On this Independence Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about this election season we are in the midst of, and the promises that are all variations on the theme of making America great (again), and all the things one or the other candidate will do for us. Truth is, it seems these are the kinds of things I’ve been hearing candidates say all my adult life. Sometimes, they’ve even managed to keep their promises, whether it is civil rights, reduced taxes, or expanded health care laws. Clearly, candidates for President, and other high office have to paint for us some kind of vision of how they will lead.
What troubles me is how much we seem to lodge our existential hopes in these figures, and come to believe that they hold the key to making our lives better. And in doing this, I think we betray the fundamental idea around which we as a nation were constituted.
Our founding document, the Constitution, begins with the words, “We, the people”. The fundamental idea is that the citizens who make up this nation are the ones in power and that we assign some of that power to elected officials and appointed judges at the national level to, among other things, enforce the laws, provide for interstate commerce and a financial system, and protect the country from external threats–and to enact taxes to pay for it all.
I’m not a Constitutional lawyer and so I do not want to get into a discussion of how this document is to be interpreted and how much or little power the federal government should have. What I want to reflect on is how much power “we, the people” have, and with that the responsibility to be actively engaged in the pursuit of the flourishing of our country–that this is not something to relinquish to our national political leaders. It would seem that the best government creates the conditions that allows all “the people” to flourish in the exercise of their own powers.
We do not need national government to:
- Raise our children and prepare them for responsible adulthood. In particular, young men are disproportionately responsible for sexual and criminal violence. Government can arrest and incarcerate them. We can be fathers and mentors.
- To care for whatever place we call home, whether we own or rent. Do we simply use up the places where we live, and move on, or do we make them better?
- Be watchful of our neighborhoods and public places. We often are so cocooned and plugged-in that we don’t notice what is going on around us. Why do you think so many are asking us to “See something, say something?”
- Administer our schools and our cities. We often know more about officials in far-off Washington, DC, than we do of those who educate our children and appoint our safety forces leaders and zone our communities, shaping what kinds of places these will be. As Tip O’Neill was fond of saying, “All politics is local.”
- Make choices to reduce our personal dependence on carbon-based fuels, to not consume more than we need, and not to treat our neighborhoods and the rest of the planet as a communal garbage can.
- Make us tolerate those who are different from us, or polarize us into interest groups pitted against “them”. Instead of seeing the “other” as problems, threats, or competition, can we not choose to envision an America where the talents, perspectives, and experiences of all of us are needed to make us great?
- Provide for our economic success. While government can provide for equal opportunity in education and hiring, and provide stop-gap help when our efforts to succeed fail, generations of hard-working immigrants whose children go on to be doctors, lawyers, business entrepreneurs tell us that there are not shortcuts around hard work over a long time to achieving success.
- Give us more than we can pay for, charging it to our children.
One of the transformative principles of economic development, whether in communities or countries is when a group of people move from seeing only problems and depending on others for solutions to identifying their assets and working hard to leverage those as a community.
It seems to me that we cannot be “the land of the free” if we give away our power to our national figures. That seems to be the way of tyranny, whether of the fascist or communist variety. There are peoples around the world who crave what we take for granted. Perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves this Independence Day is whether we are exercising the power we have as a free people, along with the responsibilities that go with that power? What might each of us do to preserve this rare and wonderful thing of a government that derives its power from “we, the people?”