In my readings the other day, I found a quote from Thomas Paine which, although he was referring to England, is extremely relevant to us today. “When republican virtue fails, slavery ensues.”
So what is republican virtue, and what can we call slavery?
Let’s take a look at what a republic is first, and then look at the virtues needed to make it work.
A republic is a form of government in which the decisions are made by representatives elected by the people, and in which the decisions are carried out by executives also elected by the people. The form which we have now is neither the democracy it is usually referred to as, or the republic which it was intended to be. It has been transformed over the years into something in between the two.
What was intended was a republic in which part of the government was selected by the people while the rest was selected by the states. This changed in the first part of the 20th century with the 17th Amendment which allowed the direct election of senators. Prior to this the House of Representatives “belonged” to the people and the Senate “belonged” to the states. Now both “belong” to the people.
Unfortunately, “We the People” are not allowed to vote for anyone we wish, or rather we could, but it would be ineffective to vote for someone who is not a sanctioned candidate. In today’s world, one can not even become a viable candidate without the aid of a large amount of wealth, either personal wealth or donated wealth. Since, at the present time, it requires wealth to win elections, what we now have is not a true republic, in which people are represented by their peers, but an oligarchic republic, where the people are represented by the wealthy.
This is not a condemnation of the wealthy, by any means, as the amount of wealth a person possesses does not indicate that they will be either a poor or a good representative, and in most instances, the greater the wealth, if honestly earned, the greater the likelihood of this person being a capable representative. Unfortunately, the reality that wealth is required to win excludes virtually all potential representatives who are not wealthy, but are nevertheless quite capable.
So where does our quote “when republican virtue fails, slavery ensues” enter in to this discussion? No matter how much we are alike, we are also different, each of us belonging to different groups, or classes. How can the wealthy properly represent the poor, or the poor the wealthy? How can an urbanite properly represent the rural person? Ask the people of Colorado about this. They recalled two of their representatives for this very reason; these representatives advocated for laws which the rural people did not want. How can a member of any group properly represent another group which they do not fully understand?
This is the first part of republican virtue. Those elected to office must represent the will and best interest of the people they represent. This must be placed above the representatives’ own personal interest. For this to happen, it stands to reason that this elected representative should be from the same group as the people represented, and should have a significant amount in common with these people. The selected representative should also never fail to view themselves as exactly that, an elected servant of the people, and never as an official having power to influence anything. Simply a servant of the people, with the people holding all of the power.
This is not what we have today. By way of demonstration, I posed a question in the form of a poll last week, asking people how much influence they had over just their local policies. Far from being scientific, it does reflect the prevailing attitude to be found in the general public. Ten people indicated that they felt as if they had little or no influence over their local government, while only two hinted that they thought that they could have a significant influence. Five times as many people felt dis-empowered by their local government, which is far closer to home than either the state or federal. It seems that this first part of our republican virtue has failed.
The second part of republican virtue belongs to the people themselves, and can best be summarized in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
How do we keep a republic? The same way we make a successful garden. With constant care and attention. Were we to plant a garden, then ignore it until harvest time, what we would harvest would be everything except that which we wanted. By way of our inattention, the useful plants which we intended to harvest would have been choked out by all sorts of useless weeds, rendering our gardening intentions useless at best, harmful at worst. It is the same with our republic. Modern elections are akin to short-lived popularity contests, in which the most charismatic individual prevails, after which we all happily return to our everyday activities with seldom a thought given to what the representatives are doing on our behalf. This is what has caused our republic to decline, and our politicians to grow in self appointed power, much as the unattended garden was taken over by weeds.
To correct this is simple yet difficult. In order for our republic to provide us the freedom which it was intended to provide, we, as voters, must constantly pay attention both to the candidates and the elected representatives, ignoring what they say and noting what they do. The instant that they show a propensity to better themselves at our expense, or to better their friends at the expense of the constituency, they must be replaced.
We must also be willing to personally spread the news of a capable person who we would like to represent us, and by so doing, use both word of mouth and the 21st century technology we have available to broadcast the existence of a qualified person through social media and other mechanisms, and beginning the process of circumventing the status quo whereby only the wealthy could get enough attention to be elected.
Failure of these two types of virtue will inevitably lead to a further progression down the path to slavery, where the established politicians gradually continue to increase their own power and disenfranchise the people, until they have acquired so much power that our oligarchic republic devolves the rest of the way to a virtual tyranny, where the government has consolidated so much power, and we have surrendered so much, that it becomes irreversible, and we are forced to comply with their wishes rather than our own.
It is not too late to reverse this trend, but to do so, we must all choose between the difficult path to virtue and the easy path to slavery.