When asked, following the Constitutional Convention, what kind of government had been created, Benjamin Franklin made a now famous reply. “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Those words have been on my mind a great deal in recent weeks. I wonder why?
Could it be the calls from those who want us to seal the borders, shut off all immigration into the U.S., and deport 11 million individuals? Could it be presidential candidates saying – when a decision is made that recognizes that we are a secular nation and not based on religious law – that we have “criminalized Christianity?” Could it be the calls to register Muslims and to reopen the internment camps of WWII? When I hear these speeches, I’m reminded of the late great Molly Ivins’ quip about Patrick Buchanan’s famously combative “culture wars” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention: It probably sounded better in the original German.
But that’s not why I sat down to write.
I’ve read three books over the past couple of months that all bring a different perspective to my thinking about the future of our republic and our political system of governance. They are very different works, and all three have flaws. But in the end all were worth reading.
I began a couple of months ago with the most recently published of the three: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by historian Joseph J. Ellis. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Ellis writes in a beautiful and highly readable style. There is much to learn from the interactions of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay leading up to and during the Constitutional Convention. This is also the type of “famous man” history that misses so much going on around it. Those flaws are called out in the New York Times review in the link above and in other commentary found on-line.
From my perspective, there are two passages which capture what is good and useful about this work. Ellis’ observation that the most important part of the Constitution is the framework to support discussion – and ultimately – lawmaking, is among the most powerful insights to come from the historian’s work.
In the long run – and this was probably Madison’s most creative insight – the multiple ambiguities embedded in the Constitution made it an inherently “living” document. For it was designed not to offer clear answers on the sovereignty question (or, for that matter, to the scope of executive or judicial authority) but instead to provide a political arena in which arguments about these contested issues could continue in a deliberative fashion. The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.
Writing near the end of the book, Ellis returns to this theme:
It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over their head, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkable well.
One theory as to why we – as a country – are so good at arguments around immigration, civil rights and civil liberties, the role of religion in government, and so much more is put forward by Colin Woodard in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. In this 2011 work, Woodard – an author and journalist – explores how different sections of North American were settled by different cultures that exist to this day. I read this work immediately after The Quartet, and if Ellis is focused on the famous man theory of history, Woodard delves into the cultural cores of eleven different regions of the country, which he labels nations.
Woodard outlines his thesis of our fractured country and explains why “American values” vary sharply from one region to another
…how an idea like “freedom” as understood by an East Texan or Idahoan can be the polar opposite of what it means to a New Englander or San Franciscan.
There isn’t and never has been one America…but rather several Americas. The original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Islands, and from France, the Netherlands,and Spain, each with unique religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some embraced an Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity, others ethnic and religious pluralism. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order. All of them continue to uphold their respective ideals today, with results that can be seen on the composition of the U.S. Congress or the county-by-county election maps of most any competitive presidential election of the past two centuries.
This is a very interesting thesis, and Woodard makes a compelling case. Having grown up in the South, I have seen much of the cultural distinctions he calls out for that nation. However, I have also seen major shifts in how parts of those regions behave politically over time – sometimes for the good, sometimes not. Woodard tends to gloss over movements of people between the regions and the impact that has on those areas. In the end, he never makes his case in a way that takes me from “yes, this is plausible” to convinced that these regional differences outweigh other factors that have shaped who we are as the United States.
David McCullough has talked about the way we are a nation founded on ideals and not on a common ethnicity, language, or culture. One particularly in-depth reviewer of American Nations put it this way:
Say whatever you want about how the United States operates in practice, the idea of the United States is a beautiful thing. The idea of the United States is that anybody – anybody – can be an American. We don’t care about your skin color, your religion, your accent, your beliefs, or where you’re from. To be an American, all you have to do is agree to abide by our laws and our Constitution, agree to respect the principles of representative democracy, and recognize those special “carve outs” for individual rights that may not be trampled on by the majority: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of consciousness, equality before the law, etc.
The idea of America functions almost as a national, secular religion (if that isn’t too blatant a contradiction in terms), and I’ve long believed that it provides the necessary glue, the commonality that we all need, to hold us together as a people. As much as I complain and cavil about my country and the things done in its name, like everyone else I know I’ve never stopped being proud of the ideas for which it stands. And the unifying nature of those ideals, to which we all consciously pledge our allegiance, vastly outweighs the more instinctive cultural differences found in the United States.
The question we are facing today is whether the strains of nativism, aristocratic rule, the Know-Nothing movement, and domestic terrorism as primarily seen through our treatment of African-Americans – which have always run through our politics and history – are, in our new world of instant communications and the highly partisan 24/7 news cycle, threatening to take us places we’ve always stopped short of visiting in our past.
Which leads me to the third book in this exploration of our political life today: Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. I read a review of this 2011 book early in the year, and decided to add it to my list of works on politics and our future as a country.
This is a very personal book, and I won’t attempt to delve into Palmer’s personal journey. It is important to note that he writes this from a “season of heartbreak” – both personal and political. From the prelude:
The politics of our time is the “politics of the brokenhearted” – an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing. Instead, it is an expression from the language of human wholeness. . . . If we cannot talk about politics in the language of the heart – if we cannot be publicly heartbroken, for example, that the wealthiest nation on earth is unable to summon the political will to end childhood hunger at home – how can we create a politics worthy of the human spirit, one that has a chance to serve the common good?
The prelude is as good a place as any to capture the essence of Palmer’s book.
It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure – the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend. Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracy’s infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed. The heart’s dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the “visuals” to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work. Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.
For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive – and we are legion – the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.
Ellis and Palmer have written hopeful books about our future as a nation, while my reading of Woodard is that he feels we face irreconcilable differences that could lead to dissolution. I am not as hopeful at the moment as Palmer, but historian that I am, I know we have faced difficult challenges as a people in our past. Our nation was not forged from a natural unity, but found a unity in spite of differences. We fought one declared Civil War to begin to address the enslavement of African-Americans (which – as Bryan Stevenson has eloquently put it – then simply evolved into other forms of slavery). We fought an undeclared Civil War to take over western lands from our native peoples. We went through a Gilded Age of great income inequality and the suffering that resulted, and we appear determined to repeat the sins of that era today. We have incarcerated immigrants and others who don’t fit our preconceived notion of an American. We have allowed corporations to take over our government and wrest power away from the people.
But so many of our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them have also fought for our idea of America. I have to believe that the spirit to fight for that idea remains and – like Ellis – I believe that if we see our Constitution as the framework for having those arguments – instead of a piece of literal scripture with the answer for every issue – we can continue to thrive.
And finally, we need to focus in this work on e pluribus unum as opposed to the official U.S. motto that corporate America gave us when they invented Christian America in the era of the 1930s to the 1950s to push back against New Deal reforms: In God We Trust. But that’s another post.
More to come…