It’s On Us: the Meaning of Civic Virtue

An election year is SO. MUCH. FUN.– when you are a teacher of Government and Politics.  I was laid off last year, so I am not teaching this election year.  And I miss it terribly.  A high school classroom, especially one of older students ready to set out into the Real World, is a place of magic.  Ideas swirl, minds get blown, opinions form.  In Social Studies, we have a special kind of fun because when your topic is history or government or economics or sociology… it’s all about human behavior: how it’s shaped the world up until now, and how we each interact with the current world to create our collective future.  Not being in a classroom is hard for me.  Really hard.  Now that it’s an election year, it’s even harder.  There is so much rich material for students to wrestle with in an election year, which makes teaching so much fun.  To fill the empty classroom in my heart, I’ll be using that material anyway, and if I’m teaching to empty space, I’m at least still practicing my craft and enjoying the topics that I love to share.

There are so many things that people love to hate about the political process. In the US it is definitely a messy system, and it’s easy to get fed up with it because it really could stand some reform.  Whether a discussion about the Electoral College, the old-fashioned Convention system, the overwhelming amount of corporate money in campaigns, or the attempts around the country to suppress voting — there is definitely a LOT to talk about.  But today I’m thinking about one of my favorite electoral topics (in fact, one of my favorite overall poli sci topics): Civic Virtue.

Civic Virtue is the morality or the habit of participating in civic life in order to uphold the community’s or society’s best interests.  In arguing for ratification of the Constitution, James Madison faced a big question regarding pluralism.  The Articles of Confederation had presented him with a quandary from which he had to find a way out: the people cannot govern without power.  Our view of human nature informs us as to how much power we think people should have.  If we believe that humans are essentially good and willing to work for the general welfare of their community, we are less hesitant to assign them a great deal of power to govern.  On the other hand, if we have a darker view of human nature (such as was passed on from the Puritans and Calvinists in the early colonies) as being more selfish or self-interested, then we might feel strongly that there must be restraints put on the people’s power.

Madison saw self interest as “faction” and believed that factions were to be avoided at all costs if possible.  If it can’t be avoided, it must be countered by an equal or more powerful force.  In his mind, this force was virtue.  It is the classical idea that all the Framers were familiar with: devotion to the common good.  This Enlightenment ideal was seen not as the exception, but the rule by which a republic would survive.  Madison did not necessarily believe that a balanced, 3-branch government would cancel out the problems with factions.  According to the great Constitutional historian, Gordon Wood:

Instead, Madison hoped that in an enlarged national republic these competing factions and interests would, like America’s many religious denominations, neutralize themselves.  This in turn would allow enlightened and rational men, men like himself, to promote the public good.

Enlightened and rational men were the type of men who wrote, agonized over, debated, and eventually agreed to the new Constitution of the United States. A form of government that had never been tried was going to be dependent on the people participating in an enlightened, rational way.

Madison acknowledged that government would be a reflection of how the people behaved.  He wrote in Federalist No. 51:

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls (sic) on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government…

So it comes down to us.  Will we have the requisite enlightened virtue to mold our civic society in such a way that it benefits the common good?  Civic virtue means that the citizens participate.  We vote. We show up at town halls. We ask our elected leaders to be responsible for their choices.  We demand they consider the common good.  If we are to do this well, we must be well educated.  We must make sure that we use our tremendous power with virtue.  If we do not, we lose the ability to guide the government that should get its direction from us.

Likewise, if we allow ourselves to be controlled by our own self interests more than we care for the civic life of our community, we will have a difficult time establishing a just government.  As deTocqueville noted in his observations of this new experiment in governing: the funny thing is, the more Americans act in the interest of the common good, the more their self-interest is satisfied.  The balance achieved is a functioning republic.

As divisive as this government has become and as ideologically divided as it stands right now, it seems hard to see how a course correction can happen. But it can: if we determine it should – it is our own civic virtue that has failed here.  We have allowed people to take over the power with their own self-interest in mind, rather than the common good.  Thus, a majority of members of the House of Representatives are willing to simply do nothing for two years in the interests of advancing their ideological ends.  The minority in the Senate is willing to stop all progress on legislation for the same reason. The key to ending the quagmire is not a change of heart from the politicians – it is participation from enlightened and rational citizens.

Reclaiming our power to govern is what will course correct the government.  It has always been what caused progressive change.  We need to reclaim our civic virtue and make it our moral quest to see that the common good becomes the goal of government.  The longer we contemplate what WE want over what is best for everyone, the wider the gap will be between the rich and the poor, the greater the chasm for sick people to fall through, the less access to education, health care, and a future there will be for anyone.  Conversely, the more we work to create a society that looks out for the least of us, that cares for the general welfare, that puts the common good first, the more easily we will find personal paths to success and fulfillment.  We have a governing system designed to help us do this – we don’t need to overthrow anyone or destroy what we have.  We just have to actually USE what we have to make it better.

Aristotle knew the kind of society he envisioned when he coined the phrase “civic virtue” – “virtue” came from the same Greek word as “excellence.”  It’s time some excellence re-entered our political landscape.  And that doesn’t come from politicians.  It comes from us.

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The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic),promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.




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