I’m done with the posts on my Facebook feed apologizing for being political. I tire of the lamentations about how many political posts there are.
Over the past few weeks – almost three! – we’ve heard so much about the importance of checks and balances. Yes! This is completely true! And let’s not forget to pepper this blog post with some important Founding Father quotes, who bequeathed this concept (enshrined in our form of government) to us. Let’s begin with James Madison in Federalist No. 51:
In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.
But I want to note the important point in the following paragraph:
A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
That word: auxiliary. “Auxiliary” means “additional; supplementary; reserve.” It does not mean “primary, foundational, first, chief, principal.”
Our inheritance is therefore not simply that of checks and balances. it is the intellectual tradition of being an active representative in good government.
Institutions are merely conglomerates of people. Checks and balances are not self-executing. Checks and balances are designed to work alongside a galvanized and informed citizenry. There’s no basis for believing that checks and balances will magic themselves into responsiveness. The only way checks and balances work as an auxiliary is if the primary bulwark against tyranny does its job first, and that bulwark is us: the American people.
Likewise, it requires people to act. Acting can be anything: reading, writing, listening, speaking up, going to a rally, running for office, whatever. I’m writing this as a plea, not an argument. Being apolitical is to remain indifferent to the health and status democracy. To stand aloof to the problems facing government – and there will always be problems – is to either say that you don’t care, or that it doesn’t concern you. If you read this and think “That’s not me; I care,” then the next time a political thought enters your mind, fear of alienating your Facebook feed should not be part of your decision tree.
Our country’s philosophical tenets were fundamentally active. They require movement and participation. They require education, and not just schooling, but the commitment of a literate population to understand and think about the issues surrounding them.
I’m sure I’m a bother on my Facebook page, but I frankly don’t care at this juncture. My goal is not to go out there and change everyone’s mind. My goal is to remain engaged and to surround myself with other engaged people. I want people who associate with me to take this role of citizen seriously and understand the gravity of maintaining the integrity of our republican form of government.
I gave up a long time ago on this kind of language because it sounded to romantic, lofty and idealistic. I’ve since begun embracing it again. Too often I hear people speak in platitudes about American political identity. I really want to emphasize that we should strive to breath meaning back into this foundational concepts. Freedom and liberty are not self-defining any more than our checks and balances are self-executing. It’s going to require this generation of Americans to add contours to those principles. We’ll do this by maintaining our own library of thoughts and democratic experiments, but that’s only possible if can get past this notion that to be political is to be uncouth. Being political is a feature, not a bug, of living in a democracy.