by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
We may not live in “unprecedented” times — you’d need to have a narrow historical horizon to think so — but that hasn’t stopped us from profligate use of the modifier. We can fairly say we have experienced things unprecedented for us, but that might not help us determine the overall significance of our moment. The sense that we are now in an unusual time might cause us to make bad decisions. Wisdom involves the ability to separate out temporary blips from genuine threats. Sometimes a goose looks like a fighter jet on a radar screen. We probably don’t realize how frequently wrong we are in our assessments or how often we miss the thing that is really the problem because our focus is misdirected. Nor do we think carefully enough about how those who mediate our knowledge skew our interpretations.
That’s no excuse not to make the effort. Even if these times aren’t unprecedented, there is plenty of reason to be concerned. Any inspection of available data indicates that we have extremely low levels of trust in our institutions; that civility is on the wane; that depression, anxiety, and despair (and deaths therefrom) are on the rise; that increased income inequality and class divisions are straining our social order; that our politics is becoming more viciously partisan; and so on. A violent storming of our nation’s capital may be to some our Bastille Day, but it’s likely to end in the same result, and in any case the widespread alarm and condemnation is fully justified. Many of us sense the problems but feel powerless to do anything about them.
There are 14 Presidential Centers and Foundations in America. Each one has its own particular mission and ways of serving the public good; though we often cooperate with each other, it’s pretty unusual for us to issue a joint statement.
But these are unusual times. We seem to have forgotten some basic truths about our shared life, how successful this 236 year experiment in Constitutional governance has been, and how fragile the whole project is. It is precisely during such times of forgetfulness that we need to be reminded of who we are. The George W. Bush Presidential Center issued a statement today on which we are proud co-signatories. To quote: “The statement is a reminder of our nation’s values – assuring the American people that through civic engagement and respect for our neighbors, we will continue to create a more perfect union.”
The statement is also an important reminder of the underlying values that support democratic practices: a commitment to the rule of law; virtues that include charity, respect, politeness, tolerance, humility, and service; a spirit of cooperation. We support the statement in no small part because we believe these are precisely the values President Ford displayed so consistently over the course of his life.
One part of the statement not to be overlooked is the acknowledgement that the substance of what we agree on is more important than some of the disagreements we have. Indeed, in some ways they are what make disagreement possible and also prevent it from devolving into violence. Whatever our differences, the presidential centers have communicated our support to the overriding good of a peaceful public life, a calm that comes from good order. We represent political figures who were often bitter political rivals, and that too testifies to this universal desire for peace. Whatever our differences, we want this Constitutional experiment to work, and we don’t take lightly the consequences of failure.
There are two keys to our Constitutional system: the system of representation, and the quality of our leaders. Alexander Hamilton observed that it was the development in the “science” of representation that allowed America to try to perform democracy on a large scale. Previous thinkers had considered this impossible, and we sometimes forget how novel and audacious this suggestion was. In some ways the ongoing success of our union and its fitful starts and setbacks toward greater perfection has confirmed the Founder’s conviction that we could accomplish the impossible. The system of representation, however, can never be better than the people who are elected or the people who elect them. If we’re willing to elect people who trade on hate and fear and self-certainty, we should not be too surprised when we find that we are hateful, fearful, and arrogant. Nor is the situation helped by our conviction that these pathologies mark the other side.
For this reason the framers of our Constitution believed that our political leaders should not simply reflect public sentiment but have the capacity to concentrate and articulate and elevate it. How we identify such persons is the bedeviling problem. In some ways, we don’t: time and circumstance present them to us. These leaders appear to us better than our age, better than ourselves, an embodiment of what we aspire to be. They appeal to the better angels of our nature. On the pedestal of Ford’s statue in front of the Ford Museum are Tip O’Neill’s words that “God has been good to America, especially during difficult times” by giving us “the right man at the right time.”
Good leaders are firm and resolute without being heavy-handed or inflexible. They can see what the situation requires and can respond to those demands prudently. America has been blessed to have such people rise to our highest offices, sometimes despite ourselves. But if we are intent on electing the worst versions of ourselves — an avatar of all our vices — we should not be surprised when the system itself begins to crumble. For here is the hard truth: no political system is so well-designed that it can survive bad leadership.
But I misspoke. Representation and leadership may be key to our Constitutional system, but democracy is something different. Democracy involves the habits, dispositions, practices, and moral values of a people as they create a vibrant civic life together. The purpose of our representative institutions is to respect and protect the vast and complex web of association that results from the actions of a free people. When our representative institutions work against those associations, freedom itself is imperiled; when our representative institutions do not rest firmly on the foundation of civil society, the resulting friction will generate heat and eventually a conflagration. This constant calibrating of public authority against the claims of associative life is what democracy is all about.
We hang together or we hang separately, Benjamin Franklin (may have) opined at a signing of our Declaration of Independence. Part of the American genius is that it never aspired toward perfection but accepted imperfection as part of our condition. It aspired simply to being better today than we were yesterday. Aspiring to perfection is difficult and never to be achieved; aspiring to imperfection is an easy path, and the destination easily reached. Given our tendency to take the easy way, it’s no wonder that things can fall apart so quickly. Only the aspiration to be and do better can actually make us better, and that too is something we need to be reminded of.
- How is a democracy different than a republic?
- Consider the following proposition: America is a democracy. What arguments would you advance for and against that proposition?
- What are the greatest threats to civil society? Is government one of them?