May 3, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
How endlessly interesting and full of surprises is the course of human events. For the past two weeks, in hundreds of Congressional districts throughout the 50 states, we citizens witnessed lawmakers of both parties, on recess, engaging their constituents in conversations about the nation’s business in town hall meetings and other forums. The President was hosting his own town hall meetings, from Virginia to Facebook headquarters in California, and conducting interviews with local television stations in cities across the country. The central issue was the budget of the United States Government for the fiscal year 2012, and the conversation was shaped primarily by two competing proposals for that budget, the one put forward by President Obama on February 14, the other put forward in early April by the House Budget Committee chaired by Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and approved by the House on April 15. In light of the country’s debt and deficit crises, barring surprises in the course of human events, this looked likely to be the big issue of the coming months, leading up to the 2012 elections.
The issue is urgent and complicated (to say the least!) and the conversations were lively. For the most part, they seemed like a healthy spectacle of James Madison’s extended republic at work: a wide variety of contending interests and opinions jostling with one another in a robust American way, from which one might reasonably hope that eventually the “cool and deliberate sense” of the community would make some progress toward the public good. Certainly—you not being angels, and this being free, democratic politics—one could witness displays among the lawmakers of what Publius called “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity.” I needn’t name names here, and can put it down to an excess of zeal to please us, the people. And as for us citizens, in more than one instance, unfortunately, some of us became so animated that we had to be removed from the premises by the police. In fairness to the parties involved in these cases, those who had to be removed seemed to be on one side of the issue. But similar behavior, certainly, could be attributed to those on the other side on other occasions. We are, after all, “the people,” and no more angelic than our elected representatives, and sometimes our democratic behavior does not reflect very well on our human nature.
One of the hopes of these letters is to connect our contemporary political conversation with the tradition of American political discourse that has enriched our politics for over two centuries. In this instance, it may be helpful to observe that, by our less than angelic behavior, we merely confirm Publius’s observation, that in “cases of great national discussion” we should not be surprised if a “torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” or that the opposing parties “mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”
Maybe our political passions will be calmed somewhat by the wise and beautiful lessons of moderation offered by Alexander Hamilton (a man himself perhaps not always moderate) in Federalist 1:
So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists.
James Madison adds his own moderating wisdom in Federalist 37:
It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.
Our civic moderation might be further strengthened by the reminder we received on Sunday night that, whatever the lively differences among ourselves in our pursuit of happiness, we are at war—and have been ever since that surprising turn in the course of human events on September 11, 2001. Whatever our differences, we join past generations of Americans, going back to the Revolutionary generation, in mutually pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The sacrifices of many patriots teach us constantly that this is no vagrant commitment, that there is some enduring thing in our country for the sake of which Americans make such a pledge, generation after generation, each to all and all to each. They teach us to summon the better angels of our nature to our national conversations as we pursue our happiness in freedom.
A young Abraham Lincoln instructed a group of high school students over 170 years ago that “[w]e find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.” Like Lincoln, our generation of Americans inherited these blessings of liberty. There is no greater earthly bequest we can have received. It is our greatest duty and our highest honor as Americans to pass on this inheritance unimpaired—indeed, strengthened and improved in every way possible, to our children. This seems to me to be what our great national conversation is about. Let’s rise to the seriousness of the question.