Independence Day 2017 dawns in a nation beset by deep political tensions, retreats from once-settled social justice policies, deliberate rejection of the ideal of the Good Society, declining global stature as our national leadership, by turns, puzzles, angers, mocks, and flat out denies the importance of the alliances that have held peace together for most of the 75 years since the end of World War II.
So grave are the dangers confronting our nation at this moment that we cannot simply allow this Independence Day to be the traditional 4th of July festival of hot dogs and ball games and flag waving, precious though those traditions are for most of us. But we also must use this moment to take stock of what has happened to us over the course of the last year as a nation and supposedly self-governing free people. We need to use this day, this week to revisit the principles, values and virtues that made it possible for the United States of America to emerge from decades of strife and resistance and war and often-bitter argument among people of many different beliefs and political ideas all of whom were considered patriots at the end of the 18th Century.
We the People: Power Derives from the Consent of the Governed
“We, the People” are the opening words to the preamble of the Constitution of the United States Not “I, the president” nor “We the Congress” but rather, “We, the People.” The President of the United States works for us. The Congress works for us. The Supreme Court works for us. The staff employed by the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court all work for us — We, the People.
We need to think about our power and our responsibility in nation-building. The Constitutional phrase came later, years after the Declaration of Independence, but the Constitution’s preamble captured well the fundamental statement about freedom and self-governance of the Declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776)
The United States is a republic, a form of government in which the people choose elected officials to carry out the will of the people — unlike a monarchy or tyranny where the people have no say about who rules them or what the rulers will do. The people exercise democracy in electing officials who are then responsible to enact and enforce laws that reflect the will of the people.
We the People — we must hold our elected officials to much higher standards for acting in the best interests of our nation and all if its inhabitants.
Responsible Governance is for ALL the People
In Federalist #10 James Madison correctly identified the serious problem of the faction, the tendency of people to organize into disparate interest groups in ways that cause conflict, instability and disruption to the cause of governance for the common good. Factions are a huge risk for democracies, and the United States in the present moment is Exhibit A of this problem. Madison warned of the destructive power of uncontrolled factions: “The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declarations.” (Federalist #10)
The republican form of government is supposed to safeguard the interests of the people from the tyranny that factions can impose. Unfortunately, at present, the United States has entered an historic era in which we seem to be witnessing the very dangers that Madison warned against — and particularly given the fact that those elected to govern seem to have relinquished their responsibility to govern for ALL the people and, instead, only think they are supposed to represent those who elected them. This is factionalism. Elected officials in a democracy have an obligation to work on behalf of ALL citizens, not just their own partisans — their “base.” But now we have a president and members of Congress who pander to “the base” and who often appear to ignore the concerns, rights and needs of all other citizens. Getting elected again is the prevailing value in enacting legislation no matter how many people might be hurt by ill-considered pandering to “the base.” This is the antithesis of working for the common good which is the ideal our Founders envisioned.
Governance of the republic is supposed to be for ALL of the people regardless of who voted for the politicians. We need to insist that all elected officials engage in frequent and robust discussions with ALL people, not just their donors, not just those who agree with them.
Presidential Leadership Requires Understanding and Respecting Democratic Principles
We are in a truly weird and worrisome moment in history in which the President of the United States appears to have little understanding of or respect for the democratic principles that formed our nation; this is a man who appears to have read very little history, who has almost no discernable political philosophy other than pandering to “the base” in the crassest of ways, sometimes even with violent rhetoric.
The President of the United States is bound by his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. The current President mocks the Constitution in so many ways, notably in his savage attacks on Freedom of the Press, in his cavalier statements favoring some religions while expressing a desire to ban members of other religions, in his entanglement of personally enriching businesses with public business.
The President of the United States must represent ALL the people, not just those who voted for him. No president in my memory has so rejected this idea. Even though only about 26% of adult Americans voted for him, 63 million, a minority of all voters, the President seems to believe that he is beholden only to those voters, not to the other 300 million+ citizens of the United States. This is a profound leadership character flaw, the inability of the elected president to see the whole picture of the nation, to be empathetic and proud of ALL Americans, to be open and responsive to all, even those who did not vote for him, even those who disagree with him.
The President of the United States is a leader who is expected to honor, respect and reflect our national values and ideals. The current president chooses crass, disparaging, self-aggrandizing messages on Twitter that serve little purpose other than to reveal his severe limitations intellectually, morally and spiritually. This is not a leader with a grand vision for ALL the people he represents. This is a person who publicly carries on minor tit-for-tat disputes with television personalities. This is a person whose lies are so frequent that it’s become noteworthy when he tells the truth.
So, what can We the People do about all of this?
I, for one, am not among those who think it’s reasonable or prudent to believe that an end to the current problem will occur anytime soon. Hope is not a strategy. Nor should more trauma to the body politic be something any reasonable person should want.
Instead, we need to do what those young men with bold visions did when they gathered in Philadelphia on those hot summer days 241 years ago.
We need to declare independence, once again.
What? Am I advocating insurrection?
Heck, no. But I am certainly advocating a more pronounced stance of independence — independence from the relentless intrusions of the constant media buzz, independence from the outrage that comes from letting every presidential tweet get under our skin, independence from political operatives of ALL parties who have made it their cause to invent realities premised on falsehood and false promises.
We need to stand up for truth. We need to exercise the right and power to speak and write what we know to be true, to advocate for those who are suffering grave oppression at the hands of our own government, to do everything possible to expose the self-interested hollowness at the core of so much current political activity.
We need to do what we can to restore the idea of political engagement as a worthy and even noble cause not just for ourselves but for the sake of the communities and nations we will pass on to future generations.
We need to insist that those who currently hold office do so with civility, with humanity, with a commitment to justice for even the least among us.
And we need to stop — STOP! — giving air time to the low-class no-class antics of someone who cheapens the Office of the President each day. In this, we should insist that the press exercise their freedom NOT to report what does not matter. A tweet does not matter except for what it reveals about character, common sense and class. Having established the lack thereof, what’s left to report?
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