To be certain, over the past year, politics has been front and center in American society. Though the volatility of today’s political landscape may feel unprecedented to some, other such times have occurred in the history of the United States, and it is naïve to think otherwise. In fact, emotional political seasons are more common than not. From the nation’s founding, political cartoonists and pamphleteers have called public attention to political issues and fomented public reaction to political disagreements. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s battle for the presidency was not a stately and dignified affair without conflict and tension, and their administrations were not without controversy either.
Presidential elections have a way of bringing politics to the forefront. Americans of every political and social stripe are drawn into political discussions daily by the controversy and intrigue surrounding elections, swift policy changes, and awkward transitions of power. The level of disagreement marking the American cultural landscape today is demonstrated by daily news cycles, social media feeds, op-ed columns, strained family gatherings, and the larger-than-life personalities presently on stage. There is much anxiety, much frustration, and much at stake.
Let us not forget, however, that more is at stake than the consequences of one side prevailing over the other on controversial issues and policies. What is at stake is Americans’ understanding of the nature of democracy and their will and acumen to practice and preserve it. It is helpful, then, for us as citizens to think about our stewardship of this form of government, which has at its core these ideas:
- that freedom and liberty are gifts, not to be taken for granted, but jealously guarded;
- that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights;
- that tyranny, oppression, and totalitarianism strip human beings of these gifts and rights; and
- that self-governance is the best way to protect and nourish them.
In the midst of all the political fervor and ire, we ought to think on these things, to gain perspective, to contemplate the practice of informed and skilled citizenship, and to strengthen individual resolve and persistence for the sake of posterity.
In a country so divided on social, economic, and political issues, as well as political affiliations and personal affinities for various political leaders, it can become difficult for individuals to remain objective or enter into dialogue because of the emotionally charged nature of things. Reacting in the moment — either out of fear or fervency — is understandable, but not always beneficial.
In the minds of many, politics is a zero-sum game. There is only so much power to go around, and when one side gains some, it stands to reason that the other side loses some. Consequently, the natural political goal is to gain power and not lose it. This objective too often leads to standoffs and gridlock, to halting of legislative progress, political jockeying for position, overreaching of authority, demagoguery, and sometimes worse.
Human nature is a culprit in this. Like children vying for the limited attention of a teacher or parent, like schoolyard chums fighting over a swing, humans don’t like losing or giving up something they feel is rightfully theirs. This attitude is as natural as breathing, and it complicates life.
Too often, we fail to acknowledge the truth that human nature shapes politics. Rarely, if ever, are candidates asked their view of human nature; rarely, if ever, do political commentators or pundits refer to it; and rarely, if ever, do people admit to its influence in their own political participation or attitudes. Yet it is there, and it matters. Forming coherent political convictions and conclusions depends on first understanding and forming thoughtful convictions and conclusions about human nature. For the Christian seeking a biblical understanding of our human nature, we must come to terms with the fact that the impact of sin and the fall on human nature is penetrating and pervasive. Human beings are fatally flawed, and our experience in this world supports that biblical teaching. It must also be understood that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, therefore possessing the ability and inclination to shape their world.
Context is another critical factor. Politics is not a purely political phenomenon. It is not an isolated process or activity limited to government and without outside influence. It is a part of human life — life that is often complicated, even messy. Politics plays out within complex social, cultural, and historical contexts. There are geographical, generational, and demographic contexts, as well. Finally, people’s perceptions of politics are influenced by personal political biases, opinions, and judgments based on each individual’s knowledge and experiences.
Politics is complex in many ways, and so are the diverse attitudes and convictions informing it. Acknowledging context matters, because this leads to understanding the forces shaping current political ideas, attitudes, and dynamics. The sweeping influence of populism and nationalism in the world today is an outworking of context. People’s fears, apprehensions, and frustrations, as well as their aspirations, ambitions, and opportunities, are shaped by the conditions of the world around them; these factors then shape their political dispositions. The rise of totalitarianism and relinquishing of personal freedom is historically almost always related to threats to personal security and survival. Drought, disaster, economic depression, and war shape political ideas and practices on a fundamental level. Religious movements, prevailing or competing philosophies and ideologies, and cultural attitudes and sensibilities also shape the way politics is thought about and carried out. Consider how prevailing corporate attitudes toward authority influence individual opinions about political institutions or offices.
As always, today’s political environment and action in America is shaped by a broader context. Reflecting upon this reality individually and collectively can shed light on what is happening and where it will likely lead, making citizens more aware of the responsibility they bear and more measured in their attitudes and actions.
Recently, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was interviewed regarding developments related to the administration’s foreign policy and ongoing investigations regarding Russian interference in the presidential election. At one point in the interview, she was asked about the current political tension, rancor, and inability of legislators and the administration to resolve differences and get things done.
Her response was thoughtful, thorough, and carefully balanced. But she did say one thing that is provocative and worth unpacking. She quietly yet assertively said that “we get the democracy we deserve.” This is a striking and potentially condemning comment coming from a notable and respected individual not known for bombast and hyperbole. It warrants some commentary.
The founders envisioned, as Lincoln reminded us, a democratic republic “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It was a bold undertaking, one that has not been easy but has stood the test of time to this point. It requires citizens to value it, care for it, and desire it. It requires them to give to it, believe in it, and take part in it. It requires them to choose wisely and well who will lead, then hold those elected officials accountable for how they do so. It also requires disagreement, passionate and persuasive disagreement, debate, and argument.
But how and why we disagree and debate make a difference. Substance and specificity will benefit the country and its citizens. Secretary Rice’s statement was more than an observation; it was a call to action. That call is not to activism or protest or rebellion. It is to exercising stewardship of our citizenship in ways that are consistent with democratic values, belief in the rule of law, and a sense of shared history.
But exercising citizenship requires more than affect, more than philosophical or ideological commitment, more than conviction. It requires knowledge and skill, a basic level of acumen that takes some effort. It requires effect.
In this way, it is no different from any other skill or trade. Professional fields and vocations require ample training. From hairstylists to plumbers, neurosurgeons to astronauts, developing knowledge, understanding, and skills is essential to success. Why any less so in matters related to citizenship and politics?
One way forward through America’s present political quagmire is to set objectives, then teach and train accordingly. This type of education is something America has done well in the past. By again providing a civics education that teaches what democracy is, how it works, and the ideas behind it, perhaps civic acumen among citizens can be relied upon as a foundation for political discourse and disagreement. Perhaps by teaching history that informs citizens about the real mistakes and profound successes of the past, as well as about the people of great talent and significant flaws who have led, we can again foster in our citizenry a greater degree of humility and responsibility and appreciation for the hard work democracy requires of its people.
Ample resources exist in the form of books, technology, and formal instruction on the benefits of a bicameral legislature, the importance of the Constitution’s provisions for the balance of powers, and the practical implications of the idea of the “rule of law” as opposed to “rule by law.” Countless histories and biographies provide insight into the qualities and traits that make for good leaders. These resources demonstrate the complexities and necessities of statesmanship, diplomacy, and compromise and teach from national experience the consequences of both wise and poor political choices.
All of this requires work. But it is the same kind of work it takes to parent well, perform professional duties well, manage money and households well, and attend to other aspects of life that do not take care of themselves. This effort demands commitment, but not a debilitating one. It is possible to teach children early, remind them often, and nourish their exercise of citizenship such that it becomes second nature, like so many other things they learn along the way. It is possible to build into the rhythm of adult life the regular cultivation of the life of the mind politically and the fulfillment of civic duty by conceiving of it as a natural outworking of the adult life. It is possible to read the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at least annually (a matter of minutes, not hours), to seek out news from multiple sources to account for singularity of bias, and to talk about politics with others in ways that go beyond superficial evaluation of an event or decision to explore the implications of that event or decision for the nation, the democratic process, and posterity.
This approach develops civic persistence. It keeps citizens aware and active, even when no presidential election or political controversy preoccupies the media. It causes people to care about the local politics that keep schools on track, utility services operable, and law enforcement and community development working in positive directions that benefit all and not just some. It brings about integrated and coherent civic engagement that is neither reactionary nor radical. It leads to respect for property, individual initiative, and a commitment to create broad economic opportunity. It fosters respect for authority, and convention, and institutions without devaluing individuals and their freedom or enabling corruption or abuse.
The better something or someone is known, the more we afford it appreciation, care, and engagement. This is true in human relations, theological understanding, and even things like the arts and athletics. We cannot help but strengthen society, and culture, and the political process and its outcomes if citizens come to better know, appreciate, and engage in the gift of a free and democratic political system.
It will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
Dr. Todd J. Williams has been the president of Cairn University since January 2008. He served on the faculty and administration from 1996 to 2001, and then returned as provost in 2005. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.