Among the literature I picked up on Saturday while attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on the National Mall (purely to indulge my curiosity) was a three-by-five card asking me: “ARE YOU READY TO BEGIN THE REBIRTH OF THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION?” The card directs me to a website, the1789project.com, where I can pledge money to a PAC that will only support candidates who adhere to the Constitution.
Another card tells me: “Politicians are destroying our country. We have the solution. Join us. We seek the modern day incarnations of Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson.” The card is for the “Get Out of Our House” project, or GOOOH. The plan, according to the website, is “to remove all members of the U.S. House of Representatives and replace them with everyday Americans just like you.” Wow. Just like me? I can only dream.
I was struck by the ways in which this resonated with the larger theme of the program: Restoring Honor. Restoring. This great hope that only if we could get back to some golden era, if only we could tap into this apparently forsaken “Constitution” document, if only we could get rid of all the “career politicians” and replace them with ordinary citizens, somehow all the problems of the world would solve themselves.
It’s a wonderfully alluring biblical narrative: the return to the lost Eden. One gentleman I spoke with assured me that if only we all would just stop and really read the Bible and take its teachings to heart, all of our problems would be solved. There would be no need for government. Everything would work perfectly. (He was handing out literature for “Project Restore”). Meanwhile, Glenn Beck announced over the loudspeakers: “To Restore America, we must restore ourselves.”
The idea of redemption through a return to first principles is nothing new, and it’s far from the exclusive province of the political right. One is reminded, for example, of the hopeful Port Huron statement, with its great emphasis on a return to participatory democracy driven by a return to values, and its explicit narrative of decline: “Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old — and, unable to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself. Doubt has replaced hopefulness — and men act out a defeatism that is labeled realistic.” Compare that to Glenn Beck: “My role, as I see it, is to wake America up to the backsliding of principles and values.”
Sure, I’m all for self-improvement. We could all be kinder, gentler, harder working, better people. But the very fact that self-improvement is a $10 billion a year industry (and growing) is a testament to the human condition never quite being able to live up to our ideals. “If men were angels,” wrote Madison in Federalist #51, “no government would be necessary.”
The flaw in the redemption-by-return-to-first-principles story is that there never was a golden age. Each era had its strengths and weaknesses, but we tend to remember the wisest statements because those are the ones that are passed on and consecrated. (And lest we forget: The America of 1789 was an isolated agrarian nation in which only rich, educated, white property owners could vote. Would we want go back, even if we could?)
The mild danger in the redemption-by-return-to-first-principles story is that it undermines the ability of political institutions to solve problems through the messy art of compromise. If the only acceptable solution to the mess we’re in is to start fresh (for example, to replace to whole stinkin’ lot of lawmakers with “ordinary citizens”), it won’t be long before that fresh start encounters the same timeless governance problem of aggregating diverse preferences, and start acting like “politicians.” The more serious danger is that the redemption-by-rededication is a kindred spirit of utopian thinking that slides easily into ends-justifies-the-means murder and genocide, from communist purges to terrorist jihads.
The current sputtering economy, or the toxic brew of declining revenues and spiraling debt and entitlement obligations, or climate change, or any of the hard problems we face as a society — these are not going to go away if only we learn to love thy neighbor. The only way they’ll go away is with patience and compromise and hard work. This is the world in which we live. We need to roll up our sleeves and be realistic.
Yes, we can all be better people. I’m trying every day. But a full and complete purge of sin as gateway to a lost Eden is not a substitute for the real challenges of politics. Politics, whatever its shortcomings, is the art of the possible. The return to a lost golden age is the art of the impossible.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore’s photostream