Balance Of Power

In the early years of the eighteenth century, Baron De Montesquieu wrote his famous The Spirit of the Laws in which he noted:

“. . .there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subjects would be subjected to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

This principle, the separation of power, was the cornerstone on which this nation was founded. The founding fathers had read Montesquieu and took what he said to heart as they knew first-hand of which he spoke. Our lessons are just beginning.

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The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.

Submerged Concern

I recently discussed a Reuters poll that showed that more than 60% of Americans of all political stripes would like to see the E.P.A. maintain its present strength or increase it to help protect the environment. Indeed, polls have shown for years that Americans are concerned about the environment, a concern that usually appears among the top ten with astonishing consistency. And yet, as I have noted, when it comes to electing our representatives to Congress we tend to ignore their stand on the environment and show a much greater concern for such things as terrorism, defense, and the economy.  This has been a pattern for many years and it requires some explaining.

I’m not sure I can provide that explanation, but I can speculate — a thing I tend to be fairly good at, since it requires little research. I am guessing that the concern over the environment is indeed genuine. I don’t question it at all. But it is what I would call a “submerged concern.” That is, it’s there, but it doesn’t surface in any meaningful way. It will surface, of course, when we can no longer drink the water, breathe the air, or are forced to pay two week’s salary for groceries.  But until then, since it is not as pressing for most folks as, say, being able to make the payment on the new SUV, it will remain submerged.

Much of our tendency to keep the concern submerged is fear, of course. None of us wants to think about the dire consequences of continued attacks on the earth which supports us and the air that we require. And none of us wants to make sacrifices. God forbid that we should drive more economical cars and grab a sweater when we are chilly rather than turning up the thermostat! But some of it, at least, is due to our unreasonable conviction that no matter how great the problem someone will solve it. We have blind faith in science — while at the same time we question the veracity of the scientists who tell us that we are destroying the planet. (No one said folks worry about such things as consistency — the minds of so many of us resembling in many ways a rat’s nest of confused bits and pieces of truth, half-truth, and blatant falsehoods — all of which are bound together by wishful thinking. It’s the only kind of thinking a great many people are capable of, sad to say.)

In any event, we are faced with the undeniable fact that a great many people in this society repeatedly elect to Congress men and women who are paid to vote for Big Oil and whose reelection depends on continuing to support programs and people who are hell-bent on taking as much plunder out of the earth as humanly possible and leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess — while they gasp for air and drink Kool-Aid made up of reconditioned toilet water, presumably. We fault those folks in Congress, as we should. They really should put the well-being of their constituents before their own political party and their own re-election. But, judging form the past, this will not happen as long as the cushy jobs in Washington pay well (and the representatives see to that) and the voters are stupid enough to keep them in office. And the fault that this is allowed to happen is our own.

The founders made it clear that the idea was to rotate the representatives every couple of years so there would be new blood and new ideas. George Washington was smart enough to know that the President, at least, should have term limits. At that time the jobs didn’t pay very well and involved a lot of work for men who had more important things to get back to at home. But slowly and surely representation in Congress turned into a full-time, high-paying  job and those in office found that they were making huge piles of money and really preferred to keep things that way. Voting for clean energy and against Big Oil simply doesn’t fit into that scheme. This is why there should be term-limits, of course, but more importantly, it is why we should vote out of office those whose only concern is for themselves and their own well-being. What will it take to wake enough people up to the very real dangers we all face in the not-so-distant future? That is the question!

Euphoria

 

We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire. It is intent on speedily and relentlessly extracting the maximum wealth from that carcass, impoverishing our former working middle class.” E. Callenbach, 2012

The Republicans at the moment are experiencing euphoria. They act like it: positively giddy with power. After all, they now control the House and the Senate and have a president they think they can control (!). Accordingly, they are trying to manipulate the situation in order to have Trump’s incompetent cabinet recommendations approved as quickly as possible. They also plan to jettison the Affordable Care Act — despite the fact that they have nothing whatever to replace what they derisively call “Obamacare.” In addition, of course, they plan to scuttle the E.P.A. and any other regulating agencies that stand in the way of what they regard as “progress.” And all before the electorate catches its collective breath.

Predictably, many of these actions will take more time than planned, but, however long it takes, it is virtually certain that there will be some dreadful mistakes because of the political games that are being played and the haste with which these men and women want to take advantage of their advantage, as it were. These professional politicians are astute enough — or their advisors are — to know that they will not have Trump long in the White House. He won’t be able to work with them nor they with him. He has already insisted that he will not divest his businesses. At some point they will want to remove him, one way or the other, because they see Mike Pence as someone they can work with — he’s one of them, after all, equally nutty but not some brazen, outspoken, loose cannon who is bound to get them and their country into a mess if he remains in office for very long.

The whole scenario leaves us breathless. One worries that, based on history, actions taken in haste are usually regretted at leisure. (Think: Iraq.) Once the dust has settled and the economy is in serious trouble and the planet under even more relentless attack, there will be a good deal of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. Many who supported this car full of clowns will have regrets and those who supported a con-artist will begin to grasp the fact that they have been duped.

Once Trump’s nominees are approved, and most, if not all, will be (predictably) the Republicans will look to Trump to return the favor — after all this is high stakes politics: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — and Trump will wonder what the hell they are talking about. After all, this is a man who is not used to returning the favor; he is used to having others do him favors. His is a business world where money talks and, since he has a great deal of money, people listen. He is used to being heard and having people bend to his will — from all reports. When the professional politicians he will be surrounded by in Washington come to him to demand that he now help them get what they want since they delivered to him the cluster of incompetent people he wanted to surround himself with, he will balk. Surely. And, I predict, this will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. This is when (if it doesn’t happen before) the Congress will take measures to remove Trump from office, either by resignation or impeachment.

The rest of us, of course, will be left holding the bag, as it were. We should at that point — though judging form past experience we will not — replace the entire elected body with another group that might approximate a reliable coterie of men and women who will actually represent the will of the voters and not the corporations. This is one feature of the British Parliament system the founders did not choose to incorporate into our Constitution, sadly: the ability of the government to dissolve itself due to inability to work together and initiate new elections to make possible the replacement of one set of clowns with another. The only way the voters can do this in our system is to wait for the elections to roll around, and the founders were convinced this is how it would work; but we have shown ourselves unable to do this in the past as we keep re-electing the same group of clowns. Until they step on our toes.

 

The Test

Tomorrow the great American experiment will be tested as it has never been tested before. We will find out if popular democracy is good idea or a mistake of the first order. The test is fairly simple: do the American voters want a woman of proven experience and judgment or a vulgar man who has shown himself to be a bigoted, narcissistic megalomaniac? The latter likes to identify himself with the “common man,” whereas the former likes to present herself as a woman of the world who has the intelligence and experience to run the country — a woman who, while flawed like the rest of us, many regard as the most qualified candidate ever for this job. In a word, will the voters make informed choices or simply turn this race into a popularity contest?

The Founders, in their wisdom, did not trust the common man. They adopted the Roman model of a republic on purpose: representative democracy. They wrote a Constitution that required minimal property requirements of (male) voters who were only allowed to select their representatives to the House for two-year terms while requiring that legislators of the various states elect the Senate and the President.  The electoral college was devised to assure that the important offices would be reserved for those well qualified and the determination of those who were well qualified was reserved for those who presumably had the breadth of judgment to select the best qualified candidates. In a word, intelligence was considered a prerequisite for all the important votes. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to educate citizens of the young republic.

I confess, I am not a populist. While I do not think that ownership of property should be a requirement to vote, I do think that the voters of this republic should know that the number of Senators in Delaware is the same as the number in Texas and that there are nine Supreme Court judges (as a rule). The evidence reveals that many college graduates today do not know these simple facts!  In a word, I think the voters should have had a course in civics and know at least as much as those born elsewhere must demonstrate they know in becoming American citizens. The Founders did not envision a country in which the average Joe or Jean, with virtually no education whatever, should be allowed to decide who is best qualified to run this country.

I do realize that much has changed since 1776. I do also realize that in the spirit of egalitarianism we hesitate any longer to judge any one person better or worse in any sense of those words than anyone else. But the fact is that some people are brighter and better able to make informed judgment than others. Some, at least, have taken the time and trouble to vet the candidates carefully. We have taken the egalitarian ideal to its extreme and the result is that we now have a baboon running for the highest office in the land and he has garnered a blind following that numbers in the thousands. This is not how it was supposed to be.

In any event, in November we shall see if enough people in this country have the intelligence (or is it simply common sense?) not to elect a man demonstrably unqualified for the job and reject a woman demonstrably well qualified. We shall see whether the American experiment is a success or a failure. As Bernie Sanders has noted, this is the most important election in our lifetime — perhaps ever.

Consequences

One of the things that Donald Trump doesn’t know — and that list seems to grow longer with each passing day  — is that words, like actions, have consequences. He seems to think he can simply open his mouth and wisdom will come forth, and his minions will fall at his feet. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. He opens his mouth and hatred and bigotry come forth, people get angry and start shouting obscenities;  these words have had consequences already which the Donald himself may or may not be aware of.

What Trump’s words have done is to turn over a great many rocks and the creatures that have issued forth have been repulsive and just a bit frightening. We have seen this at his rallies and we have seen this in the increase in the burning of Muslim Mosques in this country — which, strictly speaking, cannot be attributed directly to Trump, but which have occurred after he started his rail against Muslims and others he doesn’t particularly like. There may be cause and effect or there may not. But one must wonder.

In any event, we must ask the question what will happen to these rock-dwellers after Trump loses this contest for the presidency — or when he simply resigns because it no longer suits his fancy to stand up before people and harangue  against minorities and women, not to mention crying babies and war veterans? His mindless minions will surely not quietly crawl back under their collective rocks. Trump has given them a sense of their own importance: they look around and see that there are others who think (?) like themselves. They now have degree of confidence resulting from the Trump’s articulating in public their own deepest and darkest hatreds, fears and suspicions. Be assured, these folks will be around for a while. And, I dare to say, Trump will be there to goad them on — in whatever capacity he chooses.

This man may or may not quit the race. But in any case he almost certainly will not be our next president [he said with fingers and toes crossed] and then the really ugly part of his candidacy will begin: the aftermath. He will not go quietly, of that we can be sure: he will go with fingers pointing elsewhere. And it seems highly unlikely that those he has brought out into the bright sunlight after years under rocks will not go quietly either. To say the aftermath of his run for the highest office in the land will be interesting is to say the least. It will be a great deal more than interesting and one can only hope the protests that are sure to follow will be quelled without violence — though that seems unlikely in the extreme.

I do not choose to be a nay-sayer or a gloomy gus, though I suspect many readers have already placed those labels on my posts. I choose, rather, to be a realist and one cannot look even casually at current events and this abortive political race and not be disturbed at least a little bit. One can, of course, choose to hide one’s head in the sand. But if you look around you really must face the question what is likely to happen to those mindless minions who think Donald Trump is the savior of this country and that his loss would mean a return to “politics as usual” which they both fear and hate.

In that regard, I must admit I do not look kindly on the game of politics as it is played in this country and am sick and tired of wealthy people choosing other wealthy people to run for public office in order to support agendas that are both hidden and insidious, but usually mean greater profits for those already rich. I would love to see the system altered at its roots, a return to a Republic as envisioned, pretty much, as the founders imagined it. But that change must come, if it is to come at all, slowly and not in this particular election. This election is all about seeing to it that Donald Trump does not become our next president. And then we must brace ourselves for the consequences of his eventual loss.

The Demagogue

I attach here a portion of a most interesting opinion piece from the Washington Post that is making the rounds on the web. It is by Michael Gerson and the title is “Trump is the Demagogue our Founding Fathers feared.” It is most interesting.

In a dangerous world, fear is natural. Cynically exploiting fear is an art. And Trump is a Rembrandt of demagoguery.

But this does not release citizens from all responsibility. The theory that voters, like customers, are always right has little to do with the American form of government. The founders had little patience for “pure democracy,” which they found particularly vulnerable to demagogues. “Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs,” says Federalist 10, “may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.” A representative government is designed to frustrate sinister majorities (or committed pluralities), by mediating public views through “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

Trump is the guy your Founding Fathers warned you about. “The question is not ‘Why Trump now?’ ” argues constitutional scholar Matthew J. Franck, “but rather ‘Why not a Trump before now?’ Perhaps some residual self-respect on the part of primary voters has driven them, up to now, to seek experience, knowledge of public policy, character, and responsibility in their candidates. The Trump phenomenon suggests that in a significant proportion of the (nominally) Republican electorate, this self-respect has decayed considerably.”

With the theory of a presidential nominee as a wrecking ball, we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government. Trump imagines leadership as pure act, freed from reflection and restraint. He has expressed disdain for religious and ethnic minorities. He has proposed restrictions on press freedom and threatened political enemies with retribution. He offers himself as the embodiment of the national will, driven by an intuitive vision of greatness. None of this is hidden.

The founders may not have imagined political parties as a check on public passions, but that is the role the GOP must now play — as important as any in its long history. It is late, but not too late. If he loses in Ohio and Florida on March 15, Trump may well be held below a majority of delegates at the Cleveland convention. And then this chosen body of citizens should play its perfectly legitimate role and give its nomination to a constructive and responsible leader.

The reference to the “wrecking ball” has to do with what Gerson says Trump is: the “Republican electorate’s” tool to destroy the “old political order.” But anyone who believes that the Trump phenomenon is all about folks who are sick of politics as usual, and that’s it, are fooling themselves. He has shown us the ugly underbelly of this nation, folks who have been afraid heretofore to shout out their hatred and bigotry in public. This man has made it not only acceptable, but even admirable. It’s no wonder the rest of the world is looking askance at this country and the hatred and even violence that has clouded this election thus far.

 

Hillary As President?

While this notion will scare the pants off many a hard-line Republican, it warms my heart to think that a woman might be elected president of this country, following on the heels of a black man. But the question is whether or not this woman would be more effective than her predecessor. Her strengths seem to be her ability to get things done. She would appear to be better able to work with a recalcitrant (entrenched) Congress than her chief Democratic rival for the office, since she knows where many of the skeletons are buried and she’s tough — and she can lean on the political savvy of her husband (which is considerable). However, she would be beholden to the corporations in whose political pocket she is buried deep, whereas her Democratic opponent realizes that the real battle in American politics is between the corporations and the people who are supposed to be the real base of power in a democracy. While Bernie Sanders would be a serious speed bump on the path the very rich in this country are taking toward a full-fledged oligarchy, Hilary would be a pebble. Her election would mean the continuance of the seemingly inevitable replacement of our democratic system by a system engineered by the very rich who are at present in the process of buying themselves a government.

Sanders is an idealist. Some would say he is a dreamer and totally out of touch with reality. It is certainly the case that he would be unable to work effectively with a Congress made up like the present one. He would be at least as ineffective as his predecessor. I imagine him as a Quixotic figure galloping full speed at windmills. And we know how that turned out! But this election year will see 47 House and Senate seats on the Republican side up for grabs and only 26 on the Democratic side. If the citizens of this country were able to hand Sanders a majority in the Senate, and perhaps even in the House, he might be able to realize some of his dreams. This assumes that those elected to the Congress have the nerve to stand with Sanders against the special interests and the very wealthy who are clear in their determination to take over the reins of government. That is a pivotal question.

For my part, I figure Sanders is a long shot and the possibility that this electorate will be wise enough to give him a Congress to work with coupled with the unlikely possibility that the Congress even then will not be in the pocket of the corporations and their bosses makes his successful presidency appear all the more unlikely. But, assuming that he could survive the race for the office and live out his term without being shot by one of the many crazies who have been encouraged to emerge from the shadows of late, it may be our last hope if we are to salvage some semblance of what the founders envisioned over 200 years ago. Hillary does not embody that hope, sad to say.

Regarding the Republicans, it is impossible to take any of them seriously. They appear to be a confederacy of dunces the leader of whom seems perfectly capable of hauling this nation to the brink of disaster without having the least idea that he is doing so. At present, they appear to be divided into a cluster of warring camps as Robert Reich recently pointed out. Their disarray should increase the probability of a Democratic win. If the country does not feel strongly that “it’s now or never” then Hillary would be the acceptable alternative, one who is best able to work within a corrupt system. But any claim that the system is not terribly flawed is naive and unworthy of serious consideration. It is now or never, even though it seems a very long shot. Can the people reject the corporate control of this country or are we so far down that road we cannot turn back? That is the question.

Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.

The Common Good

Some years ago I was teaching a course in 18th Century political philosophy and had an especially good class. One of my former students had become an attorney and was friends with our Congressman whom he brought to class one day. We had been discussing the Enlightenment notion of the “Common Good” which permeates the thinking of political philosophers at the time, including the founders of this  nation. One of my students asked the Congressman if our government was committed to the Common  Good and he was met with a smirk and a garbled response. I suspect the student was being a bit facetious, but the response of the professional politician was most interesting. I dare say he had never thought about the notion at all.

A particularly striking passage in Santayana’s brilliant The Life of Reason gives us a perspective on this topic that will help us understand better why the notion of the Common Good is almost certainly not being considered in the hallowed halls of our Congress:

“Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries. . . . the private citizen continues to pay a maximum of taxes and to suffer, in all his private interests, a maximum of vexation and neglect. Nevertheless, because he has some son at the front, some cousin in the government, or some historical sentiment for the flag and the nominal essence of his country, the oppressed subject will glow like the rest with patriotic ardour, and will decry as dead to duty and honor anyone who points out how perverse is this helpless allegiance to a government representing no public interest.”

Now, Santayana is using the phrase “public interest,” but the concept is the same. He is speaking about an interest that is common to all, a good that governments that are not “bad” strive to realize. Needless to say, our present government has long since lost sight of such a concept — as evidenced by the reaction of the Congressman in response to my student’s question. But Santayana also points out the “patriotic ardor” of the “oppressed subject” who shouts “foul” whenever he hears any criticism of the country he “loves” — in the form of the flag and the national anthem sung at sporting events by a pretty child, the simple sort of patriotism that so many mistake for the real thing. As Santayana also notes,

“To love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal; and this distinction in turn involves a demand for changes and for effort.”

Thus, what he points out in these brief passages is the failure of bad governments to focus on what is most important and the small-mindedness of citizens who are ignorant of what their country truly is and are therefore perfectly willing to go along with the actions of their government — and are critical of those who would point out the shortcomings of their government when it fails to realize the “inherent ideal.”

No man is an island, as the saying goes, and we are all in this together. It therefore behooves us to know what is going on, speak out against violations of the public trust, vote out those who couldn’t care less what the common good happens to be, and acknowledge that ours is a “bad” government to the extent that it fails to respond to the real needs of the majority of its citizens. The notion of the Common Good may have been central concept in the thinking of the founders of this nation, but it assuredly is no more — though it should be. Some concepts are timeless and this one is central to the ideal of good government.