There is a basic relationship between the personal and political—the individual and the state. As Plato wrote in the year 380 B.C., “States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters. . . . Like state, like man” (“The Republic,” Books 8 and 9).
Aside from human character, JUSTICE is another ancient touchstone of government. The starting point I will take in search of the underlying principles of government comes down to the intersection of these two intangibles—ethics and human nature.
The Origin of the Republic
Our founding fathers relied heavily upon the examples of Golden Age of Greece and the Roman Republic for guidance in creating our own. There were no other contemporary examples of self-rule at the time of the founding fathers, and this democracy-based government had been a very rare occurrence since the Republic of Rome. Greece and the Roman Republic offered an insight into the workings of self-government, or more to the point, a glimpse of the workings of human behavior within the context of self-government.
To understand politics, we must understand the nature and psychology of man. –Plato
The political concept of the republic goes at least back to Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Republic, which dates from c. 375 BC. It is the foundational work concerning political philosophy. The book focuses on justice, the just man, and the just city-state. Justice looms large in the matter of people governing themselves.
The Republic of Rome was short-lived in comparison to the Empire that followed, but the United States is only reaching halfway point in lasting the 500 years of the Roman Republic —So there’s a lot of Roman history for the founding fathers to consider in their pursuit of systematizing popular self-governance.
Democracy was often disparaged in ancient times because there are many inherent problems. The longevity of a democracy was never taken for granted, considering the matter in this letter from John Quincy Adams to John Taylor:
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.
–John Quincy Adams
This quote does not reveal the larger context of exchange between Adams and Taylor. But what resonates among all the founding fathers is the primary importance of how government will deal with “the passions” of the people—those behaviors driven by emotions rather than reason.
If people were reasonable, then far less government would be necessary to maintain a coherent society. Adams listed only a few passions here. But Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Jefferson, and the rest, examine countless manifestations of behaviors guided by the human passions.
Destruction by division- divide and conquer- divide and rule
“Divide and Rule” was the operative motto of the Roman Empire. A divided people are weakened from within— the society is chaotic, the people are vulnerable and, thus, easier to manipulate and control by the legions of Rome. The decline of Rome and all civilizations comes from within—decline in civic virtue, social cohesion, and a shared sense of unity.
Today, the similarity we can see is that the resources and attention that are consumed by internal division divert attention and resources from the important matters that would have created a more perfect union. Merely enduring the turmoil leaves little room for the luxury of chasing perfection.
With all the division and chaos, it seems rational for concerned citizens to ask themselves, “Since I’m confident in my political convictions and I know I’m right, how do I deal with all those other people that are obviously wrong, but are just as stubborn in their beliefs as I am?”
The common response —and most disastrous remedy—is for the partisans to dig in their heels—they double down against the perceived domestic foe. Compromise then can only occur when the other side comes around to “our” way of thinking, which will never happen, locking us into a downward spiral. This cannot end well.
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” –Matthew 12:25
This is not a prediction of the end of the US, but making comparisons to the past reveal some troubling historical parallels. A government by the people does not happen without the people’s effort and more importantly, with a peoples’ understanding of how government works.
Much of the fate and very survival of our republic rests upon the US Constitution’s efficacy—that is, how well the founders’ underlying assumptions about human nature are structured and administered to deal with the destructive qualities of human behavior.
The constitution was created as blueprint to bind the republic together, and in so doing, it is constructed to counteract the passions of the citizens. Where civil unrest arises, it would be disastrous to depend on brute force to keep “law and order” like a dictatorship. A dictatorial regime will use police repression and propaganda, spreading the fear of unrest, portraying the troublemakers as lowlifes and criminals, and claiming the cause of protest has no merit.
The First Amendment is first because it represents the most fundamental of all rights—freedom of speech, assembly, and petition the government for redress of grievances. Government coercion in the absence of justice—justice that is acceptable to those with grievances—destroys the credibility of a political system based upon self-rule. One would have to conclude that a system of government by the people is not compatible with human nature.
Many government appointments and positions require swearing an oath to protect and defend the constitution. But how can the Constitution be defended, exactly, when its essence is a concept? By taking up arms? By passing laws and regulations? By storing it in a vault? Is merely taking a loyalty oath enough?
The way Alexander Hamilton defended the constitution was to make a reasoned argument supporting the constitution in his writing of the Federalist Papers, along with James Madison and John Jay. Having an intimate understanding of it, he could make an appeal as to why the constitution should be accepted by the Continental Congress to replace the Articles of Confederation.
The Federalist also makes an appeal as to why the constitution should be accepted by every citizen. Today many embrace and accept the constitution on faith and blind loyalty with little understanding, while out of ignorance, refusing its principles in practice and thought.
Without the context provided by the Federalist Papers, it would be difficult to understand the underlying principles behind its framing. How can we defend the constitution without any obligation to understand it? The constitution’s framework is derived from particular principals that all citizens should be familiar with, but most obviously aren’t.
Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. –Gustave Flaubert
Faction as a fundamental threat to the republic
Political Parties are extra-constitutional. They are external to the constitution and aren’t even mentioned in the document. If you have read the Federalist Papers, you know that the founders regarded the problem of faction a fundamental threat to the republic. Faction is what we call today partisanship.
We have seen the problem before in the division between North and South, and even those historical problems have not been fully resolved. The Federalist Papers are clear that the best arrangement to maintain the republic is to frame it in a way that arrays one faction against another in a way that cancel each other, thereby restraining all sides.
The Federalist Papers are public domain, free for anyone. I suggest reading the Federalist #10 (Madison). But The Federalist may be difficult reading for those accustomed to the more simple level of social media.
Where there is bargaining, common cause and compromise, things get done rather quickly. But you may have noticed, when there is no agreement, a stalemate arises. And it may not be resolved until the conditions of the stalemate fade. It may be a long wait that includes cultural shifts or elections. It could take a series of elections.
From an individual partisan’s perspective, it seems incomprehensible that half the country believes that other half can’t see reality as it really is; the other party doesn’t have a good grasp of political reality. By that measure, it’s easy to conclude that the other side is not very competent in their viewpoint and can be easily dismissed. But those people who have been judged, in turn, have arrived at the same conclusion about the ones that have judged them:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
― Romans 2:1-3 ESV /
Checks and balances and the separation of power were construed for a reason, and for that reason political party is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution. Unfortunately, political parties became the center of political exchange, despite the Federalist Papers’ grave historical examples of the dangers caused by faction and partisanship. The constitution works best engaged by thoughtful independent-minded voters rather than the herd mentality of campaign slogans, personal attacks and bumper stickers.
Negotiation and cooperation are the only productive means of establishing a virtuous union. The trade-off is that if there is no agreement, political parties will go around those constitutional constraints and resort to distorting representation in their pursuit of raw political power.
They engage in propaganda, demonization, voter suppression, packing the courts, and gerrymandering. These are end runs around the idea of one person, one vote; attempts to bypass the democratic process instead of the lost art of arriving at the best policy through dialogue using legitimate reasoning.
To start with the Federalist Papers is no cure-all, but if offers insight into how the founders intended to order an effective government, or at least one they hoped would endure. The plan to thwart the tendency for faction does not take account of other necessary elements such as a well-informed public, but we must crawl before we can walk.
The constitution’s own interpretation
When we see partisan commentators and ideologues waving copies of the constitution in the attempt on making political claims of expertise, it should be recognized as a red flag. The Constitution is silent on virtually all political controversies. The only way to interpret the constitution is to understand why it was framed as it was, and accordingly, respect the institutions established by it, in good faith.
The passion of the moment is a cynicism that government can’t do anything right, that the other political faction is a threat to the country, that “Washington” is corrupt. In this world of partisan bickering and propaganda, it’s difficult to maintain good faith in our government.
“Good faith” is most often used in legalistic terms such as in contracts. The usage I mean here is at the level of a citizen—good faith is exercising your due diligence to gain understanding about knowledge you presume to know in your responsibilities of running your own country.
Put in contemporary colloquial terms, that translates to “pulling you head out of your ass.” And you want to do this without losing the ability to look inside yourself, while looking into your reflection in the eyes of others to see yourself from the outside. In these days, that posture seems contortionist, but the basis of contortionism is flexibility.
The Constitution sets out the structure, institutions, basic principles, and many processes, but is quite vague concerning any political issue. The Constitution does not create new laws, but only the framework for their creation. It does not interpret itself; it establishes the court to do so. There is no other constitutional interpretation than by the institutions established by the constitution itself, whether you agree with it or not.
It’s not interpreted by TV commentators, not by pundits, right-wing terrorists, not by Texas Sheriffs, or any other political operative that routinely proclaims things to be unconstitutional or constitutional to suit their personal viewpoint. When you do not agree with the doctrine or its processes, then you do not fundamentally believe in the validity of the constitution and neither do self-proclaimed interpreters.
The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
― Leonardo da Vinci