Americans are still lucky to be living in a constitutional, democratic republic. The latter two words are held together by a written constitution that, in Hannah Arendt’s prescient observation, “contains the extraordinary capacity to look upon yesterday with the eyes of centuries to come.”
The principles of constitutional government have a long history, but the origins surely lie with Plato and especially Aristotle of fourth century BC Greece. In his “Politics,” Aristotle contends that its study centers on the question: “In what does the good life consist?” He provides a two-tiered answer. The higher tier is that the best life consists of happiness, since that is the value reflective of the gods. However, since Aristotle recognizes that people have conflicting interests and values, a more pragmatic, lower tier — or “mortal pursuit” — answer lies in finding the golden mean between extremes, or in his words, “moderation in all things” — the essence of which is compromise. Aristotle defines this lesser tier as politics.
At the societal level, he contends such moderation is best achieved in a middle-class economy under the political rule of a mixed constitution made up of a Senate drawn from the propertied classes and an Assembly elected by the general citizenry. The two bodies then selected their overall rulers (Archons) from their ranks. Plato adds a judicial branch of Scrutineers of the law, drawn from trained experts.
America’s founders followed the two-tiered Greek model by proclaiming “the pursuit of happiness” as a God-given right in the Declaration of Independence. However, in the Preamble to our Constitution, the framers settled for the more pragmatic, lesser goals of “insuring domestic tranquility” and “promoting the general welfare” in setting up a similar set of three branches of government. Sadly, there is nothing “tranquil” or respectful of “the general welfare” to American politics today.
To at least regain the bipartisan society envisioned by our Constitution’s Preamble, America needs to re-embrace three rules of conduct. The first is to respect the constitutional rule of law so that everybody is playing by the same rules to ensure that political actions, however controversial, are seen as fair.
In this regard, the Constitution established Congress to make the laws, the executive branch to execute and enforce them, and the courts to interpret them.
When President Obama admitted he lacked the constitutional authority to admit half a million undocumented children into the country, but did it anyway because “it was the only way to get it done,” he set a bad example for the respect of constitutional law — and thereby helped propel the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.
Second, America needs a more critically informed citizenry. Gone are the days when we can trust a single evening TV broadcast from Walter Cronkite telling us “and that’s the way it is.”
Today, virtually all news outlets are ideologically motivated, and present only those facts that support their agendas. Thus it is incumbent on news consumers to consult a variety of sources to come to their own critical conclusions as to “the way it is.”
If someone gets their news from watching MSNBC and reading The New York Times, he or she also should view Fox News and read The Wall Street Journal — and vice versa. One should also be wary of purported objective sources of news. For example, a working definition of a liberal is anyone who thinks that National Public Radio is objective.
Third, America should make further strides to become a fully inclusive society. Our rates of voter participation are by far the worst of any major democracy. Though voter ID laws should be respected, there are a variety of simple measures that can be taken to bring about a far more participatory electorate. In such an expansion, the Republican Party will need to be far more intentional about reaching out to black, Hispanic and Asian voters lest it become permanently out of power. Democrats, similarly, need to reach out to men and women of all socioeconomic groups, however “deplorable” some of these groups might be.
There is one more thing that could sure help: the rediscovery of manners. The blessing of the free society in which we live is something we all have achieved together, and we owe each other the courtesy of mutual respect and appreciation. As a supporter of most of President Trump’s domestic agenda, I nevertheless ascribe much of the blame for the breakdown in polite discourse to the White House. In establishing a standard for political conversation, President Trump has set a terrible example.
In Plato’s Laws, the famous lawgiver, Solon, is asked who is a happy man. He replies, “Tellus of Athens is a happy man for he lives in a well-governed polis (city).” If we must reserve happiness for the gods and Athenians, may we at least try for the “domestic tranquility” of our Constitution’s Preamble?