Happy Independence Day!
I’ll say the same thing I say every year: Today is a day to celebrate the world of politics, because the U.S. is a particularly political nation. Indeed, it is only appropriate that our greatest holiday isn't a commemoration of a battle, but of decisions made by politicians in the Continental Congress.
We should celebrate the politicians, whose ambitions and energy are needed for the scheme to work. We should celebrate the activists who want to change the world, and the interest groups who are just trying to protect and enlarge their little piece of that world. We should celebrate the electioneers: the speechwriters, the pollsters, the get-out-the-vote specialists. And, yes, the opposition researchers. We should even celebrate the little old ladies who administer our elections in thousands of precincts.
Politics isn’t just a matter of elections, or even most importantly about elections. We should celebrate those who participate in government from the inside, and those who try to influence it from the outside. We also should celebrate reporters who sit through endless city council meetings or put the time in with government databases until they unearth the stories we really need to hear. We should celebrate the citizens who show up for jury duty without resorting to phony stories to get out of it, and those who testify at state legislative committee hearings. In other words, all who get involved in self-government at some point in the process beyond merely voting when they remember to do so.
Politics, oddly enough, can both give us great satisfaction, and can be a burden most of us are all too willing to be excused from. That failing drove the Founders to despair as the thrill of 1776 gave way to normal politics in the 1780s, and as weary revolutionaries turned back to their private lives. Without a virtuous set of great men dedicated to public service, how could the Republic thrive? Thomas Jefferson spoke of an ambiguous (as Hannah Arendt noted) “pursuit of happiness,” but citizens seemed more interested in their private happiness than in the “public happiness” derived from political action.
James Madison, at least as I read him, saw a solution in the very ambiguity of the pursuit of (private or public) happiness. It’s true that only a small group might originally be drawn to politics for its own sake; only a small group might have true republican virtue. But a republican government with thousands of input points -- a Madisonian system of federalism, with separated institutions sharing powers at every level – would tempt many citizens to get involved solely in order to further their private interests. And then, just as particular and private grievances with King George turned into a national political movement, many of those who sought only to enhance their private happiness would discover and embrace public happiness.
So feel free to salute the troops today; they are, after all, government employees. But I urge everyone to save the bulk of their tributes for the millions of Americans who make government “by the people” come alive. Today, we remember that each of them is an American hero.
Enjoy the Fourth!
To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org.