It is easy to blind voters with single issues such as racism, immigration, youth entitlement, women's reproductive rights, or the sanctity of life, but there are poignant consequences. Polarizing our electorate on single issues cripples our ability to debate and compromise on those issues within a larger context. It also leaves other important national discussions off the table.
More worrying, fracturing our electorate inherently erodes the cohesiveness of a nation, and historically leads to internal conflict and civil war. We must base our political decisions on something greater than our most stubborn self-interest.
Who Are We as a Nation?
The USA was built on the ideal that a nation should function by equality, individual liberty, and morality -- not the strongest self-interested party.
Perhaps we have lost our way.
Indeed, we are in a time of great reflection upon our founding and the Constitution that frames our country. Cries to abide by the Constitution come from across the political spectrum -- over separation of powers, states' rights, and civil rights.
There is also a cacophony of calls for new amendments to the Constitution concerning campaign finance, repealing the Seventeenth Amendment, enshrining a religious definition of marriage, and banning abortion. Clearly, the Constitution is not a rock of guidance on which all U.S. citizens agree.
There are, however, four founding principles -- explained by the Framers -- that should be embodied by U.S. citizens to shape our debates and national identity: equality under the law, public virtue, education, and opportunity.
Equality under the Law
Perhaps our firmest founding principal is equality -- specifically equality under the law. This principle should ward off conflicts between race, religion, rich, poor, or those otherwise considered 'different' or out of the norm. If each citizen is held equally accountable under the same laws, all should feel the pain of injustice.As well, if laws favor some citizens, the others may accuse the government of violating the contract -- the Constitution -- enshrined between citizens and their government.
This principle illuminates a clear path forward for black and Spanish-speaking Americans, or any minority who suffers inequity in legal punishments. This includes Muslims, Creationists, Jews, gays, atheists, or any other group whose private practice has been challenged in U.S. communities.
This principle should guard against wealthy or well-connected citizens from evading punishment for their crimes. The principle is clear: equality under the law should erase arbitrary punishment and oppression leveled on some citizens by others, and erase arbitrary favors given to some citizens over others.
If our leaders do not house arguments for 'identities' under this principle, they force people apart from a national identity of a people for equality under the law.
This may be the most forgotten principle. Public virtue demands citizen action, respect, civility, and a promise to not rise up to extinguish another's freedom. It demands discernment, to recognize when ones own individual interests should be sacrificed for the good of the whole.
Perhaps our greatest example of this is Benjamin Franklin, who devoted his life not only to self-improvement, but to improving his community and fellow citizens. Indeed, the very notion of an independent people has always been tied to a requirement for public virtue -- or else a master.Incivility is
If leaders don't encourage public virtue, the question should be asked, "why not?" Why has the term 'community organizing' been vilified by Republicans over the past several years, and why hasn't President Obama -- with his community organizing background -- encouraged public virtue as a solution to poor communities and hopelessness?
Education is a prerequisite for public virtue. Not just education, but a liberal education -- an education based on reason over tradition or arbitrary authority; an education that provides for innovation, mobility, and a sense of civic responsibility.
The Founding Fathers came from experiences where only the elite and wealthy were afforded educations, and where information was passed through religious and ideological filters. They understood, and bestowed upon our nation, the importance of education to a free people:
"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, (A)nd if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson
If a leader insists that reason be forced through narrow religious or ideological filters, or that education be abandoned as a public service, the question should be asked, "what power does that leader vest in the people?"
It is by education and opportunity that the Founding Fathers sought to allow each man his path to freedom and affluence. The ideas from John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government laid the frame of freedom through opportunity with his proclamation that all men are created equal; the earth and all its resources are here for everyone equally; and that a man owns his own labor -- and the product he makes by mixing his labor with the resources of the earth.
Some take Locke's treatise as a license for free enterprise, but neither he, nor Adam Smith, nor the Founding Fathers intended free enterprise to be free of morality. Locke also proclaimed that no one should take more than what is left equally available -- and of equal quality -- for others.
Opportunity is a function of provisions by the earth, individual work, and work toward community. If leaders do not frame opportunity with the natural rights of every man, then for which citizens are they framing opportunity?
“To Smith, morality is a matter of social psychology. Certain rules of action generate a well-functioning society. When they are followed, society prospers, and when they are not, it is destroyed. Smith was writing a century before Darwin, but he is trying to express an evolutionary view: nature has endowed us with conscience and morality because it helps us to survive.” - Eamon Butler, The Condensed Wealth of Nations
A Way Forward
Identity politics is exactly the sort of political mischief Jefferson referenced in Federalist #10 when he said:
“Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”
There is a larger vision for our nation laid out to us thoughtfully -- and with much blood -- that identifies where we came from, why, and where we should go. Equality should guide our issues of race, privilege, and sexual identity. Public virtue should keep power in the people's hands. Education should inoculate the people from political manipulation. Opportunity should secure a citizen's ownership of, and right to live by, his own labor.
We should all be united as men and women of any age, affluence, complexion, or religious affiliation under these principles, which secure and perpetuate freedom, under one flag, for all citizens.