At the conclusion of the Washington Week trip I am left physically exhausted though intellectually and civically energized! Led by Professor Schaller, Dr. Krannawitter, and Dean Saxby, students visited think tanks, memorials, monuments, historical battlefields, renowned authors, museums, both chambers of Congress, the Becket Fund, and other influential D.C. individuals. We learned about foreign policy, education, our founding, the civil war and the ideas that led to the conflict, political persuasion, and many more issues facing our generation. [More]
My time in D.C. with the CCU and Centennial Institute Washington Week clan began with not the greatest of surprises – after driving 1,670 miles from Denver my car’s fuel pump failed just twenty miles short of our destination. Sparing you further details of the dilemma; I had a very interesting discussion with the driver of the tow truck, Kevin. Kevin made it very clear that he backed Obama for re-election. After unsuccessfully prying into his reasoning for such a stance, I began to lose hope for the discussion. Then Kevin introduced the idea of term limits for Congress. Kevin was highly in favor of a possible limit of service on the Hill for both chambers. This proposition is not foreign at CCU, Centennial Institute, or conservative dialogue in general, and provided a needed common ground between Kevin and myself on our short ride to the garage. This conversation would not be the last time that term limits would be raised during this trip.
On Friday, former Colorado Congressman and Senator, Hank Brown led CCU students on a tour of the Capitol. Senator Brown has extensive knowledge of the Capitol’s art, history, and symbolism. As a former Senator, Hank Brown provided CCU students a nearly unlimited access tour of both chambers. One very special place we found ourselves in was the House Appropriations Committee room. In this room, a portion of the fresco is composed of a painting of the Roman Senator and leader Cincinnatus being called from his plough to defend Rome. Senator Brown told us the significance of this lies not in the fact the Cincinnatus heard the call of duty and went to save Rome, but that he returned to his farm and denied the dictatorship of Rome after completing his service. This historical event was repeated in the life and service of George Washington. Both men loved their country, they left their home to serve and defend but returned when their service was no longer required, turning down dictatorial power.
These two men, Washington more commonly, are cited by those who argue for a Congressional term limit. We have seen a handful of men go to congress and serve valiantly at their posts as Senators of Congressman then return to their homes and occupations, imploring others to do the same. But are these self-imposing term limiters to be compared to Cincinnatus and Washington? To know this we must know the enemy in all three cases. In Cincinnatus’s time the enemy was the attacking Aequi forces. During Washington the threat was the British Empire. But today the greatest fight in front of a conservative congressman or woman is the fight to stop & reverse government growth and defend constitutional government. And while universally imposed term limits would theoretically aid that pursuit, Conservatives are not raising the memory of Cincinnatus or Washington when they leave the government in the hands of the entrenched spenders while patting themselves on the back for showing restraint. I applaud the honorable service of these Senators and Representatives, though I feel this is one area where leading by example hurts our cause. These strong conservative members should fight to the end of the battle; until term limits are instated, then leave their posts with dignity.
('76 Contributors) People seem resigned to America as a nation of fragmented political groups. We are separated—red state, blue state; Republican and Democrat, liberal against conservative; and so on. Americans have different viewpoints, and there is no way we can agree on issues, so goes the argument. Our once distinguishing motto, E Pluribus Unum,—out of many, one—seems to many outdated and unattainable.
Of course, people are not going to agree on matters ranging from birth control and religion in public places to our health care system and foreign policy. However, we ought to be able to agree upon a set of principles that are central to democratic thinking. Otherwise, our republic is in jeopardy.
Americans need to understand the United States as an idea sustained through debate. This debate is about the tension between core American values. To participate productively, citizens must develop and cultivate a democratic mind capable of debating two conflicting values while noting the essential merit of both. It doesn’t matter if a person is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialists, religious or non-believer, white, black, brown, or yellow.
The mark of an enlightened citizen is the ability to reconcile four sets of values: 1) law versus ethics, 2) private wealth versus common wealth, 3) freedom versus equality, and 4) unity versus diversity. These value pairs or tensions are inherently antagonistic, yet together hold the promise for a good society. Let’s briefly explain each value tension.
We describe the United States as a nation of laws and believe in the rule of law with the duty of citizens to abide by laws. At the same time, many American heroes have been lawbreakers. George Washington led a rebellion against his sovereign government; he was a traitor. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and violated a Supreme Court ruling to maintain the union of American states. Rosa Parks broke the law on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to advocate for civil rights. The list goes on. How will American citizens balance the law with ethics and advance the cause of liberty and justice in the twenty-first century?
America’s quest for private wealth has been a driving force behind the nation’s economic development. Yet, investment in the public infrastructure—schools and universities, streets and highways, electric grids, gas utilities, and even parks, hospitals, libraries, and museums—benefit private businesses. Maintaining the common wealth enhances private wealth, but without thriving industries, tax revenues would not be available to adequately support public goods and services. How will we revitalize the nation’s aging infrastructure of old bridges, frayed electrical systems, deteriorating schools, and inadequate levees and also build the new technological infrastructure that the 21st century demands?
The balance between freedom and equality is an essential fabric of American democracy. When conventional wisdom favors freedom, resources and money flow into the hands of the few. Left unattended the imbalance of wealth and power undermines democracy. In contrast, when government acts aggressively to redistribute wealth in the name of compassion and economic justice, personal liberty suffers.
With a growing disparity in wealth and income among its citizens, made greater by recent economic policies, are we at the dawn of a new “gilded age” in America with power shifting from the many to the few?
One of the finest achievements of the United States has been to create a stable, political culture made up of different languages, religious traditions, and races. But unity has been a persistent struggle. Typically, new immigrants to America over the years have faced discrimination, distrust, and abuse while occupying the bottom of the nation’s job chain. Economic diversity has always been evident, but the power of opportunity has been a unifying impulse for all. We have been a place for many religious denominations. And we have reveled in our regionalism as northerners, southerners, midwesterns, westerners and more while fiercely maintaining a loyal nationality.
Nowadays, we find people clustered into like-minded groups, as a result of the power of media combined with the decline in civic education. People of different persuasions increasingly sort themselves in isolated communities, viewing slanted cable TV, and listening to divisive talk radio. Can we retain the rich balance between unity and diversity that has been so important to us as a nation?
Taken to their logical ends, freedom leads to anarchy, equality to collectivism, diversity to tribalism, unity to totalitarianism, common wealth to communism, private wealth to plutocracy, law to fascism, and ethics to nihilism. Together, in a dynamic civil debate, they represent the ethos and aims of the United States.
Students would take a much greater interest in history and civics were it approached from the proposition that “representative democracy is developed and sustained through debate.” And citizens could more effectively address national issues viewing them through a prism of the value tensions.
This essay was jointly written by Richard D. Van Scotter, H. Michael Hartoonian, and William E. White. They are the authors of a new digital history and civics program for high school students developed by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.