Open Letter to President Obama -- May 2013
Dear Mr. President:
My idealism sets you upon a mighty throne. You inspired me to work hard on reflecting about hope when you made hope the theme of your campaign. Though you speak to me, I rarely speak to you, not just because you are in the center of power and I am no one in particular, but because I would much rather listen to you than speak myself, and I rarely think of useful things to help you; though I would help you if I could. Just now I feel like offering my help, even if it is bad advice, simply to let you know that someone like me exists and cares very deeply about you, the example you set, what you are doing and not doing.
To begin with I just want to be honest and admit that I am pretty confused about what is going on our country and in the world. There’s so much going on, and so much disagreement about what to do next. When things trouble me and start rattling around in my head, I start reading and listening and arguing, working through arguments, arguing with myself, arguing with my friends --- to set my thinking going and see where I land, to try to bring more to my thinking than just my own experience --- I try to get some perspective on a question and, especially, I find myself pulling down some old books --- one of which is The Federalist Papers, which were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, but which are all signed with the name Publius --- a reference to Publius Valerius Publicola, “the friend of the people” --- a Roman consul and colleague of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic.
To me the main idea of politics is that when we care about something, we have to try to bring it into being. Truth worth the name needs human actors to try to make it real, and the proof of our ideas comes out in the struggle we make to realize them. The trouble is that people have different ideas, they care about different things, and they form different parties or factions. Madison says that “liberty is to faction what air is to fire” and that it would be just as much folly to abolish liberty, because it nourishes faction, than to abolish air, in order to prevent fire (The Federalist, § 10). Hamilton says that whenever two or more persons meet together and try to act in common, the “spirit of faction” creeps in and “mingles its poison” --- it will even “hurry persons of good character into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity” (The Federalist, § 15, 70). Hamilton tends to think about these questions psychologically. He says that the spirit of faction originates in the love of power; that men hardly know themselves whenever they begin to be seduced by love of power; and that people invested with power “look with an evil eye” on everyone who wants to restrain this power or direct its aim (§15).
This is why government should try to divide power and prevent its consolidation --- we should “set ambition against ambition” (§15) --- we should even multiply ambitions and sects and factions, and hope for unceasingly new problems and causes, so that people from different groups will have to cooperate, and not draw out the same conflict over and over again, but become used to working together; and also so that the more powerful factions, especially the landowners and families with great inherited wealth, because they will be opposed by the balancing function of government, will wish for an activist government to protect the weak as well as themselves --- a government to protect all parties (§51).
Madison says that those who form a majority on one question may fall out over a new question, and friends will fall into a minority on the new issue; so he says that the constitution is a kind of happy solution to the problem of factions, because it forces people to meet together, disagree about different issues, and get used to working for a consensus over and over again (§10).
Hamilton sometimes refers to government as a kind of theater or drama in which the Executive is the leading character. The President is called upon to rescue the state whenever it is threatened by the intrigues of ambitious people; he must be energetic and learned and articulate; he must try to stand above factionalism and avoid foreign intrigues; he must keep the laws and protect property from the schemes of myriad self-serving people who have no care about government (§70).
It’s hard to imagine what the Framers would think of the American experiment the way it looks today. The Declaration of Independence states the democratic idea, that we are all equal, that we all have a say --- in his Farewell Address, Washington says that, since we all have a say, and since the whole force of government rests on public opinion, the fate of the country rests on making the state of enlightenment common among the public --- thus government must make education the first priority, and “promote institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Washington went out of his way to say that religion should play no part in any of this work and that Americans should not confound themselves over religious disputes, as so many other societies have done through history.
But both these ideas seem under attack today --- the idea of an informed public sifting through arguments and making good decisions; and the idea of secular government that says nothing about religion, that keeps well clear of religion, and leaves matters of conscience to the individual.
I am not sure that most of us believe that if you give all of the facts to all of the people, the people will make the right decision. Most of us believe that the way these 'facts' are presented -- and by whom -- will play the decisive role in winning the day, whether a good decision comes of it or no. We also believe that, after buying into the message for the umpteenth time, we will be betrayed. Our leader must balance encouraging the people with strict honesty.
I am also not sure that most of us believe that we should keep religion out of government --- you my President have yourself made this mistake, if a powerless citizen may criticize a powerful leader --- many want more religion and many want none at all --- this is the case perennially and the leader of a secular republic, a free democracy, rather than a Christian nation or any other religious overlay on the American soul, has to set this example --- we do not need a chief priest, but a pragmatic thinker and orator to say and do what is right.
You may not be able to speed your agenda through the messy process of give and take, and check and balance, that the Framers envisioned. You have already done good work --- but no matter how much you do, it will not be enough --- there is so much to do in this country and so many problems --- you cannot be all things to all people but you can be an example for ages to come. Therefore I say, narrow your focus to Washington's two guiding ideas: to make enlightenment more common among the public, demonstrating the virtue of looking at cold facts, reasoning carefully and validly, learning from history and coming to a thoughtful opinion; and, secondly, to promote secular government vigorously --- to make the case for secularism.
What our founder, Washington, has to say, merits thinking about, and may help us get our bearings.
He says that men are very rarely entirely good or entirely bad; that the judgments of leaders even in important matters are frequently erroneous; that it is easy to be taken in by a uniform and brave talk, but that we should be wary of any daring enterprise that takes us far from home and lands us in a squabble between people we hardly understand; that we should avoid seeing ourselves too much as members of groups, and try to see ourselves first as citizens; and that one of the great pleasures of life, which we should all savor and enjoy, and that should count more for us than any faction, is the chance of living under “the benign influence of good laws under a free government.”