- - Monday, March 30, 2020

It would be foolish to suggest that public officials take their eyes off the serious threat that COVID-19 poses to the physical and financial well-being of the American people. It also would be foolish, however, for them not to be thinking about the cultural implications of COVID-19.

As a people, we have not been very good about attending to our cultural well-being, understood broadly and not narrowly as encompassing simply literature and the arts. The cultural well-being of Americans is nothing less than the state of our entire “way of life” as a people.

James Madison, the person we call the “father” of the American Constitution, was not simply interested in creating a set of political or governmental institutions — he was principally interested in fashioning a political community that would support a distinctive “way of life” for the people.  

Madison captures what he was seeking to accomplish in a commonly misunderstood passage in his famous Federalist Paper No. 10, a document written in defense of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. While explaining why it is not possible to remove the causes of factions from democratic societies, Madison observes that the “first object” of government, especially a government designed for a free people, should be to protect persons in the exercise of their diverse “faculties.”

Madison adds that protecting persons in the exercise of their faculties will give rise to “different degrees and kinds of property,” which has led many persons to conclude that the Founders were only interested in protecting property. If you read Madison carefully, what emerges is an invitation to the American people to embrace a way of life that incentivizes persons to “be all that they can be,” to borrow an old Army slogan — that is, to exercise their “faculties” to the max and also to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to “free labor” was rooted in a thoughtful understanding of what constitutional republicanism was all about in the United States. Like Madison, Lincoln understood that preserving a decent as well as competent, rights-oriented, constitutional republic would be no less difficult than creating such a republic in the first place.

The “way of life,” or the “American way of life,” envisioned by Madison is a complicated social construct. It is a web of habits/practices/customs as well as opinions/beliefs, among other things, that ultimately define us as a nation and a people. He understood that this “way of life” would need to be supported by political arrangements and educational programs that would help Americans understand what it means to be a constitutional people and how best to preserve the health and vitality of the republic.    

For his “experiment” to succeed, Madison needed the American people to be a self-conscious people — they need to know who they are, why they are who they are, and what it will take to protect the “way of life” and general dignity of all persons within a modern, rights-oriented republic.

Self-conscious citizens need to be nurtured, and Madison understood that such nurturing is best done locally; hence his defense of a federative republic that divided power among national, state and local governments. There are good reasons why the Constitution entrusts the states, and their local sub-divisions, with the so-called “police powers,” or the authority to oversee the health, morals, safety and welfare of the people.  

To master the skills and knowledge associated with responsible self-government, people need to take local self-government seriously, and this requires that localities and states possess substantial powers to tackle important responsibilities.

To be sure, leading Founders understood the significant benefits of having a national government with powers equal to significant national responsibilities. The national government at the time of the Founding was under the real threat of being overwhelmed by the states. The challenge today is to contain nationalist impulses that threaten to overwhelm the states and localities — witness the increasing attacks on the federalistic Electoral College.

Extraordinary events like the current COVID-19 crisis contain a centralizing or nationalizing bias that, when added to the centralizing impulse associated with national security threats as well as the egalitarian impulse to nationalize every conceivably right, could eventually erode the vitality of the American federative republic. The result would be not merely a fundamentally national republic, but also a fundamentally different “way of life” for the American people. 

Public officials should not overlook the cultural or “way of life” benefits of Madison’s fragmented constitutional republic as they formulate policies to address the challenges associated with COVID-19. If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it is the fact that this health and financial crisis has given public officials an opportunity to accentuate the relevance of state and local governments, the private sphere and community organizations.  

While not a perfect system, the American federalistic republic is well-designed to nurture decent and thoughtful citizens who are up to the task of responsible self-government. Preserving the integrity and vitality of this republic will require proper attention to its critical cultural elements.

• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and a faculty fellow of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.

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