WASHINGTON, June 7, 2016 — The 2016 presidential campaign is about to begin, and the prospect is not a happy one for most people. The two prospective nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are viewed negatively by most voters. Neither is considered trustworthy, a desirable trait in presidential candidates.
Men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin stand in stark contrast to political leaders today. Washington, Madison and the other Founding Fathers stood against the most powerful empire in the world, risking everything they had, including their lives.
Had they failed, their families would have been left destitute, yet they hoped for no personal gain. Hillary Clinton has spent her career in public life and has made millions of dollars as a result. Her product is influence.
The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars from at least seven foreign governments while Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state. The foundation has admitted that a $500,000 donation it received from Algeria violated a 2008 ethics agreement with the Obama administration.
Donald Trump’s business career is littered with bankruptcies, lawsuits, and charges of fraud. In the course of his campaign he has insulted his opponents, made fun of those with disabilities and flirted with racism.
He has no experience in government and is ignorant of international affairs. He has suggested that NATO is irrelevant, seems prepared to have Japan and South Korea pursue nuclear weapons, and seems sympathetic to Vladimir Putin. He has endorsed torture and the murder of the innocent relatives of terrorists.
The authors of the Constitution carefully studied the history of Athens and the Roman republic. They created a system of limited government with checks and balances, which they hoped would prevent the descent into tyranny that ended those ancient democracies. The government they established is now the oldest functioning government in the world. That says much about their genius in establishing a system which provides for free speech, free elections and individual rights.
Many countries that are now functioning democracies—Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Hungary and many others—were totalitarian states within living memory. Democracy is a difficult and easily undermined way to organize a society. When economies fail and times get difficult, demagogues are waiting in the wings. Hitler and Mussolini are just the best known examples.
Tyranny is not the historical exception; it is the rule. Our own constitutional republic is the rare exception. But it is fragile. Even at the beginning, many predicted that it would not long survive.
French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal points out that we frequently say, “Liberty is the most precious of all goods” without understanding what that implies. He writes:
A good thing which is of great price is not one of the primary necessities. Water costs nothing at all, and bread very little.
What costs much is something like a Rembrandt, which though its price is above rubies, is wanted by very few people and by none who have not, as it happens, a sufficiency of bread and water. Precious things, therefore, are really desired by but few human beings and not even by them until their primary needs have been amply provided. It is from this point of view that Liberty needs to be looked at, the will to be free is in time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction. Liberty is in fact only a secondary need, the primary need is security.
The great philosophers of antiquity said as much. Plato, Aristotle and, more recently, de Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macaulay predicted that people would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security.
De Jouvenal concludes, “The state when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”
In a similar vein, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the British historian, lamented in 1857 in a letter to Henry Randall, an American:
I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous … Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish; or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government and liberty would perish.
Macaulay, looking to America, declared,
Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand; or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the 20th century as the Roman Empire was in the Fifth—with this difference—that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.
Nearly 200 years ago, the British historian Alexander Tytler declared,
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.
In the colonial era, the best men in the American society were engaged in public life. They had little to gain personally for their efforts, and much to lose. It has been said that the American society is rare in history, for its Golden Age was at the beginning.
Our system has deteriorated. To engage in political life now means to be on an endless quest for money from special interests, which then decide policy. Politicians claim that their taking millions of dollars from Wall Street has nothing to do with bailing out failing banks with taxpayer funds, but does anyone really believe this?
Would Jefferson, Washington or Adams have entered public life if it involved endless fund-raising and subservience to moneyed interests? Adams observed, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” As he left the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government had been created. He replied, “A republic — if you can keep it.”
The Founding Fathers would be disappointed in the dramatic decline in American politics, but they would not be surprised. They feared it would happen. It is now time for America’s elder statesmen, of both parties, to speak up and denounce politics that divides the American people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
As the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm used to say, “We came over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” And that boat is in increasingly troubled waters.