In the 228 years since the United States Constitution was ratified there have been dozens of attempts to emulate it.
Nations all over the world have attempted to reinvent themselves as democracies or republics or democratic republics or people’s republics by writing constitutions — documents that define the structures of their governmental institutions, create the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, establish systems of checks and balances among the branches and within them, secure the rights of individual citizens.
Many of these constitutions were, on paper at least, superior to our own. The governmental institutions they created were more rationally and fairly structured. The liberties they protected were more far reaching and more explicitly secured. And yet the governments they created failed, while ours lasted 228 years. So why did so many fail while we endured? It’s because of a political concept American democracy intuitively embraced from the outset, and which many others either overlooked or rejected out of hand.
It’s a concept that is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution or any of the founding documents, and yet it may be the most important thing in the American political playbook — more important than separation of powers, checks and balances, inalienable rights and the consent of the governed.
It’s the secret sauce that makes the American republic work.
It’s called The Loyal Opposition.
The concept of the loyal opposition is that those who are out of power, and politically opposed to those who are in power, are not enemies of the state, but are loyal Americans who have a vital role in governing the republic. It is the concept that holds that our political opponents are not our enemies, but are our fellow Americans — and partners in the work of making democracy live.
It is the concept which makes the peaceful transfer of power possible.
It may seem a self-evident idea, but it isn’t. And a lot of nations that adopted beautiful constitutions failed to embrace the concept of the loyal opposition. In such nations the ins often yield to the temptation of treating the outs as enemies and traitors — and find reasons to repress them, to rig elections or cancel them outright, or to suspend the constitutions and rule as dictators.
Countries without a strong national identity are particularly vulnerable — countries like Iraq, where tribal and religious loyalties are stronger than national loyalty.
One reason why the United States has lasted as long as it has is that although we are a nation of immigrants we have always had a national identity that was stronger than ethnic identities.
That may be because unlike many older countries, the United States is a nation of consenting adults, not conquered peoples. With the exception of the slaves and Native Americans, America was settled by people who wanted to cast off their old identities and become Americans.
And that is why the rise of identity politics is so troubling. It puts racial, ethnic, religious and gender identity ahead of American identity — and that ultimately puts the concept of the loyal opposition at risk.
There is another thing that is putting the concept of the loyal opposition at risk: The harsh and polarizing rhetoric that has increasingly become the norm in American political discourse. It’s not that it’s shrill and combative — American political rhetoric has always been rough and tumble — it is that it increasingly attempts to delegitimize opponents’ ideas and values. Both parties have dirty hands in this regard.
Fixing blame isn’t as important as recognizing the danger. Political delegitimization makes it impossible for those out of power to function as a constructive opposition and equally impossible for those in power to view the outs as loyal.
So what’s to be done?
Two things, I think.
First, quit celebrating diversity.
The Great Seal of the United States bears the words E Pluribus Unum — From Many One.
Don’t celebrate diversity — Pluribus — honor it. Celebrate Unum.
Second, there is a three-word phrase nestled in the Declaration of Independence that we should embrace as a first principle of public discourse and public life.
The phrase appears in the first sentence, the one that starts “When in the course of human events…”
It’s the phrase that explains to the world why we bothered preparing the Declaration in the first place: Because “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” requires that we state the causes of the break with England.
That phrase — a decent respect — deserves to be treated as more than a term of art.
If the founders were willing to show “a decent respect” for the opinions of mankind, shouldn’t we, the living, have the decency to show “a decent respect” for the opinions of our fellow citizens?
Showing a decent respect for other people’s opinions, ideas, and values doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. It doesn’t mean you have to refrain from objecting to them, and from arguing about them, and from trying to keep them from being turned into public policy. It does mean you need to listen to them, to try to understand them, to determine where you disagree or agree and why, and to accord them consideration and courtesy — even if you think they’re wrong.
My experience has been this isn’t easy to do. It’s harder than hell, in fact. But I think if we really want to make America great again, we should try it more often.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.