IT IS COMMONPLACE to believe that politicians never accept blame and that they always accuse others even if what they are doing is a principled, calculated choice. They will not risk telling you the shutdown is purposeful because of lofty ideals they believe are impossible to compromise. This is unfortunate because I am sure that both sides believe what they are doing is based on their visions of the best regime, of political truth.
How have we devolved from the republic founded by James Madison et al., to a political arena in which leaders from both parties say, uncompromisingly – ironically enough – that they will not compromise, and that the government shutdown is the result of the other party not compromising?
Is the party system itself to blame? Partly. Nevertheless, this does not explain the entire situation.
In 1835, perhaps the best piece of philosophical observation illustrating the American democratic regime was published by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. In it he depicts the American parties and notes that there are two types of parties, generally: great and small. The names do not depict size, but values. Great parties, he notes, have noble features, generous passions and real convictions, and are concerned with the true public interests than with individual ambition. Small parties, on the contrary, are “without political faith.” Small parties are not elevated or sustained by great concerns, and their characters are “stamped with selfishness.”
IT IS WORTH quoting a particular passage directly: “Great parties overturn society, small ones agitate it; the former tear it apart and the latter deprave it; the first sometimes save it by shaking it up, the second always trouble it without profit.” He continues by noting America once had “great” parties; but as of 1829, it no longer did. It still does not.
The parties, politicians and the president himself are partly to blame for the government shutdown. As Woodrow Wilson once voiced concerning contemporary American politics: “No leaders, no principles; no principles, no parties.” But this is not the whole story.
Our country was designed for political conflict. It is not supposed to be easy to pass legislation, and the system is designed to be conflictual, daunting and critical. Madison makes this clear in Federalist Papers 10, 47, 48 and 51. Each part of the government is meant to do war with all other parts, against the people themselves, and the people are meant to engage in this battle by checking the government’s actions. Madison’s purpose in this was to prevent tyranny from forming – you know, that thing we fought a bloody Revolutionary war against.
The government today, though perhaps not by principled purpose but rather institutional chance, is playing its Madisonian part: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
SO IF OUR CURRENT crisis is not the complete fault of the parties, or of the government in general, and the government mechanism is working according to its design – yet still we sit with a partially closed government – who is left to blame? The next part is where you solidify against me.
I am to blame. You are. We are.
The Founders designed a republic. Part of being a republic is that the people must educate themselves with true knowledge of government and philosophy, not just blogs and op-eds, and this self-education must contain an element of virtue and morality – though how one defines these concepts are the subject of another piece.
We have let the Founders down. Most of us do not properly educate ourselves. We don’t properly understand the purpose of voting: to elect members of society from amongst ourselves that we think are best able to judge our true, best interests, especially when we cannot recognize our best interests because of emotion and self-interest. Often, our best interest is not something we can logically see; passion deludes our wisdom.
It is possible to get out of this mess. But it will be very difficult. It starts with admitting that we have not cherished our roles as citizens properly. We have forgotten that most of our society could not be citizens, properly called, for most of our country’s existence. Now that suffrage is universal, we still do not take it upon ourselves to become serious, virtuous citizens. This fits with all sectors of society. We do not take being citizens seriously.
HOW DO WE change this? It begins with self-education and carries over into electing members fit to govern; fit to discern America’s true interest; able to sacrifice the self for the sake of the polity. For American politics to be great again – our country is great; our system needs work – we must become responsible citizens and better ourselves. After all, we elect who mirrors us.
Case in point: Our government is closing in on a $17 trillion deficit. Do not gasp – it’s only mirroring our actions. Many of us live well beyond our means, accumulating massive personal debt. How can we possibly chastise the government for its poor budgeting when most of us are guilty of the same sin?
Government is a reflection of the people in a republic. Thus, we are to blame for its ills. You can argue with me and insult this view, or you can meditate on it, change and make a true difference. Otherwise, how can we argue with Joseph de Maistre? He once quipped, “Every country has the government it deserves.”
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Regents University Augusta, and the associate director of the GRU Knowledge Integrated program.)