Is Government the Problem, or A Way to Serve One Another?
Written by: Joe Morris Doss
Almost every American feels that he or she lacks agency; we all seem to share a feeling that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.
Peter Wehner, in an op-ed column labeled American Politics and Conservative Thought recently lamented in reflection on “…how my party could produce Mr. Trump as its nominee…” He arrived at this conclusion:
“A friend of mine pointed out to me that part of the problem is that we are drenched in distaste for the actual practice of politics, and there’s an unstated sense among conservative activists in particular that the activity of governing is somehow illegitimate.
“Instead of arguing for the dignity and necessity of politics – instead of making the case for why the give and take, the debate and compromise, are both necessary and appropriate – activists and their counterparts in government disparaged it. This helps explain how Mr. Trump seized on deeply anti-political feelings and used them to his advantage, why Republicans so devalued any focus on policy this election season, and why the former reality television star was rewarded for his vast ignorance on issues. That can work only with people who disdain the government and the activity of governing.”
Mr. Wehner is dead-on! Some fifty years ago, when JFK was President, young Americans saw elective politics and governmental office as an idealistic way to serve their fellow citizens and the nation as a whole. One can hear the clarion call to service in that famous line of Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what the nation can do for you, ask what you can do for the nation!” Civic classes had taught that citizen engagement for the common good was what made American government different from those of other lands, and while young Americans felt sorry for peoples living under other forms of government it was assumed that it was just a matter of time and circumstance before all peoples would discover truth, justice, and the American way and manage to become like us. We assumed that “democracy” meant “citizen political participation.” We assumed that the very purpose of democracy was to serve one another, to share with one another, and to unite in and through government to resolve problems and fight the cause of right.
Churches are among the many American institutions and organizations dedicated to serving the public as well as individuals, performing good works and striving for the good of society. The mainline and institutionally traditional churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox – share a grand picture in which God’s creation is moved toward fulfillment through history. Peace and justice – social, economic, and legal – are special concerns of focus for the Christian church. Even so, we have learned where the church’s boundaries are regarding elective politics, and we understand that the government is entirely unique and irreplaceable in its reach and ability to bring together all citizens to accomplish things no other institution can. There will be no peace and/or justice without political action and the successful functioning of government.
Abraham Lincoln, of course, said it best. The victory at Gettysburg gave him new confidence that the time had come to proclaim that the unique American idea of government – an astoundingly new ideal – was finally going to become constitutionally founded and could become actualized. Such a government as was articulated by the founding fathers and being fought for in 1863 is not a necessary evil, not a great monster rising from the depths that has to be borne for the virtue of enforced order. This form of government was not to exist merely as a means to protect the properties and rights of those so endowed, or for a ruler, or any body of officials, to lord it over the people. Lincoln declared the definition of the government of the United States of America: “…government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
But then, Ronald Reagan challenged that in his slogan: “Government is the problem!” This was the summary of the political platform on which he ran and was elected President of the United States. On that premise he established the conservative movement as the dominant political force up to this very day. “Government is the problem” became the established mantra, the consensus attitude, the driving force, the assumption, of the conservative movement, and that it became the attitude of most Americans.
Mr. Wehner, perhaps a bit belatedly, is indeed correct: a government cannot function unless it is considered legitimate. It is even more basic, more penetrating in importance, for government itself to be considered legitimate. If not, the result will be that nothing gets done. And that, in fact, is the picture of our national government at this time. Congress increasingly has been unable to act, and the majority sees a “prevention defense” as its assignment – don’t bend and don’t break. Even the current Supreme Court is hard pressed to make majority decisions, and it is unlikely to issue any lasting decisions.
Much direct blame is be laid at the feet of the conservative movement in the way it moved the Republican Party from a traditional conservative philosophy with such goals as small government, strong defense, free trade, and social conservatism to getting bogged down in the radical tea party agenda, to a handful of overwhelmingly wealthy families that are off the chart right-wingers not below clandestine manipulation, to administrations that actually created the biggest of governments and are, by far, the ones most guilty of driving up the national debt, and finally to the nomination of a nationalist strong-man who talks like he has no confidence in American institutions and is bent on benign rule. But the most devastating cause of the lack of agency is how American citizens are giving up on politics and government. It is common for people to brag about being apolitical! Plato had something direct to say about that: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
The assumption that human beings are to participate in society through the polis, the political community, was so crucial in the ancient Greek democratic culture that the term “idiot” (idios) was invented to refer to those who had the right to participate in the political system but did not. This was made explicit in both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Plato said that such a person was less than human because the human being is, anthropologically, a political animal. To distance oneself from politics is to act like an idiot, and to allow oneself and ones fellow citizens to be ruled by evil men.
Given the choice, At the Threshold will stand with Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Plato: Government is not the problem, it is the means for us to serve one another and to act for the common good in a way completely unavailable by any other means.
Yes, and thank you Mr. Wehner. Now help us get past this election and finally restore the effective two party system required by the American Presidential scheme of democratic politics.