Much as a human being in turmoil will sometimes reflect upon the condition of his soul, similarly, an ailing regime must occassionally be faced with questions of its character. Of course, as Americans we are not unfamiliar with such discussions – they formed the foundation of our Constitutional Convention, our Civil War, and our Civil Rights Movement, to name a few. Indeed, when we see groups such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, it is important not to forget that both sides have taken on an important task; in their own way, they are both attempting to begin again a conversation about the good and just ends of government. What better time then, with grim projections of the future and financial hardship being faced by many millions, to take seriously the question of how the Founders might react to both of these movements and what that should mean for the public discourse?
Most people would admit that both groups have sensible criticism of government as it stands today, but this should not be a striking fact – finding flaws in government today is becoming something of a national pastime. What we are primarily concerned with is the very thing I mentioned above: A consideration of the nation’s “soul.”
In the American sense, we could call it a constitutional conversation. “Why has government been instituted at all?” Alexander Hamilton asks in Federalist 15. It is “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” Put in another way, we understand the use of government as the thing which moderates the people’s passion – that which prevents us from working against our own interests and acting unreasonably.
Now, a case could easily be made that both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements have been victims of passion. Violence, though perhaps more manifest in the OWS movement, has been cited on both sides. It is perhaps mostly a result of the relative youth within the OWS movement – they are more given to acting rashly when given the opportunity. But while these passions exist, it is the Tea Party which has taken initiative in crafting some larger principle behind their actions. OWS has been vague (perhaps purposefully so) and focuses on effects such as wealth distribution and equal employment opportunity – their principles remain unclear.
But again, it is not a question of policy – that is a separate conversation which shows itself over time. Rather, it is a question of character and whether or not the American people have the maturity to consider it. It is what James Madison meant when he said that “The citizens of the U.S. are responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society.” His words suggest to us that, despite several shortcomings, the Tea Party has much more in common with the sentiment of the Founding Fathers. Their mission of a “constitutionally limited government” – a goal implied in their very name – brings the Founding back into public discourse. Principle gives us grounds for conversation, and policy is the result. The ability to have such a conversation was, and remains, the definitive mark of an “American” citizenry.
Photo Credit: Susan E. Adams