The struggle for freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history. The passion for liberty set citizens against autocratic or totalitarian authority. Resistance to unrestrained power and the self-serving motivations of governments is a natural response of the human spirit.
It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should function in the interests of their citizens, and to believe that political leadership should only be elected on a short-term basis.
This raises an interesting question for those of us living in a democratic republic.
If we require that elected officials should identify directly with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself. A democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself, right?
As Americans well know, however, the notion that citizens have no reason to limit their power over themselves only seems reasonable to those who have no experience with popular government.
Fortunately the Founders recognized the danger and designed a decision-making structure that limits the ability of one faction to oppress another. Neither a large majority nor a powerful minority can form an oppressive regime like those we see elsewhere in the world.
Even so, the Constitution is only a document and a legal structure. It cannot provide effective governance without the understanding, civility and cooperation of an educated electorate.
After two hundred years of experience we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.
“The will of the people” often turns out to be the will of the most dominant portion of the citizenry, usually the majority, but quite possibly those with overbearing economic and financial firepower.
The Founders took pains to control potential abuses of power. As I have written in a chapter entitled “Freedom and Order”, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized the importance of limiting such dangers in an uncertain future.
Liberty has come to mean the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others.
This is an attractive ideal, but is not so simple in practice. It was controversial in 1787 and it is controversial now.
Finding ourselves facing the tensions and complexities of the present turning point, I believe we would do well to step back and reassess the principles with which we can best regain our poise and sense of self as a nation.
Throughout our history the world has recognized a generosity of spirit that is fundamental to the American character. This is an attitude – a way of thinking and being – and it is important.
To actualize this spirit will require both courage and patience. The path to self-reliance and personal empowerment begins with problem-solving and cooperation with our neighbors. And, this will be hard work.
When we tackle our local needs and challenges together we will learn by doing.
Let’s start by doing first things first:
1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to get past misperceptions, and then to rise above our differences to resolve problems and address local needs.
2) To identify the diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among our neighbors – to do what needs to be done. Survival might depend on it.
3) To listen to one another; determine and clarify our share values, and explore the extent to which we can pursue constructive action. Confronting basic needs together, shoulder-to-shoulder, will prepare the foundations for trust and dependability.
We should not wait. All these steps will quickly become critical when the going gets tough. And, the effort to learn the skills of living together will give us a more realistic and coherent vision for the future.
It is within our own souls that we will first build the confidence to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude. Only then can we reach out with a generous attitude to friend and stranger alike.
Please watch for the next post on or about May 5: The resilience of inner freedom.