Monday, August 15, 2011

" ... to select men of virtue and wisdom."

My good friend, former college roommate, poet, lawyer, and blogger Bill Carleton raised an interesting issue in response to my recent posts on President Obama:
I'm a sucker for the great man theory. And I'm fascinated by the stories of US Presidents and the saga of their successions.... But I'm coming to think that our problems are structural. I'm beginning to wonder whether the dysfunction of the federal government is not a reflection of the lack of greatness or character of the men and women on the current political scene, as much as of an indication that the particular form of federalism established by the US Constitution has outlived its usefulness.
I've been giving this some thought, and while I'm grateful for (and a little embarrassed by) Bill's effusive praise of this blog, I have to say that I disagree.

First, I would say that my recent posts have not really been "great man theory" history. I am not one of those who think that Obama could, say, give a great speech and somehow solve our intractable political problems. My case is more modest--that, given the nature of the opposition, the president needs to adjust his tactics.

The structural argument, I think, is one that naturally appeals to us when we become frustrated with the way our system of governance is working (or, more appropriately, not working). But eventually, the underlying politics that created gridlock shifts, the paralysis lifts, the system works again, and we forget about the idea that the structure of government was at fault.

Probably the most recent manifestation of that mentality in our history was in the mid- to late-1970s. In the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, confidence in American government was at a low ebb. With rampant inflation and high unemployment ("stagflation") exacting a terrible economic toll with no obvious solution in sight, some people argued that the job of the presidency had become too big. A respondent to a CBS-New York Times poll in 1976 said: "The President of the United States isn't going to solve our problems. The problems are too big."

The multiple afflictions of the times then overwhelmed the Carter administration, furthering adding to the sense of a government that no longer worked.

Then came the political change. Ronald Reagan became president, Fed policy broke the back of inflation, the recession of the early 1980s ended, oil prices declined, and suddenly we didn't hear the structural argument anymore.

Obama himself has been understandably countering the structural argument. In his weekly address this weekend, he said: "while there’s nothing wrong with our country, there is something wrong with our politics.... what’s holding us back [is] the fact that some in Congress would rather see their opponents lose than see America win."

I think Obama is still pulling his punches. He never identifies who exactly these people in Congress are. That, to my mind, only reinforces a false equivalence and encourages an all-too-easy "a plague o' both your houses" mentality that refuses to distinguish the responsible from the reckless.

But in essence, I think Obama is correct. The problem isn't institutions, it is people. And he's got most of the founders on his side.

Bill notes as an aside in his post:
I wouldn't be thinking this way were it not for reading I am doing about the Founders and their respective attitudes about the federal government established by the Constitution. It's fascinating to realize that few of them would ever have presupposed that the structure they put in place would not have been re-visited by now.
In this, I suspect he is correct. The Constitution was created in the spirit of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and as such it was self-consciously designed as an experiment, with no confidence at all that they had gotten everything right.

But I think Bill underestimates how much things have changed within their structure. In a strictly limited sense, the Tea Partiers are not entirely wrong when they assert that the founders would not recognize our government today. The federal government has gained power at the expense of the states. The presidency has gained power at the expense of the Congress. The electorate has changed dramatically.

All of that is true. However, the aspect of our current politics that most of the founders, I believe, would find most alarming (though not surprising), is not that federalism has not been re-visited. It is the lack of what they referred to as "republican virtue." Structures of government may change, they believed, but that quality was essential to successful self-government.

According to Gordon Wood, in his work Empire of Liberty, their study of history had taught the founders that "what made republican governments historically so fragile" was that they required citizens with a "capacity for self-sacrifice and impartiality of judgment." (That, I would argue, is precisely what is lacking among the Tea Partiers today.)

Bill looks at today's problems and argues: "We need to make it impossible for our national leaders, great, venal, or merely mediocre, to abdicate responsibility for governing."

This, I would counter, is something that the founders would have thought was the beyond the capacity of any constitution. They were under no illusions that they had created a system of government that could accomplish that goal. Only a virtuous citizenry could do that.

In the 1780s, James Madison said that for any republican form of government to work, the people must have the "virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom." Otherwise, he said, "no theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure."

In that, I think Madison most certainly got it right. Perhaps the Carleton position that we "should be talking about changing the Constitution to equip the American government to be functional and competent on the world stage in the 21st Century" is worth pursuing. Certainly the founders would not object in principle to that suggestion.

But we should be under no illusions that tinkering with the machinery of government will ultimately save us from ourselves.

[In my next post, I will further explore how, notwithstanding their tri-corner hats, the Tea Partiers actually represent the antithesis of the "republican virtue" the founders thought essential to good government.]


  1. What's your answer to the argument (known to me from Matt Yglesias) that U.S. institutions worked well as recently as the Reagan years because parties weren't ideologically sorted, as there were white supremacists among Southern Democrats and racial progressives among Northern Republicans? Now the sorting has taken place, there's not an issue as salient as race that breaks down on other than party lines, and the institutions are no longer appropriate.

    Maybe no set of institutions can work without republican virtue, but surely some institutional setups would lead to bad results even if we found republican virtue on all sides.

    Apologies if you've addressed this before; I'm a new reader.

  2. Welcome, new reader!

    There is no question that our party politics is more ideological than it has been arguably for most of the last century or so. The process that began in earnest during the New Deal has now largely purged liberals from the Republican Party and (to a lesser degree, I'd argue) conservatives from the Democratic Party.

    I don't think that necessarily precludes functioning government, however. The first party system of Federalists and Republicans was, I'd argue, at least as ideological as ours is today. The second party system, of Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs, was slightly less so, since the Whigs were somewhat incoherent as a political party (though still with a fairly clear ideology at its core).

    I think you can make a strong argument, as Bill does, that some changes might well be in order. I just maintain that structure is not the *fundamental* problem facing us at the moment.