Samain Joe and SeoAh Moon
Republican virtues. Gary Hart referented the founding fathers often in his speech last Sunday night. In particular he used them to emphasize the difference between a democracy and a republic. We inhabit both. In a democracy we focus on our rights. In a republic we focus on duties, responsibilities. Unfortunately, I can’t recall all the republican virtues that Hart enumerated, there were four, but I do remember the thrust of his argument.
The major point was that we tend to focus on the democratic virtue of attending to our rights as citizens, especially those enumerated in the Constitution and, of course, those in the Bill of Rights. This is claiming our privileges as citizens of the United States, but that claim is itself passive. It wants what it is promised and should be given. Of course, there are the struggles over civil rights that has taken very active work by African-Americans, Indians, LGBT folk, women and the parody of struggle over so-called “gun rights” and “property rights”. Though important these are all within the frame of special interest pleading.
Two of the republican virtues about which Gary Hart talked that I do remember: seeking the common good, not the good of special interests, but the interests of all citizens; fighting corruption, that is corruption as more broadly defined by the founders, that is, government twisted toward the service of special interests.
In the latter case, fighting corruption, Hart cited an astonishing statistic. There were, according to him, 146 to 150 registered lobbyists when he came into the Senate in 1974. (I couldn’t corroborate this number.) and 13,000 today. This last number I did confirm. Corruption, according to the founders, was governing for special interests rather than the common good. A lobbyist, is, by definition, pleading for a special interest, whether the spotted owl, for or against gun control, particular provisions for particular commercial interests, or any of the myriad thousands of other causes.
Not only is this corruption in the broader sense of the founders, but it is corruption in the more narrow sense of using money to influence policy. Why? Because of the millions, even hundreds of millions, of dollars lobbyists pour into congressional campaigns.
So, if we’re to take our politics toward an interest in the common good, fighting lobbyists and their outsized role in the determination of legislation (and, an often opaque one, too) is necessary.
Republican virtues require active participation in the politics, large and small, of our nation. This means attendance at school board meetings or county commissioner meetings as well state legislatures and congress. This means paying attention to policy debates and weighing in from time to time. Hart mentioned a class he took in high school called Civics. Studying civics is the inculcation of republican virtues. Is this part of a student’s curriculum these days?
Small r republican virtues are those which require more of us than a passive insistence on rights granted. They involve citizen participation in governing. They involve educating ourselves, in depth, about issues that matter to the nation as a whole. They involve an active role rather than a passive one. Other nations, those where we promote democracy, ask, “How can you push this on us when often less than half of potential voters actually vote?” Good question. Voting is a republican virtue.
Both democratic assertion of rights and the republican virtues of citizen engagement are necessary for the health of our nation. Populism, for which Hart offered a shorthand definition, angry citizens, wracked our country in the late nineteenth century and brought Trump to power in this one. But, we managed to contain its spread the last time. How? Richard Hofstadter’s 1956 book, The Age of Reform, recounts the story. Hart recommended reading it. I plan to.
Based on our reaction to the first instance of populist rebellion Hart said he was confident we could weather this current manifestation of it, too. This was the pivotal point of his talk for me, a part where the dismal present got placed into a larger context, one with a historical precedent, and one which we can eventually resolve. Slowly, probably, painfully surely, but still a sort of rebellion from which we can learn, grow and change. I’m ready. Are you?