A Virtuous Government

August 15, 2021

From all quarters, we hear how uncivilized, how corrupt, how self-centered the world has become, including what is happening in our own country. Those corruptions, we believe, lie at the center of the problems we face. We see this as a top-down problem. But do they metastasize from the interactions with our neighbors, questioning their motives, to local, state, federal, national, international levels? Do we figuratively, and in many places literally, hold a knife to each other’s throats? All the while we wonder if we could not just “get along”. We may “get along” with close family members, but how do we do that with people on the other side of the world?

That yearning to “get along” never diminishes. The movement for everyone to live in a cave, on top of a mountain or on a boat in the middle of the ocean by oneself, is very small. The fact is, it’s not a choice that we made to live together, it is an imperative of humanity. We may think that we are resigned to live together but that is just rationalization of the reality that we Must live together. But how do we “get along” with 7 billion other people on the planet? This is especially important now that we can virtually interact with billions.

To “get along”, humanity has devised ways that this may be accomplished. Mythologies, traditions, political, economic, and religious systems are all constructed to enable us to “get along” together. Joseph Campbell (1a) described the human spirit as not having the language, not even the capability, of understanding the actual drive that draws us together. But we do have imagination. It is that imagination that is manifested in the devised ways we use to live together.

These devised ways, as mentioned above, are many and varied. And why not? Our imaginations are many and varied. The eternal answer that has never been mutually agreed upon – is there an ultimate devised way – has not, and probably can never, be known. Our imagination can also envision perfection. In that we see how bad we measure up.

But we can discuss, debate, and conclude on specific devised ways that result in the most advantages for the largest number of people on the unachievable road to perfection. Make no mistake, these discussions and writings have been going on by others far more extensively and scholarly than I for thousands of years. But that does not diminish, but in fact encourages me to link those thoughts and writings to our own individual lives and by extension to the country, and perhaps enlighten us as to how best to “get along” even with those we don’t know.

I write this, prompted of course, by current affairs. The pandemic that is sweeping the world highlights the difficulty of acting in unison to “get along” and the many paths to do so. It is a clear and present issue. The pandemic is not an insidious problem that crept up over time as so many other problems have. But this is not about the pandemic.  Race, wealth inequality, climate discussions, and of course politics in general share the same underlying issue. It is the last item, politics, that centers this essay. Again, much has been written by others more learned than me, but many recent books highlight the issue or thread that seems to distress most observers today: the lack of “civility” and the consequences thereof in the political sphere.

“Most controversies begin with a discussion of principles; but soon degenerate into episodical, verbal or personal cavils. Too much of this is seen in these pamphlets, and, as usual, those whose dogmas are the most unintelligible are the most angry.” TJ 1818 (1)

Thomas Jefferson, one of the countries founders, did a fair amount of writing and had strong opinions of what should constitute our government. But even he was dismayed at the vitriol and animosity that surrounded the early years of the Republic (2). The fact that the U.S. Constitution did not comport to his full belief of how a federal government should be structured led to rather colorful descriptions of his adversaries. And visa-versa. But so, it was with all the framers and delegates who worked to write the Constitution of the United States. As we know, the Constitution was the second one instituted as the first, the Articles of Confederation, failed after a few years to yield a government that was workable for all. In that regard it is hard to say what the “framers” of the constitution meant when each framer had different ideas. To answer the question, it would depend on which framer is chosen and even then it came down to placing enough “wiggle room” in the document so that all could agree. To proclaim that we need to be “originalist” in understanding the Founding Father’s intent is fraught with contradictions when current situations are viewed thru their eyes.

But their time was a time of national unity. A great effort was expended, successfully, to breakaway and defeat the British so unity in purpose was in the air. This unity of shared experience repeats itself repeatedly when difficult times arrive. This is true from personal family matters to actions of nations. The adage that we come together in times of difficulty is true. But what of the good times; in times when not all suffer the hard times?

In the good times, we seem not so interested in unity. We take credit for the good times and the concerns of others, especially when they don’t affect us, is hard to accept. “…the more Elegance, the less Virtue in all Times and Countries”, John Adams (2)

After the Revolution and the World Wars the country was in positions that enabled bold ideas of common interest to flourish. Understandably, the more people involved in a major event the more sense of unity prevails. 9/11 produced a unity but not on scale like the WWII. The Civil War, of course, produced unity but since it was an internal conflict the unity only amplified the two sides. Despite the victor and vanquished, neither side could say they unified the country in spirit, only in law.

And that brings me back to the politics of today. The country, despite the pandemic, is in “good times” and has been for well over 70 years. Despite the pandemic, unity is hard to see.

“Wherever law ends, tyranny begins” so wrote John Locke. But more is needed to avoid tyranny. (6)

Our government, as all governments were and are, implemented to enable people to live together. It is one of the “devised way” as mentioned previously. We chose democracy – in a republic type structure – to serve this purpose. But as mentioned above, we don’t have the language to ultimately express this completely. In the case of a written Constitution, and especially for a democracy, much goes unwritten. It is those unwritten “norms of behavior” that are just as important to government as the written laws. Those norms may be provided by morals, religion, tradition and education. Democracy requires such norms to succeed.

Without these norms, treating opposing politicians as enemies of the state, controlling referees (courts), turning institutions into weapons, all lead to less democracy. The first generation after 1776 “established a set of shared beliefs that helped make those [government] institutions work” (3). The American Creed of individual freedom and egalitarianism as written in the constitution are “self-justifying but not self-executing”. It is those norms that provide the execution of democracy.

Norms of behavior could also be called virtues. Honesty, fairness, compassion, along with tolerance, and forbearance are traits or virtues that are needed for democracies to work. “We are a Christian nation” so the popular refrain goes. This is an attempt to apply one devised way to live together to provide the required norms. In 1835 Alexis De Tocqueville, in his epic Democracy in America, (freely available on the internet) understood this concretely and extensively.

“All the causes which contribute to the maintenance of the democratic republic in the United States are reducible to three heads: —

I. The peculiar and accidental situation in which Providence has placed the Americans.

II. The laws.

III. The manners and customs of the people.” (4)

One and two need not be explored. The country is rich in natural resources, no nearby enemies, and the laws – The Constitution. But about the third head, manners and customs, he wrote the following (all excerpts from Democracy in America).

His underling view of Religion, specifically Christian, stems from the following.

“Man alone, of all created beings, displays a natural contempt of existence, and yet a boundless desire to exist; he scorns life, but he dreads annihilation. These different feelings incessantly urge his soul to the contemplation of a future state, and religion directs his musings thither. Religion, then, is simply another form of hope; and it is no less natural to the human heart than hope itself. Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect, and a sort of violent distortion of their true natures; but they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments; for unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind. If we only consider religious institutions in a purely human point of view, they may be said to derive an inexhaustible element of strength from man himself, since they belong to one of the constituent principles of human nature.”

The dictates of religion need not be explained, as most would agree that the promotion of virtue is its prime point in promoting hope and salvation. But he is careful not to mix religion with government as it would contaminate both.

“Principal Causes Which Render Religion Powerful In America Care taken by the Americans to separate the Church from the State.”

“I heard them [clergy] inveigh against ambition and deceit, under whatever political opinions these vices might chance to lurk; but I learned from their discourses that men are not guilty in the eye of God for any opinions concerning political government which they may profess with sincerity, any more than they are for their mistakes in building a house or in driving a furrow. I perceived that these ministers of the gospel eschewed all parties with the anxiety attendant upon personal interest.” 

“When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality which lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself with a government, it must necessarily adopt maxims which are only applicable to certain nations. Thus, in forming an alliance with a political power, religion augments its authority over a few, and forfeits the hope of reigning over all.”

“In proportion as a nation assumes a democratic condition of society, and as communities display democratic propensities, it becomes more and more dangerous to connect religion with political institutions; for the time is coming when authority will be bandied from hand to hand, when political theories will succeed each other, and when men, laws, and constitutions will disappear, or be modified from day to day, and this, not for a season only, but unceasingly. Agitation and mutability are inherent in the nature of democratic republics, just as stagnation and inertness are the law of absolute monarchies.”

“The American clergy were the first to perceive this truth, and to act in conformity with it. They saw that they must renounce their religious influence, if they were to strive for political power; and they chose to give up the support of the State, rather than to share its vicissitudes.”

To renounce their religious influence is not the same as renouncing what I refer to “norms of behavior” or virtues or what Tocqueville called “manners”. Clearly, he understood that democracies cannot survive without them. 

“The manners of the Americans of the United States are, then, the real cause which renders that people the only one of the American nations that is able to support a democratic government”.

Tocqueville believed that these norms, manners, sprung from religion. But remember, those norms are the operative actions to allow us to “live together”. The Christian Religion of Tocqueville used the afterlife as the rational or incentive, to convince or guide people to such actions. Other religions, other devices could serve the same purpose.

My intent here, is not to disparage religious believers. Only to emphasize, that democracy does require people to act virtuously. What incentives, beliefs, education or rational, is needed to persuade people to do so is a far more complex subject. Given the ubiquities of religion, one can’t discount its success and appeal. However, democracies and governments, at the least, must be constructed and operate to limit and prohibit the fruits of non-virtuous, non-norms of behavior from all. John Boehner wrote that “… elect people that think like us… eventually we get our way.” (5).

We need to think virtuously, especially when we vote and who we vote for. Voting for only those who think like us regardless of their virtues, lead democracy down the path of doom.   

1a The Power of Myth (video): Joseph Campbell

1 In the Hands of the People: Jon Meacham:

2 Fears of a Setting Sun: Dennis C. Rasmussen

3 How Democracies Fail: Steven Levitsky

4 Democracy in America: Alexis De Tocqueville

5 On the House: John Boehner

6 Where Law Ends, Inside the Muller Investigation: Andrew Weissmann:

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