Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series “To the Republic: Rediscovering the Constitution.” Click HERE to read the series.
In “The English Constitution,” Walter Bagehot compares and contrasts the unwritten English Constitution with the written U.S. Constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution with its three branches and separate powers, Bagehot articulated two branches in the English Constitution: the “dignified” embodied in the Crown and the efficient embodied in the Cabinet.
The dignified calls people to be loyal, and the efficient uses that loyalty to execute the governing will. Bagehot wrote: “There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved: every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority; it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and then employ that homage in the work of government.”
When we look around at a fractious United States of America — riven by a bruising campaign season and looking ahead to a holiday season where many wonder if they can even share a table with relatives who think and vote differently than they do — we see that what was true in Bagehot’s day in the 19th century remains true today. Governments need to gain and use authority, and that comes from winning the loyalty and confidence of their people. But how, especially now when trust is so hard to come by?
Neoliberalism points to the gifts of the Enlightenment. Reason alone and an adherence to the rule of law, fairness, equality and “universal” values will bring us and keep us together. This addresses the “efficiency” of government and works up to a point. It works until people cannot agree on the laws, what constitutes fairness, and the universal human family finds itself at odds. What then? What holds us together in that inevitable moment when reason becomes insufficient to guide our path?
Bagehot tells us that appealing to people through reason alone or through even enlightened self-interest alone leaves them flat. It fails to call them to be part of something bigger, more important, and more enduring than themselves. Reason alone does not make people willing to engage on anything greater than that of ordinary life.
All of the truly meaningful parts of life — love, sacrifice, honor, concern for others, tradition, patriotism — are mostly outside the realm of reason. But they are essential to governance of a free people. In his speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention in June 1788, James Madison noted: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea …”
This is what Bagehot means by the dignified part of government, and he cautions those who would discard traditions, pomp and other “theatrical elements” as these are the very elements that “excite the most easy reverence … [as] embodiments of the greatest human ideas …”
In the United Kingdom, they had and have the Crown and the Church of England to uphold these traditions and norms. These institutions blended with and supported the elected government. In our own past, we have had a variety of institutions that in many instances predate and are outside those in the Constitution, including the Christian church (broadly defined) and veneration of our Founding Fathers and our creation story, which provided a common touchstone and source of shared history and tradition.
This is not a call to go back to the supposed “good old days.” Rather, it is a simple recognition of the fact that we have lost touch with much of our common creation myth and with it part of our own unwritten constitution that provided the basis for human loyalty to the government and our fellow citizens.
History and how we tell it is never just about the past. It’s about creating a collective vision. Unless and until we restore, rebuild or replace our historical touchstones with something better, something in which more people can see themselves and their collective future, our government will struggle to earn, keep and maintain the popular loyalty and deploy it to govern. We need both the moral and virtuous traditions and the Enlightenment-informed governing institutions.
What might provide these restored, rebuilt or replaced touchstones?
In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn posited that whenever an old scientific paradigm fell apart, the new one had to begin by re-explaining the origins of the universe. It had to answer the big questions before it could answer the small.
The same will be true for creating a new and expanded paradigm for the dignified traditions of our republic. We will need to build on our traditions, rituals, and venerations that allow people to feel touched by the great and the grand in their own lives.
When we feel warmed and comforted by a common adherence to shared tradition, then and only then can we sit in peace with our fellow citizens and enjoy a more peaceful and harmonious holiday season.
⦁ Richard Crespin is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the CEO of CollaborateUp, working to accelerate collaboration on some of our world’s toughest challenges.