Civic virtue and democratic politics

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People will say Trump’s election signifies what elites have always said about democracy: that it means rule by the worst. I disagree. We had a democracy in 1952, and it produced Dwight Eisenhower. Despite Eisenhower’s warnings in his farewell address, we still had a democracy in 1960. It produced Jack Kennedy. We saw Kennedy executed in front of us, did not own the event, and wonder why we do not have a democracy fifty years later.

Donald Trump is not an example of a demagogue or dictator spawned in the deep recesses of democratic politics. Democratic politics requires civic virtue, a quality Trump obviously lacks. Since Robespierre and the French Revolution we avoid that phrase, but in fact a democracy without civic virtue among its citizens can’t last. Devotion to civil collaboration – with all the skills and social tempers such cooperation requires – makes democracy possible. Trump’s ascension illustrates what happens when the gulf between citizens and their government becomes so wide it exceeds democracy’s limits.

If civic virtue does exist, we will see disciplined resistance to President Trump emerge from groups who have only incidental relationships to the major political parties.

If Trump’s ascension does not illustrate democracy’s greatest weakness, what does it signify? We won’t know for a while yet, but we can say the founders did not plan for election of a strongman to the White House. They foresaw – and tried to ameliorate – the deleterious effects of faction, what we now call partisanship or conflict between parties. They did not expect – or plan for – a situation where the executive grows stronger than the legislature, where the Constitution no longer sets the rules of play, and where the executive actually sees its strength as a good thing. If a speaker waves a copy of the Constitution at the audience at a national political convention, you may doubt whether civic virtue round about possesses vitality, or even credibility.

If civic virtue does exist, we will see disciplined resistance to President Trump emerge from groups who have only incidental relationships to the major political parties. More importantly, we will see disciplined resistance to all of government’s pressure on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We will see active, tolerant followers, creative and imaginative leaders, and strategies for durable change.

If civic virtue does not exist, we will see acquiescence to federal power, continued growth in executive strength, and parties that battle solely for their own interests. You will see no discipline or planning in political activities, only arguments without meaning, dishonesty, double standards, sniping, and short-term schemes to grab temporary advantages. With civic virtue, we are already great, and do not need to become so. Without these qualities of respect and cooperation, we will have more of what we have already seen.