Election is a great opportunity to exercise political passions
By Lou Villaire
Politics is about passions. And we have a passionate presidential race this year, with great opportunity for citizens to practice the skilled art of interpreting our own individual and collective political passions. And it is worthwhile to use our world’s social and political history as our guide in helping us to better understand our nation’s current heightened political passions.
Many republics and democracies have come and gone before our American constitutional republic (now at 240 years) in the last 2,500 years. And we have learned a great deal about our own nation from studying historical Roman Republicanism and Greek Democracy. We have learned the principles that make a republic that is democratic more successful as well as the social and political circumstances that lead to the dissolution of republics. Republics with democratic forms of government (majority rule) tend to lend themselves more so to free societies than most other forms of government. It is worthwhile to recognize that according to the organization Freedom House (tracking worldwide liberty and freedom) only about 40 percent of the Earth’s 7.5 billion people live in free societies.
In our United States of America, we live in a constitutional federalist republic. Democracies and republics are different, often at odds and often counterbalancing. Democracy represents majority rule (government of the people by the people), while a republic relies on strong state institutions to check and balance the power of majorities (government of laws not of people). It is notable that in the USA our two major opposing political parties are called Republican and Democrat.
Historically, what are the most important characteristics of a successful republic? One of the best teachers in understanding human political passions and motivations was the father of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli studied the Greek and Roman societies and he served in an official capacity in the Florentine Republic (1115-1532). Machiavelli identified many qualities of a good republic, here are three of the most critical:
1. A strong defense: Military preparedness and power is a foundation for our civil society. Machiavelli said that we must “love peace and know how to wage war.” All that we hold dear as a nation depends on the security provided by our military and our law enforcement, which demonstrate daily discipline, courage, self-control, self-sacrifice and cooperation. “Good laws rest upon good arms.”
2. Original principles: Machiavelli insisted that successful republics emphasize, and return to in practice, their founding principles in order to keep in check corruption, disorder, and conspiracy in the republic. In the USA, these are our founding principles of equality, liberty, limited and representative government, and even the pursuit of happiness.
3. A contradictory and humorous view of human nature: Our Constitution embodies both an exalted and pessimistic view of human nature. We are idealistic in our pursuits and practical in our politics — applying hopes and rewards and fear and punishment. Machiavelli stated that in order to stay sane we must “laugh at the errors of humanity, since it is impossible to correct them.”
Our Constitution states that our American republic is founded on the principles of individual liberty, respect of private property, equality under the law, and a limited, federalist, and representative government with a separation of powers. These are our original principles — what we believe and what we return to in our times of crisis. Our nation has been threatened both externally and internally many times, including our Civil War, World War I and World War II, Civil Rights, Watergate, and even now with corruption, violence, and some dissipation of social order. But yet we know “that a people is wiser and more constant than a leader.” And that our nation does “preserve an equal dignity and courage in prosperity and adversity.” Our American constitutional republic holds a contradictory view of human nature both pessimistic (force of law) and exalted (democratic ideals). Our “nation of laws” is born from our individual and collective desire for social unity and mutual protection.
So accept the challenge and the passion of USA Election 2016 and as Niccolò Machiavelli said “keep your hands on the Republic … (do your part and vote) judge by the hands not by the eyes … (trust in God and practice mercy and faith) … and learn how to be able not to be good … (be optimistic and use practical politics).
Dr. Lou Villaire is a Grand Junction business owner, writer, and sometimes lecturer in American government at Colorado Mesa University. Dr. Villaire is writing a book about the negotiating skills of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.