birthers questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship there were Democratic Truthers who thought the 9/11 attacks were an inside job.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. “He started it!” is no more an excuse for political heavy-handedness than it is an excuse for one of your children to attack the other in a backseat rumble while you’re trying to keep your eyes on the road.
At the moment, it happens to be the Democrats throwing the punches. In Washington, Joe Biden has exceeded any reasonable definition of presidential power by ordering vaccine mandates on private businesses. In Raleigh, a local judge is threatening to fine Republican legislators unless they enact an education program concocted by progressive policy wonks and Democratic politicians.
Here’s another example, involving two amendments North Carolinians added to their state constitution in 2018. One requires that a voter show a photo ID before casting a ballot. The other sets North Carolina’s maximum tax rate on personal income at 7%. Both were popular ballot measures, gaining 55% and 57% of the vote, respectively, in the 2018 election. But progressives dislike them. So they filed a lawsuit claiming that the referenda were illegally held because the legislature that placed the measures of the ballot was illegally constituted by gerrymandered districts.
I’ve advocated redistricting reform for decades. For most of that time, the gerrymanderers were Democrats. I never thought to argue that the state budgets they enacted, the laws they passed, or the constitutional amendments they placed on the ballot were illegal acts of an illegal legislature.
That’s because the argument is ridiculous and dangerous, especially when applied to constitutional amendments. What more democratic process is there than allowing voters to decide an issue by referendum?
It gets still worse. Now that the matter is before the North Carolina Supreme Court, the plaintiffs are attempting to force two Republican members from the case. They argue that Justice Phil Berger Jr. can’t participate because his father is president pro tem of the Senate, and that Justice Tamara Barringer can’t participate because she served in the Senate when the amendments were submitted to the voters in 2018.
Berger and Barringer were themselves elected by voters in 2020 to preside over constitutional questions on the Court. Are Democratic activists, cheered on by Democratic leaders, truly willing to undermine popular sovereignty in this way? Yes, it seems. Can they not foresee how Republicans will respond?
“He started it” is no way to end it.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.