Can we keep this republic?
As mid-term elections draw near, the chatter of TV news escalates in points and counter-points of the political tug-of-war. Whether you are on the left or right in the arguments, if you can set aside pre-conceived notions long enough to read this column, please consider that much of the noise completely misses the larger point.
For example, much was made of a mid-September televised town hall meeting arranged for President Obama to talk to citizens on camera. Whether you believe this CNBC event was fair in its presentation or that it was staged with a pre-selected friendly audience, you may remember how Velma Hart told the president she was exhausted in her defense of him.
Ms. Hart, a black woman, said in part to the president, “I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans. And quite frankly I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”
She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.” She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”
The talking heads chattered for weeks about this and other examples of unhappy citizens pleading to the president their case of personal and family travails, lost jobs and worries about paying for healthcare. While they asked each other how the president can repair the damage to public confidence in his ability to make our lives better, I wondered how the pundits could miss the larger point.
The president is not, and should not be, responsible for our individual well-being. His job is to provide for national security, see that our laws are enforced, conduct foreign policy, appoint major government functionaries and influence a legislative agenda, including policies to promote the general economic well-being.
The president does not create jobs – business does that by taking risks in hopes of making a handsome profit. Pleading an individual family case of woe to the president is just downright silly.
Of course, TV news loves the personal drama of citizens publicly heaping their suffering on a president trying to strike a patrician pose, and they keep the camera focused on him to capture every twitch of empathy so the pundits can debate whether he was sufficiently contrite and reassuring.
This recurring American farce should have a spot on Broadway.
I don’t know how long presidents have been conducting the charade of promising to make our lives better, but in 1928 Herbert Hoover’s campaign slogan was, “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” In 1980 Ronald Reagan struck a nerve when he asked in his televised debate with President Jimmy Carter, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
A rich irony closer to home is that President Obama made “hope” a major campaign promise, and now the faithful are losing theirs. I can understand children or the mentally weak falling for a politician’s offer of hope, but any thinking adult who looks to a politician, whether Republican or Democrat, as their source of hope is in serious need of spiritual counseling or a head examination.
Two major disappointments are elements of my meandering point.
First, the news media fails to remind the public that the president’s job has limitations, that the policies he enacts to nudge economic results in one direction or another sometimes take years to show their effect, and that we citizens are responsible for pursuing our own happiness without any government guarantees.
Second, we seem to be raising generations of citizens well-educated on rights, self-esteem, gender equality and tolerance of sexual preference but wholly ignorant of our country’s history and the capitalist system that has made America the envy of the world.
And so we have earned an electorate that foolishly looks to the federal government to take care of them and solve their problems.
These are the voters who elect administrations like the present one, an administration that doesn’t understand or appreciate our own capitalist system and has become downright anti-business in its rhetoric and policy.
I have heard much about the strength and resilience of America, but our system can be broken and I worry about the dangerous combination of an ignorant electorate and irresponsible media.
In 1787, as Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall in Philadelphia after the final day of deliberation at the close of the Constitutional Convention, he was met by a gathered crowd. There was much controversy over what shape the new government should take, and the deliberations were held in secrecy.
A lady asked Mr. Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got?”
Franklin replied, “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it!”
The founding fathers knew very well the difference between a democracy and a republic, something I will save for a future column, and with great care they established a republic. Thomas Jefferson observed, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”
As you watch TV news and see more examples of citizens expecting the president to take care of them, ask yourself whether our citizenry is sufficiently enlightened on our form of government. Maybe you will join me in wondering, “Can we keep this republic?”
[Terry Garlock is a Certified Financial Planner. He lives in Peachtree City and writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]