Civic virtue, the common good, the idea that with the rights of the citizen there are also duties and responsibilities of the citizen, the creation of the commonwealth, and the opposition to corruption at every turn, are not naïve notions— they are the tenets of a sound and healthy republic— the principles on which our nation was founded.
Paramount to the very idea of a republic is the active participation and involvement of the people in matters of common concern. America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson, believed that in our republic the people were to be the sovereign—and no one else.
The campaign of 2004 demonstrated just how far we have strayed, as a nation, from these founding principles.
Today, the sovereign is made up of those with the money. Campaign contributors and lobbyists have more say over our laws than the people.
Both political parties have been practicing transactional politics at the detriment of engaging the American people in common cause to solve our problems, and neither party has demonstrated the courage to ask Americans to sacrifice for the common good.
“A tax cut for your vote” or “A prescription drug benefit for your vote” is transactional— particularly when you have no real plan to pay for either. In a perfect world, both of the parties would step away from the abyss of this kind of politics— but at least one of them must, and I hope it’s the Democrats.
The answer for Democrat Party is not to move left or right— it is to lift itself up to the high principles on which our nation was founded and reform itself in the cause of restoring the republic for which we stand.
To do so will require rebuilding the party from the ground up, returning much of the power in the party to the grassroots, and building new institutions that empower more Americans to participate and have a say in the decisions that effect them.
Gary Hart, the former Senator from Colorado, in his excellent book “The Restoration of the Republic” wrote that to Thomas Jefferson “The most effective protection of individual rights, civil, legal, and political was widespread democratic participation in the affairs of governance. The greatest danger to rights was citizen detachment and in the political resolution of public concerns by interested forces dominating a remote central government.”
The Republicans have diagnosed the problem of a remote central government in Washington and rallied against it— offering no real alternative other than to dismantle it.
The challenge for Democrats is to empower the grassroots of our republic— the people— to actively engage and be involved in their self-governance, and to return to the principle that the people are the sovereign and not the special interests.
Gary Hart wrote that the founders concern for corruption of the republic “holds that a national government dominated by special interest lobbyists paying huge sums in campaign cash for access to the corridors of power is unacceptable.”
If only one of the parties has the courage to break away from this corrupt system, for the sake of my party, I hope it is the Democrats.
The broken system we now operate in works to the Republican Party’s advantage. As lobbyists and corporate interests gain more power— Washington becomes more remote to our citizens, and a more remote central government becomes more despised by the people.
“For Jefferson, the more remote government became and the more dependent the citizen became on elected representatives, the less republican the government and the greater the danger of corruption, narrow self-interest, and the erosion of democratic rights” according to Hart.
Jefferson was right.
The answer to corruption and narrow self-interest— anathema to a republican ideal of the common good— is not to dismantle the government and let the marketplace solve our problems. The answer is to empower the rightful owners of our government, the people, to take it back.
Trippi's Note: Senator Gary Hart recently spoke at Harvard University, as part of the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics Study Group program. His words there inspired me to write this column. I heartily recommend his book “The Restoration of the Republic” to anyone interested in the common good of our nation.
Joe Trippi is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is the author of the recent book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything.”
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