The pursuit of freedom and fairness in governance has a long and turbulent history. The passion for liberty has set citizens against one another as well as against autocratic authority. Reactions against insensitivity and unrestrained power in governance is a natural enough response. Yet, we often find ourselves entangled with differing views about the meaning (and responsibilities) of liberty.
It is only relatively recently that the world has generally come to expect that governments should be responsive to the needs and interests of the plurality their citizens. And this poses interesting questions for those living in a constitutional republic with a democratic spirit.
If we expect that elected officials should identify with the people who elected them, it follows that such a nation should not need to be protected from itself. Surely a democracy would not exercise tyranny over itself.
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.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 recognized this danger and designed a decision-making structure which 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.
While this provides a legal structure, however, a functional government is impossible in the absence of cooperation to meet common needs and interests.
When there is uncompromising denial of the validity of an opposing side, governance is essentially brought to a halt. After two hundred years of experience, we know that “self-government” can be fragile, complicated, and emotionally taxing.
Throughout American history, liberty has generally implied the freedom to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we do not impose ourselves on the well-being of others. The United States Constitution is exceptional in imposing almost no limitations on citizens—beyond responsibility and civility.
But, where does this leave us in the face of our present difficulties? A multitude of converging crises has us all on edge.
The world has long admired the generosity of spirit in the American character. This is an American attitude; a way of thinking and being. Regaining this spirit will require courage and determination. And, we can begin with our neighbors.
However—this will only be possible with a readiness to honor another American virtue: The respect for plurality embodied in the Constitution.
When we are ready to discover our shared values, and to assess our differences with accuracy, we can start with our neighbors.
What is it we want? It is in local communities that safety, dependability, and problem-solving become essential realities. Only when we tackle local needs and challenges together, shoulder-to-shoulder, can we truly represent what we are made of.
We can start with first things first:
1) To engage as neighbors with a commitment to ensure we have accurate information about one another. This will involve the effort to recognize both shared values and real differences.
2) To identify and prioritize local needs and problems, and then to negotiate the means for undertaking collaborative action while accommodating personal differences.
3) To identify the knowledge, skills, and experience we have available among ourselves—to support the community and do what needs to be done.
If we are committed citizens and mature adults, there is no reason we cannot maintain an attitude of civility and respectfulness. No one needs to alter their values or views.
Community problems can be multi-layered and complex. But our purpose is simple: to investigate the extent to which we can pursue constructive action as neighbors.
Addressing basic needs shoulder-to-shoulder will strengthen a community with the foundations for trust and dependability.
Safety and survival may well depend on this, and no one will do it for us.
The three steps outlined above will soon become critical as oncoming crises multiply and circumstances deteriorate. And, engaging in working relationships can also open doors to the future and influence the emergence of a mutually acceptable vision.
We all possess the capacity to confront our challenges with grace and fortitude. Only then can we meet friend and stranger alike with dignity, civility, and generosity of spirit.
You may watch for the next post on or about September 28.
Note to readers: An introduction to the coming book and several sample chapters are available at the top of the homepage.