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The Erosion of Ideals

A former Senator reflects on founding principles
by Gary Hart

Jul 6, 2024 | History, Politics

PHOTO CREDIT: 
Mehaniq

As America celebrates the 248th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the threat to the survival of our long-running democratic republic from political and religious extremism is palpable. Former Senator Gary Hart offers a timely reflection on the enduring principles ingrained in the charter of the new nation.

 

Many people of a certain age can finish the following sentence: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but…”

These words are indelible and for a reason.  They restore a long-forgotten principle, first conceived in ancient, pre-imperial Rome, and later instilled in the new nation of the United States of America.  That principle was central to the creation of a new form of government…the ideal of a republic.  Around 400 BCE, the early Roman citizens concluded they did not require an emperor, monarch, or dictator.  They could and would govern themselves.

That first principle required citizens to ask what they could do for their country.

Based on the early Roman model, the republican ideal eventually made its way to Venice, then to the Swiss cantons, and later in the sixteenth century the concept was revived in early enlightenment Florence by Niccolo Machiavelli. The tenets of republicanism gained intellectual credibility and depth in the Scottish and English Enlightenment, and traveled from there to the English colonies in America where they were enshrined in the post-Revolutionary States whose Founders created the United States of America.

Enlightenment philosophers and scholarship coalesced around four principles that republicanism required: civic virtue; popular sovereignty; a sense of the commonwealth; and resistance to corruption.

Civic virtue was meant to require citizen concern and care for the republic.  In modern terms that would mean citizen participation in government at all levels, not simply in the selection of leaders through open elections, but attention to the issues of the day, attendance at public forums, learning about options for the selection of public projects, and, if necessary, in banding together to protect the security of the republic from foreign interference.

Popular sovereignty meant that the citizens of the republic collectively replaced monarchs, dictators, and rulers.  In America, it is noteworthy that the first three words of our Constitution are We the People.   That Constitution provided that it had to be ratified by a majority vote of the people in the several States.

A sense of the commonwealth required citizen awareness that property could and would be owned by individual citizens but that certain elements of the republic belonged to the citizens at large.  These today include many urban transportation systems, national parks, and recreation and wilderness areas; local public school systems, public housing, public hospitals and treatment centers; the water we drink, the air that we breathe, and much else.  The perennial struggle between public ownership and privatization for profit of our public institutions and national resources continues.

Resistance to corruption is the least understood of the qualities of a republic.  The common usage of the word corruption today almost universally encompasses bribery, corner-cutting, special favors, and individual greed.  In the classic republic, corruption has been understood as putting personal or individual interest above the common good.  Republican citizens were understood to have personal interests in their farms, shops, or professions as a means of affording livelihoods.  But where those personal and family interests were placed ahead of or instead of the legitimate interests of the commonwealth was where corruption began and had to be resisted.

When John F. Kennedy famously called on his fellow citizens to “ask what you could do for your country,” it was the plea from a new American leader to restore these original features of the American republic to the personal and collective consciousness of the people.

These principles, in varying degrees, have been vitally important to republics throughout political history—and they’ve been respected, again in varying degrees, by those same republics.  These fundamental principles, in America as in other republics, would not vary.  It was the policies and programs that flowed from those principles that would vary with current realities.

It has always been a subject of fascination whether and to what degree President Kennedy was aware that he was trying to restore the balance between personal and public interest, between the unfinished business of guaranteeing full democratic rights and challenging Americans to fulfill the duties of a republic.

This question led this American citizen to undertake a change of career and study the history and ideals of the American republic, culminating in a graduate study program, the interrogation of Thomas Jefferson’s theory of republics, and a published graduate thesis on this theme.

Our Founders debated whether we should be known as a democracy or a republic.  It was left to Jefferson to write we are a democratic republic.

We are a combination of Constitutional rights and the duties of citizenship.  To put this doctrine into a sentence: we must protect our rights by the performance of our duties.

The more we perfect our obligations of citizenship, the safer our rights will be.  Scholars of political theory may take issue with this over-simplification, but it helps many citizens appreciate how a democracy can also be a republic.

This argument is particularly important now when we hear candidates for national and sometimes state office pronounce that we need less government…except when they are in charge; we need more concentrated authority at the top, also when they are in charge; that a touch of dictatorship now and then is necessary…again when they are in charge; and less government regulation in the public interest is needed…when they are not in charge.

Back to the early Roman republic, it was the incipient possibility of this kind of authoritarianism that led to the creation of the republican ideal.  And now, thanks to the timeless (and deforming) magnet of power, we return to that public arena which formed the ideal of the republic in the first place almost 2500 years ago.

Up until the mid-20th century, many if not most U.S. public schools offered mandatory “civics” courses.  It is a matter of concern for those of us old enough to remember these classes that today they are few and far between.  Civics classes taught what democracies and republics were and how they differed yet complemented each other.  Some even explained why we rebelled against a king. They emphasized the rights of citizens but also their duties.  They underscored the central role of free and fair elections, from county commissioners to the President of the United States. Most of all they stressed the duties and freedoms of citizenship in a democracy.

As a matter of our political heritage, it is important to note that, while the Romans were creating the republic (res publica, the public matter), the ancient Greeks, particularly the Athenians, were heralding themselves as a democracy.  The Athenian general Pericles, in his renowned funeral oration to the citizens of Athens, asserted: “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states, we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.  Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy.”  But in a later speech to his fellow Athenians, frustrated by war and the upheaval of a deadly plague, he said: “Cease then to grieve for your private afflictions, and address yourselves instead to the safety of the commonwealth.”* He understood that the common good was a fundamental backbone of the republic.

In the long human search for means of governance, from kings in armor to radical cults, none so far has surpassed those that have combined the enduring values of equality, justice, and fairness of democracy embedded within the framework of a citizen-controlled republic.  Even now, a democratic republic such as the United States—250 years after its creation— continues to ricochet between the excesses of self-proclaimed autocracies and the shortcomings of the liberal democratic state.

Perhaps this tension reflects the inevitable fractures in large scale, multi-cultural entities such as the United States, with its plethora of heritages and sectional interests.  Yet, even the once uni-cultural states such as those formerly found in Scandinavia are beset by frictions brought on by mass-migrations in the age of globalization.

It is argued here that the stability that can be found in a revolutionary period is still best exemplified in the democratic republic described by Thomas Jefferson.  And even after all these years, its singular theme is best sustained by citizens who ask what they can do for their country.

Still, among the many challenges we face, none is more vivid than this: we can do better.

* From The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides 

Gary Hart is an American politician, diplomat and lawyer.  He earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University, and graduate degrees in Law and Divinity from Yale. A Democrat, Hart represented Colorado in the United States Senate from 1975 to 1987. In 1984 and 1988, he was a candidate for his party’s nomination for President. Following his retirement from the Senate, Hart served as chair of the International Security Advisory Board of the US Department of State and chair of the Threat Reduction Advisory Council at the Department of Defense.  He subsequently served as chair of the American Security Project, and co-chair of the US-Russia Commission. From 2014-2017 Hart served as Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.

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