When the constitution was drafted in Philadelphia in September of 1787, there was far from universal agreement in the 13 states as to whether the document should be ratified. Some saw the blueprint for a representative republic as a monstrosity that created a powerful federal government that would suppress states rights and individual liberties. George Clinton, then governor of New York, was a vocal critic of the constitution, and anti-constitutional sentiment ran so high in his state that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison (the primary author of the constitution) and John Jay began to write a series of essays under the pseudonym Publius, named after that great defender of Roman republicanism, in the hopes of swaying public opinion in favor of the document. Collectively known as The Federalist Papers, the 85 essays proved an effective counter to anti constitutionalist sentiment in the 18th century, and have endured to become classics in political science and philosophy. It is natural to wonder if these documents, penned by fathers of the American experiment, can speak to the state of affairs in the United States today. They can, with the prophetic wisdom of Greek oracles.
Since our troubles lie at least in part with the type of people we have put in congress, we may wonder whether Publius had anything to say about what we should look for in a representative. Indeed, in Federalist number 10, Madison states that congress should be a “medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” (Justice in this context means equal before the law, not the Marxist concept of economic equality, and will not be a focus of our discussion.) Now, when the national debt is about 12 trillion as of this writing, and is projected to grow to upwards of 18 trillion by 2019, I submit the following points for the readers due consideration-
According to Madison’s use of the terms, is it wise or patriotic for congress to even consider a second stimulus package, when less than 10% of the first (which cost 787 billion dollars) has been spent?
According to Madison’s use of the terms, is it wise or patriotic to consider a health care proposal that the congressional budget office has said will cost a minimum of 1 trillion dollars, and in all likelihood, will cost over 3 trillion dollars?
According to Madison’s use of the terms, is it wise or patriotic for congress to hire a speed reader to read a 900 page cap and trade bill? Was it wise or patriotic to dump another 300 pages into the bill at 3 am, just hours before the bill was going to be debated on the house floor? Was it wise or patriotic to cite only operating costs when considering how the bill would impact the economy, rather than any effect the legislation would have on American businesses?
According to Madison’s use of the terms, is it wise or patriotic for congress to even consider relaxing the lending standards for Fannie May and Freddie Mac yet again, when subprime mortgages are a primary cause of the current economic tumult?
We could continue, ad infinitum, but hopefully the point has been made. Our congressional leadership has failed us. They have been unwise and unpatriotic.
So does the answer to our predicament lay in doing away with representative government, and letting the will of the people be expressed issue by issue at the ballot box? No, Madison knew pure democracy was not the answer to the problems created by self government, stating that “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Indeed, one may kill the king and abolish his court, putting in its place the sacred will of the multitudes, but what if the multitudes are in gross error? Mob rule, as expressed in pure democracy, can be just as capricious, arbitrary, and undesirable as the exercise of unchecked imperial power. Just imagine the California system of proposition voting writ large, with the venerable people voting for and being bound by proposition after proposition. This would hardly be a solution for the problems we face, and may well be just the beginning of them.
No, much as we may loathe the cast of partisan mental ward escapees who pass for representatives on Capitol Hill these days, we the people, often more interested in ice cream than Iran, transfixed by American idol rather than American exceptionalism, are really no better. Sigmund Freud said we are lazy and unintelligent, and he was right. Indeed, in the spirit of the Greek adage “know thyself”, we must be intellectually honest, and acknowledge the solution to our problems may lay not so much in pointing an accusatory finger at our congressional representatives as it does in taking a hard look in the mirror. We have been intellectually lazy, and have not held our representatives accountable for their unwise and unpatriotic behavior. I suppose if there is an excuse to be made for we the people, it is that in the age of sound bites and spin doctors, it isn’t always easy to be well informed or know how to conduct a civically responsible assessment of candidates and their platforms. Thankfully Madison, with the wisdom of an oracle, seems to have anticipated our predicament, and suggested congress should be the home of wise patriots, defining these terms in a way that even the most civically challenged among us can understand.
Madison may have defined what wisdom and patriotism mean for our representatives, but what do these terms mean for the other half of the republican system, we the people? Some say wisdom lies in the ability to know the difference between what can be changed and what can’t. Accordingly, there are those who say that great republics never last longer than 300 years, and in their Spenglarian cynicism, they write off the American experiment as merely shadowing the vicissitudes of prior republics through periods of growth, stagnation, and inevitably, dissolution. But there is no reason, a priori, why all republics must share the same fate, and the truly wise know that history never fully informs the present, and that we can change the course of this nation simply by holding our representatives accountable. Oscar Wilde once said “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”, but it need not be. It can be the quality of a people who care about their republic and take an interest in its well being.
I would like to end where I began, in Philadelphia, in September 1787, with a well known story about the first American oracle, Ben Franklin. As Franklin was leaving the constitutional convention, a young man approached him and asked “Mr. Franklin, what form of government are we going to have?” Franklin looked at the boy and said “A republic, if you can keep it.” Can we? Two hundred and twenty two years later, the question remains an open one, but we the people can ensure the survival of the United States as a great republic only if we insist on sending wise patriots to the next congress and all thereafter.