As America’s laborious process for choosing a president moves slowly but noisily ahead, there is much to be learned from the wisdom of the first holder of that office.
George Washington called it a “Solemn Contemplation,” but it is better known as his Farewell Address. It is a magnificent speech, marked by learning, insight and elevated vocabulary—features encountered rarely, if at all, in any public figure today—and may be read profitably by one who would govern.
More than that, Washington anticipated our present national situation. With admirable foresight, he understood what the nation would suffer if it failed to honor its charter documents. He feared the dissolution of the country via sectionalism, the power of dissident minorities, and what we today call the “Deep State.”
Absent shared respect for the Constitution, he declared, we are no longer a people. “The basis of our political system is the right of people to make and alter their constitution of government. But the Constitution at any time exists, and till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.”
It is the duty of every citizen to obey the established government. Washington decries any activity that serves to organize faction, any extraordinary force that aims to replace of the delegated will of the nation with the will of a party or a small but artful and enterprising minority. As he puts it:
All obstructions to the execution of laws, all combinations and associations under whatever plausible character, with real design to direct, control, or awe the regular deliberation and activity of constituted authorities are destructive of fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.”
In common usage the term “democracy” is far from a univocal term. “The People’s Democratic Republic” is not what Woodrow Wilson had in mind when he led a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. For John Dewey, the leading American philosopher of Wilson’s day, democracy is more than a form of government. It is a way of life, a creed directed to a social ideal.
While democracy has several distinct forms—i.e. direct, representative, social, and economic—when we call a form of government a democracy today, we usually have in mind representative democracy in which citizens exercise their right to form policy not in person but through representatives whom they choose.
In a constitutional democracy such as those that prevail in Europe and North America, the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a constitution designed to protect the rights of the minority and the protection of other rights governing speech, press, and religion.
Viewed historically, a constitution need not be a single written instrument or even a legal document, but it is likely to be more or less a formal acknowledgment of a commonly accepted set of fixed norms or principles recognized by all. St. Thomas, as well as Aristotle and Cicero before him, gave custom, rightly directed by the natural order, the force of law. Today the concept of a natural law is widely repudiated, and it would be foolish to declare that custom should reign unchallenged.
Instead, in contemporary political discourse we hear much about the value of diversity, multiculturalism, and globalization. Yet diversity under a rule of law presupposes an accepted social order. In the United States the nineteenth century “melting pot” successfully blended elements of Christian Europe, but in the twentieth century and today, the melting pot is better described as a cauldron of unamenable cultures.
The common Western liberal concept of democracy assumes uncritically that men are naturally and morally equal. It is an assumption that does not bear empirical scrutiny. Anyone who follows the course of events as reported daily by the media is aware that there is a wide disparity among the people as a result of parental upbringing and education that leaves the populace polarized in a way more fundamental than disparity of income.
That is only one of numerous divisive factors. In many American states, the electorate is likely to contain undocumented aliens as well as legal immigrants, and it is not uncommon for some in both groups to be deficient with respect to the English language and largely ignorant of American history and Western political traditions.
The common faith which John Dewey sought has yet to be found nor is likely ever to be. Yet absent a common core of beliefs, the self-government we take for granted is in jeopardy. Militating against democratic governance are the indiscriminate awarding of suffrage to illegal immigrants, a politically biased media that limits people’s access to vital information, excessive tolerance of deviant behavior and a concomitant failure to punish, the surrender of basic freedoms in the name of safety, and docile acceptance of a bureaucratic imperium and a politicized judiciary. Undoubtedly the list could be extended
Washington presupposed virtue or morality in the populace, calling it “a necessary spring in the people.” He rhetorically asked, “Where is the security for people, for property, for reputation, for life if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are its indispensable supports?” His answer: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” And he added that “morality cannot be maintained without religion.”