“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more famous quotes.
If it holds true, we’re living in the best of all possible worlds. Because there are no little minds troubling themselves with consistency in politics today.
Maine’s U.S. Senate race is Exhibit A. This week, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held the Civil Rights Act applies to gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals.
Sen. Susan Collins has been excoriated for the ruling. Why? Because she supported the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh was in the minority on the decision, voting against the result. Democrats have seized on this as evidence that Collins must therefore be anti-LGBT. Their cry, with apologies to Cato, is that Collins delenda est.
The detractors do not trouble themselves with consistency.
They neglect to mention that Collins also voted for Justice Neil Gorsuch, the author of the majority opinion. And she also supported those joining Gorsuch in the majority, such as Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
But rather than praise Collins for supporting jurists who think for themselves and consider the matter before them on its own merits, her would-be opponents lashed out. House Speaker Sara Gideon — who refuses to recall the Maine Legislature to work — has promised she would effectively impose a litmus test on Supreme Court nominees.
Meanwhile, the Portland City Council is considering calls to ban the use of facial recognition software by police. Concerns have been raised about machine-driven racial profiling by computer algorithms.
At the same time, others have called for banning police from making traffic stops. Part of the argument suggests that such traffic stops are often pretextual and inappropriately discriminate against people whose skin contains heightened levels of melanin.
In lieu of humans interacting with alleged speeders and unsafe drivers, an expansion of the surveillance state would prosecute people by camera.
This too seems inconsistent. If we are worried that computer algorithms will mistakenly identify people of color, then why would we then rely on cameras — and the computer software with which they operate — to enforce traffic laws?
Further, if cameras will be determining speeding tickets, how do we know the identity of the driver? It might be the owner of the vehicle; it might not. Some measure of proof will need to be proffered, as it is not illegal to own a vehicle which breaks the law, it is illegal to break the law through operation of a vehicle.
Therefore, we will inevitably circle back to rely on people to make judgments. It will just be different people than police officers; namely, lawyers and judges.
This exercise considering consistency can be extrapolated across the political discourse. “Defund the police” doesn’t mean what it says; the actual policies pushed by supporters are inconsistent with the headline. And so on.
These inconsistencies turn serious policy debates into little more than soundbite-driven shouting matches. In the wake of the decision on the Civil Rights Act, if people want to fault Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh, fine. But they need to also praise her for supporting Gorsuch, Kagan, and Sotomayor.
When it comes to policing, there are legitimate reasons to question AI-driven recognition software. But you cannot couple it with a call to abandon human-driven enforcement of our duly-enacted traffic laws.
And chants of “defund the police” are foolish if your objective isn’t to actually defund the police. Nuance does not lend itself to brief, catchy slogans, but it is necessary if any work is to actually be done.
Because consistency is only the hobgoblin of small minds if it is foolish. Otherwise, it is the basis from which real debate can occur, real changes can be weighed, and real progress ultimately made.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.