By David Corbin, April 21, 2010 in Outside the Classroom
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
- Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided,” June 16, 1858
There is something wrong with our politics that one or two elections cannot solve. In the last three years, we have had a Republican president with a Democratic congress and a Democratic president with a Democratic congress. In the next three years, it is very possible that we will have a Democratic president with a Republican congress, followed by a Republican president with a Republican congress. And when every combination of R’s and D’s has been exhausted and all our deck chairs rearranged, our ship will still be sinking - and we with it - if we have not addressed the roots of our political disorder: the progressive abandonment of our republican principles and heritage. This need never have happened and it need not continue. If we can sweep away the entrenched men and measures that are smothering our good republic, we may preserve for posterity the gift of Founders wiser than ourselves.
President Obama’s first year in office dramatically accelerated trends that have generally defined the politics of the last two decades: spending and deficits beyond all recognizable levels, expanded government control of our lives and livelihoods, and a growing disconnect between our privileged political class and the rest of America. The result has been a dispirited public and a consensus among “informed” commentators that we the people are too unintelligent to deal with our complex problems, that the United States is in irreversible decline, and that only a rapid infusion of Chinese-style authoritarianism can stave off total collapse.
Anyone who looks into what ails us understands that the people who are making things worse believe that they are better than we, that they know more than we, and that we’re incapable of governing ourselves. To speak and act usefully, we have to be clear about why and how they are wrong. We have to be clear about what is right and why it is so. America’s Founders also had to deal with rulers who assumed that they had a natural right to rule. Our Founders were able to free themselves from their presumed betters because they tempered their anger with understanding, because they married theory to practice.
The American Founders knew well the work they were about. Although they left us with a number of definitions of the republic they sought to establish, John Adams spoke for all when he described its essence: “an empire of laws, and not of men.” In the best republic, the laws are made, executed, and adjudicated impartially, transparently, and exactly. Regardless of one’s party or ideological affiliation, one could not claim that American government operates in such a manner today. This is not because we explicitly reject these ideals: every new politician enters office promising impartiality, transparency, and fair dealing. And yet far too often the result is only one more leader quickly and quietly assimilated into the noxious Washington culture of a self-referential ruling class.
Central to our trouble is the fact that we have lost touch with what it means to be a citizen of a republic – to expect and demand nothing less and nothing more than the impartial, transparent, and exact administration of the law. Such a view of citizenship begins with an understanding of two fundamental moral facts about human beings: that we are equal in dignity with one another and morally responsible for the justice of our actions. Neither of these principles predetermines the right level of taxation or spending, the best measures for health care reform, or the particular policy to be adopted in any other area – rather, they go to the foundations of our political order. They ask: have I proposed a rule for others that I could live with myself? Can I give a reason for my policy more meaningful than: “because I (or we) say so?”
There is also a sort of political leadership suitable to a republic. A republican statesman respects the rule of law – he would not enslave free men even to free slaves. He would not take from Peter to give to Paul (or Mary). He leads as he would wish to be led. He doesn’t play the part of the biased judge, the dictatorial executive, or the backroom legislator. His ambition is tied to upholding the empire of laws rather than furthering his empire over men.
Although the American founders understood that there was something decisively new in their approach to politics, they had no illusions that they had stumbled upon a new race of men, capable of transcending differences of opinion or interest. They themselves were often divided on important questions. Nevertheless, they recognized the distinction between divisions based upon competing understanding of what would serve the good of all and divisions arising out of the pursuit of merely private gain.
While parties might legitimately result from the former, the latter was only the seedbed of factions. These ought to be shamed and harried from the public square to whatever degree possible, even if the causes from which they sprung could not be removed. How did the founders attempt to cleanse their politics from the stain of faction? Beyond efforts at constitutional construction aimed at mitigating the effects of faction, they insisted that politics be constrained by the claims of justice and that justice itself be pursued lawfully and prudently.
We see precious little of this approach to politics today. Instead of utilizing republican means, advocates for change (usually progressives) employ judicial fiat, the expansion of administrative rules and oversight, and an ever-expanding body of entitlement legislation to achieve their vision of a just society. This give and take encourages the formation of spectator-citizens, a multitude that tunes in when the “who gets what, when, and how” becomes entertaining or begins to affect their bottom line. Because all things worthy of their political interest and/or attention amount to a zero-sum game, they view politics simply as a game. The game, expertly choreographed, yet poorly played, gives viewers an occasional rush of adrenaline or shudder of fright, but no lastingappreciation for its rules, its purpose, or its excellence - no fundamental desire, that is,to maintain the integrity of the game itself. In such an environment, claims for justiceare reduced to “might makes right,” lawfulness is something to be skirted ratherthan upheld, and prudence makes way for veiled incompetence in the form of feeblerecklessness or bold appeasement.
Where we are is a post-republican regime and whither we are tending is an even farther distance from republican citizenship, statesmanship, and politics. What to do is a matter of reviving republican habits in all three areas of our political life. If we can know what republican citizenship, statesmanship, and politics are, we can work toward making the impartial, exact, and transparent administration of law the “generative fact” of American politics in theory and practice once again.