AN APPEAL FOR POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT
Over the past year I’ve discovered one thing with stunning clarity! If you’re going to win the Honors Recognition Award, you’d better have a stout ego. Otherwise, you’re toast because you’re going to agonize for 364 days over what you’ll say at the Honors Banquet!
For my part, I hoped for sudden inspiration. I hoped to be like Rousseau. On his way to visit Diderot in prison, his mind was suddenly “dazzled by a thousand lights, by a crowd of ideas”. With what clarity would [I then] have then pointed out all of the contradictions of our social system!”
But, I didn’t have Rousseau’s luck (actually, that might be a good thing considering how his life turned out!). No such epiphany occurred. In the end I decided to use this occasion simply to discuss something I care a lot about. That’s why my subject, like Dr. Benjamin Barber’s this morning, is American democracy. My thesis is that we should be concerned for its well being. My aim is to persuade the students present that they can and should do something about it.
I took my first interest in politics in January, 1961—the day we inaugurated a charismatic young politician to be our president. I listened to that inauguration on the radio, relying on my imagination to picture John Kennedy and the great occasion of installing a president. I was 17 years old.
Listening to President Kennedy speaking of his passion for
I was so inspired, actually, that the day after graduating from high school I tried to join the Peace Corps! I can still see the bemused look on the face of the fellow who interviewed me. He politely suggested that before rushing off to serve my country I might first want to learn something that would be useful to it! He suggested I give college a try.
As it turned out, I didn’t enter the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service, as I had intended. By my junior year in college the Vietnam War had brought teach-ins and sit-ins to the staid, conservative campus of the
This is how I ended up studying and later teaching political theory—a discipline that specializes more in formulating good questions than in giving definitive answers. Many students think of political theory as “old masters and musty texts”, but it’s actually a dynamic, evolving tradition that’s equally useful to each succeeding generation. My own study of those “musty texts” taught me that the moral ambiguities haunting the
Recalling these memories leads me to contemplate the present generation. You, too, are coming of age in the shadow of an unsettling war. And I wonder: did President Bush’s call to defeat terrorism after the September 11 attacks inspire you to think of public service? Did his later call to promote democratic freedom across the globe inspire you in the way that President Kennedy’s call to “bear any burden” for liberty inspired an earlier generation? Were you persuaded that
I ask these questions because I’m concerned about the quality of citizenship in our country today. At TCU we declare that our mission is to train ethical leaders for a global society. Political science plays an important role in this mission by informing us about the institutions and behaviors that direct national and international life. However, since its origins in ancient
The problem, of course, from Aristotle’s day to ours, is that this sort of thing is often viewed with suspicion—and never more so than in times of crisis—which is precisely when it is needed most! We would do well to remember how ready Athenians were to cast doubt on Socrates’ loyalty 2500 years ago. The “swift boating” of those who question power or policy today is only the contemporary iteration of this tendency. Far from being unpatriotic, approaching leadership and power skeptically is both necessary and patriotic. Political theorists make excellent guides in this regard. Even Machiavelli, who we tend to regard as the most cynical of men, pursued political theory because he was passionately engaged with the concerns of public life. “I love my country more than my own soul” Machiavelli once said. But this devotion did not prevent him from making radical criticisms of his country’s politics—indeed, it was the very source of those criticisms.
Margaret Thatcher once quipped: “There is no such thing as society, only individuals pursuing their interests”. Political theory originates in a different viewpoint—from the Aristotelian observation that we are by our nature “social and political beings”. Political theory appreciates our shared, public life, but treats it critically from a moral point of view. The need for this is constant in a democratic society.
Even though I believe that today’s university offers rich opportunities to develop a critical, humane cast of mind, I’m still worried. I’m troubled by the shift that has taken place in broader American attitudes over the course of my lifetime. The appeal of disinterested public service that seemed so palpable to me in 1961 has been allowed—even encouraged—to wither. A mindset that treats government as the problem not the solution to our shared concerns has taken hold. No less a figure than Milton Friedman has ridiculed President Kennedy’s call to “to ask what you can do for your country”. The present mindset so privileges the private sphere of our lives that it marginalizes cultivation of the public sphere. Perhaps, I lack the stature to disagree publicly with a Nobel laureate, but I will anyway, because to me, this way of thinking contradicts the democratic ethos.
Its fruits are readily apparent. We have experienced steep declines in political participation. One hundred million Americans sat out the fateful national election of 2000. One recent study of participation rates in 37 countries shows the
This growing neglect of our public business has its perverse complement in a second tendency. Even as leaders disparage public solutions to domestic problems, they seem to regard concentrated political power as the only possible solution to political challenges emanating from abroad. So, we refrain from using our collective energies to address political problems at home, but we avidly embrace the use of American power to remake the world beyond our shores. The irony of this cannot be lost on any of us!
These divergent trends threaten the quality of American democracy. The first de-politicizes Americans and discourages pursuit of a “common good”. The second alienates us from the political power we’re supposed to control. When that power is uncontrolled, it gravitates to national security agencies that operate in secrecy. The combined effect is to hollow out political life and drain it of democratic substance. In these conditions we are taken to war without the sustained deliberations that should be the hallmark of a democratic society.
In light of these reflections, I’d like to comment briefly on our present war. The terrorist attacks on the
We opted to act unilaterally, to wage preventive war against other countries at our sole discretion—in defiance, even, of the international community. In George Packer’s words, we “admitted no daylight between American interests and democratic ideals.” We demanded that all countries take sides—to be with us or know that we considered them to be on the side of the terrorists.
We should ask ourselves: is
A presidential directive of August 2002 set out the goals that guided the invasion of
President Bush has come in for his share of blame over this catastrophe. My question is: “how much of the blame do we ourselves deserve”? If we were an engaged citizenry we could act as a countervailing power, a potentially strong check against such blunders. Also in 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, said to a visiting Iraqi delegation: “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if
I’d like to give one example of this erosion, and then close with an appeal to the students. My example is the ever expanding claims of executive power. It is now being said that the war powers of the commander-in-chief displace civilian law. This interpretation would allow the president to make the law on his or her own authority so long as the president says we are at war. (Bear in mind that the war on terror is open-ended!) Such an interpretation would seem to take us back to the age of Charles I! It would erase three centuries of struggle to bring the executive under the law. Restraining executive power and affirming the rights of citizens—these are crowning achievements of modern democracy.
What warrant can there be for turning back the clock to an unlamented age of authoritarianism? Even Alexander Hamilton, one of the most ardent defenders of executive power, warned against the danger of a Caesar or a Cromwell. Do we really want the executive branch to tap our phones without a warrant, deny the fundamental right of habeas corpus to “enemy combatants, create its own “Devil’s Island” at
We have known since the war for independence that concentrated executive power is a threat to the values and rights we cherish. What do we gain by waging a war on terrorism, or by invading other countries to bring them democracy, if we ourselves forsake democratic practices? Let’s remember Rousseau’s warning that “the greater the strength possessed by the government for the restraint of the people, the greater should be the strength that is possessed by the people . . . in order to restrain the government.”
So, what then is the challenge for your generation? Americans revere democracy because of its touted respect for individual freedom. There is a strong current of thought today that takes this only to mean that government should leave us alone—except, of course, when it comes to national security. I suggest that young Americans think about democracy another way—as both the best method for controlling power and the best means of bringing considered judgment to bear on the exercise of power. If you thought of it that way, you would cherish democracy because you saw that it was superior at controlling ambition, arrogance, hubris, and other follies to which human beings are prone. You might well side with James Madison on the need to “oblige government to control itself”, but you would also stand with the Athenians in your conviction that an educated, engaged citizenry is a means superior even to the separation of powers for accomplishing this task.
Prometheus gave fire and techne to human kind, a share, so to speak, of the divine attributes. But Protagoras tells us that something was missing because human beings lacked “the art of government”. Fearing disaster, Zeus sent Hermes to impart justice to mankind. And who, asked Hermes, should receive it—some select few? Believers in democracy, from Protagoras to the present, have celebrated the god’s answer: No, Zeus replied, “to all; I should like them all to have a share for cities cannot exist if only a few share in this virtue”. This has been the democratic faith of American leaders from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey—that all men and women, when properly educated, can contribute their judgment to the deliberations that lead to justice.
The seminal article of democratic faith is that good judgment is most likely to prevail in settings of wide participation and vigorous debate, in which the wisdom of an engaged citizenry can be expressed. This supposition powerfully complements the great republican principle that freedom is best defended by keeping everyone, even the most exalted leaders, under the control of law. In its history the
My hope for our country is that the next generation may rededicate us to these principles and practices. A patriotic
April 19, 2007