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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

The Lack of Civic Virtue in America

This is may seem outside my normal posts dealing with intelligence and national security, but is actually related because it affects the well-being of the United States. I will attempt to steer clear of politics in order to avoid the incessant accusations and acrimony that define our modern disourse. It is too much like a monkey cage at the zoo with the monkeys throwing shit at each other. I don't have the patience for it, and frankly, if your first instinct is name-calling and mouthing talking points you don't even understand, then you are not interested in a serious discussion. Ok, now that I got that off my chest, let’s continue.

A lot went into the creation of the United States and the form of government that we have today, both good and bad. It was an extremely complex process, as most human endeavors are, and 5th grade American History does not do it justice. When it came time to create a functional government, as opposed to the original and unworkable Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by both classical Greece and Rome. It is in their writings, in the design of their homes and government buildings, and in their philosophy. We can tell ourselves the Bible or even Druidism influenced them, but neither religion promotes a republic or democracy as a form of government. Both, like the Qur'an, more or less advocate theocracy or monarchy as the best form of government. Nonetheless, the Founding Fathers chose a republic as our form of government.

At this time in the conversation, the argument arises that we are a republic, not a democracy. This argument implies that the United States is somehow not intended to be democratic, and leads to the idea that we are actually an oligarchy or other non-democratic form of government. This talking point is used by many who do not understand what a republic is and by those who prefer to void the will of the people in favor of the will of a few, powerful individuals. In fact, a republic is a democracy, more accurately, a representative democracy. What the "republic not a democracy" crowd is attempting to do is manipulate the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy. In the former, the people vote on all major decisions by the state but in the latter, the people elect representatives to conduct the business of the people. In both, the will of the people is supreme.

Republic comes from the Latin term res publica, meaning public affair. This means the business of the people is conducted in public, in the open, for all to see, unlike monarchies and dictatorships where decisions are made without the input or even knowledge of the people. That public, open discourse was the intent of the Founding Fathers, an open form of government as opposed to the monarchy they had just cast off. In a republic, the will of the people remains supreme, not the will of elected officials or wealthy oligarchs.

One of the major characteristics of this republic, and a vital requirement for the success of the republic, is civic virtue or public virtue. In short, this meant that those involved in politics, government, and decision-making would place the common good over personal interests. This idea of civic virtue was instrumental in the functioning of a successful democracy/republic. Greek and Roman histories are full of stories demonstrating civic virtue as an ideal. We see it in our own history. George Washington addressed his officers in 1783 when they petitioned him to mutiny against the government due to the government's failure to pay back pay and asked Washington to set himself up as king. Washington defused the situation, sympathized with his officers but rejected their course of action. His farewell to the nation after two terms as president was another act of civic virtue, declining to serve what could have been a never-ending series of presidential terms, with the attendant power, and setting a precedent of two-four years terms as president so that no one person could develop unlimited power.

We lack that civic virtue today. The idea that someone would serve the nation and not their own personal benefit is out of fashion, lingering mostly in the military and parts of the federal government. Politics is now a money-making enterprise—from stock trading using insider information to financial contributions to post-political jobs as a lobbyist or for an industry you helped to obtain favorable legislation for. The wealthy and corporations buy politicians to pass laws that enrich them even more, regardless of whether it is good for the nation as a whole. We have media conglomerates, owned by profit-driven corporations, that transmit talking points and political propaganda rather than solid news that would keep the people well informed. We have big money behind all this, keeping us divided as a people, making it easier to manipulate government and laws for the benefit of those controlling the money.

Let us not forget the people themselves. Yes, politicians are at the forefront of this uncivic virtue but we let it happen. We join in, relishing the rage and anger toward one group or another. We let ourselves be divided, even by generation, accepting as gospel that one group is worse than another, somehow different rather than just people trying to live out their lives the best way they know how. We allow ourselves to succumb to the fear and ignorance pushed by people looking to their own self-interest and wealth instead of the good of the people. We have accepted the notion that there is only one way to solve a problem, our solution, rather than multiple solutions. We prefer a simplistic, yet unrealistic, solution that only one person can deliver. We choose to have enemies because it is easier to blame someone else for our problems.

If you are thinking right now that "those people" are responsible for this, then you are part of the problem. The same mentality defines rights, and freedoms as my rights, my freedom rather than our rights, our freedoms. There is no national sense of community to bind the nation together, no sense of civic virtue that tells us to look out for the greater good rather than ourselves. Don't look towards schools to provide this, they are underfunded, understaffed, and under assault. Decades of neglect have done its damage. This idea of civic virtue must come from home, from the family, from us. We must educate our children on the worthiness of serving the nation, of the importance of the greater good, and the importance of the nation. But instead, we teach them to hate others, we teach them to be loyal to a political party. And all this is cloaked in patriotism.

The military used to be the great leveler. It exposed draftees to people from all walks of life and from every part of the nation. It taught them to see people as humans, as like them, to rely on these people for their very lives, and they usually came through. That is gone and with only one percent of Americans routinely providing the strength for the military we are left with a large part of the remaining 99% who will likely never come into meaningful contact with people from other parts of the nation, other religions, ethnicities, and social conditions. We don't get to come to know them as people but instead as the enemy.

We need to restore civic virtue. By this, I don't mean indoctrinating our children with propaganda in schools, whether the idea that America is all good or all bad. I shudder to think of what moronic version of history is being pushed in schools, by both sides. I mean we need to teach that serving the nation is noble, that we are one people trying to live the best life we can and not mortal enemies. We need to instill in our people that politics is not a way of becoming wealthy but a way of making the nation better for all its citizens.

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