Virtue, politics go hand-in-hand“Virtue” is a word you don’t hear much when people talk politics. It sounds strange — perhaps even puritanical. It’s a word that appears to have little to do with politics.
By: By Dan Hannula, Superior Telegram
“Virtue” is a word you don’t hear much when people talk politics. It sounds strange — perhaps even puritanical. It’s a word that appears to have little to do with politics.
But, “virtue” has a long history in politics — more precisely, in the history of political philosophy. Our Founding Fathers tossed the word around a lot. You find the word often in the books they read. You see Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and the others, were keen students of the ancient republics. Actually, they were mostly concerned with “failed” republics. Their goal, after all, was to pull off an amazing feat — they were trying to invent the modern republic. And, they were doing so in a world of kings. That was not easy. Jefferson, Adams and Madison, by reading Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, were attempting to unlock the ancient formula that would make a republic work.
So, why did “virtue,” dominate their thoughts? They learned that in order to re-invent the republic, they had to re-invent the character of men. To be self-governed, people had to change from being “subjects” to being self-governing “citizens.” Citizens needed a trait of character that mere subjects never needed — virtue (in modern parlance, “civic virtue”). A radical new form of government required a radical new kind of person.
Alexis de Tocqueville called civic virtue “habits of the heart.” In short, it is tolerance, mutual respect, willingness to debate and compromise, and above all, belief and respect for the rule of law, even when you lose.
The founders concluded that without a citizenry imbued with civic virtue, the republic would fail and back we go to the rule of kings and tyrants. There was vigorous debate, however, as to how much virtue Americans could muster. Madison feared that the seeds of failure were “sown in the nature of man.” And, the history of failed ancient republics gave plausibility to that fear.
Modern history also gives plausibility to Madison’s fear. The French soon followed us in republic building. Their attempt, sadly, ended in disaster. Civic virtue proved inadequate there to prevent a frenzied intolerance, which led to tyranny, then to terror, and then to a well-worn guillotine.
Madison would fear this year’s newly brewed batch of demagoguery. If you listen to the rhetoric, we are not just going into mid-term elections — we are facing Armageddon. Civic virtue is tossed aside — in fact, “tolerance” (ironically) is asserted to be an invitation to terrorism.
The intent is to stop all rational debate and to compare any political adversary to Hitler. Protestors are encouraged to carry weapons to political events and to shout down any rational discussion at town meetings. In short, no tolerance, no mutual respect, no debate, no compromise, and if you disagree, shut (or shout) it down.
As an indication of how far this has gone, this brew of demagoguery is now directed at Senator Russ Feingold — one of the most honorable persons to sit in the Senate chamber since it was presided over by John Adams. Feingold’s career is remarkable for his independence and his efforts to insert ethical principles into the workings of government — he was key in passing the congressional gift ban and lobbying disclosure legislation. His own Senate staff must abide by such strict ethical rules that monastic life might be easier. Feingold fought a decade long battle along with Senator John McCain for campaign finance reform. And, he is also a multi-year winner of the Concord Coalition’s deficit hawk award.
Feingold is a member of that generation of Americans who were inspired by a young President and who actually heeded the call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Even Feingold’s wealthy opponent has joined in. He cavalierly attacks Feingold’s integrity — claiming that Feingold “twists words for a living.” This is a dangerous brew. If even Russ Feingold can be maligned as unfit for public service, perhaps Madison’s worst fears are true.
Americans ought to heed the wise words of the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart: “Take it down a notch for America.” Drinking this strong brew of incivility — this gross intemperance, could lead to the mother of political hangovers or something much worse. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Copyright © Daniel D. Hannula, all rights reserved. Dan Hannula practices law in Superior. He is former chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party and is Senator Russ Feingold’s campaign treasurer.