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Former Senator Gary Hart’s The Republic of Conscience is a meditation on the growing gap between the founding principles of the United States Constitution and our current political landscape.
Going back as early as 400 BC, the idea of a true republic has been threatened by narrow, special interests taking precedence over the commonwealth. The United States Constitution was drafted to protect against such corruption, but as Gary Hart details in The Republic of Conscience, America is nowhere near the republic it set out to be almost 250 years ago, falling to the very misconduct it hoped to avoid.
In his latest book, the former Colorado Senator and presidential contender describes ‘the increasing gap between purpose and performance’ in America, emphasizing how the sense of national interest has become distorted and diluted over time. Focusing on the years after World War II, Hart tackles major American institutions—the military, the CIA, Congress—and outlines how these establishments have led the country away from its founding principles, not closer to them.
Full of original and incisive analysis, The Republic of Conscience is Hart’s examination and remedy for the millions of Americans who feel jaded, confused, and disappointed by their current government. A testament to Hart’s political faith in the founding fathers, this book is one citizen’s attempt to recapture the Republic, and a timely reminder for the next July 4th holiday.
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Gary Hart is an American politician and a former Colorado senator, serving in Congress from 1975 to 1987. Since retiring from the Senate, Hart resumed his private law practice and has written several books on U.S. history and politics. In 2014, President Barack Obama named Hart as the new United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
America’s founders created a republic knowing that it, like all republics from ancient Athens and Rome onward, would be vulnerable to corruption. From 400 BC onward, corruption of the republican ideal took the form of narrow, individual, and special interests taking precedence over the common good and the commonwealth. Our founders knew that if this evil insinuated itself into the new American Republic, our nation would not long survive in the form they had designed and had hoped for it.
By these classic standards, the American Republic in the twenty-first century is massively corrupt. A vast and cancerous network of lobbying, campaign fund-raising, and access to policy makers in administrations and lawmakers in Congress is based purely and simply on special and narrow interests. This tragedy is compounded by two relatively recent trends: More than four hundred former members of Congress, not to mention their spouses and family members, have joined the lobbying ranks; and former administration officials come and go from one administration to another with periods of lobbying activities in between.
Thus, a permanent political class has established itself in our nation’s capital. Whether incestuous is an appropriate description or not, it is most certainly a system that an increasing number of Americans distrust—and with considerable reason. Friends promote friends. Rolodexes are shared. Networks are maintained. The system is increasingly closed to outsiders, or at least to outsiders who have yet to attain membership. National leadership appears to be limited to a few families.
Such a permanent political system rarely produces innovative policies or creative agendas. To contest for a seat in the United States Senate, even in a medium-size state such as Colorado, requires millions, sometimes tens of millions, of dollars. Very little of that sum is produced by small contributions. Most of it comes from the institutional investors and political action committees with specific agendas that have proliferated in both political parties. Senators and members of Congress spend hours each day telephoning large contributors, pleading for money. Television networks routinely decry this trend even though they are the principal beneficiaries of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on political advertising.
To raise these staggering sums requires a candidate to subscribe to established agendas. Those agendas do not represent the national interest. They represent a panoply of special interests. Successful candidates arrive in office heavily beholden to those interests that have contributed. Their flexibility, creativity, and imagination are circumscribed by whatever commitments had to be made to finance a campaign. At the very least, they have traded access, the coin of the political realm, for campaign contributions.
But this is not the kind of government our founders created and envisioned for future generations. Even a casual reading of the Constitutional debates, speeches, and voluminous correspondence reveals the founders’ deep concerns, based on their intimate familiarity with the theorists of the republic from Athens through Machiavelli to the English and Scottish Enlightenment, over the threat of corruption, the danger to all republics.
We can only imagine what Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, among many others, would say about today’s American Republic. Being pragmatists, they would recognize that a nation that increased a hundredfold in population in two centuries, that adapted itself to world leadership after World War II, and that now struggles to compete in a globalized economy would have to change and adjust. But they also knew the difference between policy that must adapt to new realities and principles that must not.
Indeed, they believed that the first principles of every constitution must be frequently renewed to prevent corruption. And the necessity for a timely renewal of principles is the central purpose of this book.
As a veteran of campaigning, holding public office, and advising various administrations, I find no justification in our Constitution for the political system we have now created or have permitted to be created by others. Instead, this system is the product of the refusal to enact campaign finance reforms, to restrict transition from public office to lobbying, and to provide limited candidate access to free media. This is not a mysterious or complex secret process everyday Americans cannot understand. It is the product of interest groups who prefer to trade cash for access, television networks who prefer paid political advertising to open access to the public airwaves, hugely lucrative lobbying organizations, and the compounding of this corrupt system by recent Supreme Court decisions.
Out of this entire morass, nothing would dumbfound a returning founder more than decisions by the current Supreme Court allowing corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to promote their particular narrow interests. This stands as nothing more nor less than the highest judicial body in the Republic sanctioning the corruption of that Republic.
This book attempts to contrast the Republic our founders created and hoped would be perpetuated with the government we now have. Each area of legislation and policy today is dominated by the interest groups concerned with it. Rather than starting with a view of what is best for the nation long-term, the common good, legislators and policy makers seek to reconcile the demands of each narrow interest concerned with that issue. Being men of experience, our founders anticipated this, but they wanted those governing our nation to consider the demands of particular interests in the broader context of the national interest. They feared the corruption that inevitably results when governance becomes nothing more than a process for satisfying an endless host of particular interests. This accounts for their insistence on “disinterested” representatives.
The disappearance of a sense of the national interest, and the consequent governance by and for special interests, reflects itself in today’s political process through the channeling of hundreds of millions of dollars from interest groups to lobbyists and then to officeholders and office seekers. The result is the rise of a permanent political class increasingly remote from everyday Americans and a system that could lead to the ultimate destruction of the republican ideal. This is the corruption we were warned about from our earliest beginnings that would destroy the American Republic.
The new realities of the twenty-first century do not require the United States to abandon the principles upon which it was founded. Neither our economic foundation, nor our foreign policy, nor our national defense requires a corrupt political system. Indeed, commitment to the commonwealth and the common good, including a growing economy, an enlightened foreign policy, and strong national security, will make us more successful and will attract the favorable opinion of mankind.
Preservation and renewal of those first principles represent the duty we owe our founders to keep the Republic they bequeathed to us and our posterity.
This is a book about a republic—the American Republic—what it was meant to be and what it has become. In some crucial respects the twenty-first-century American Republic is not the country our founders thought they had created.
The search for the causes of the increasing gap between word and deed starts with an understanding of what a republic actually is or ought to be.
At their best, republics, including ours, have demonstrated four basic qualities: popular sovereignty; a sense of the common good; demonstration of civic virtue by its citizens; and resistance to the forces of corruption.
Popular sovereignty, of course, means that all political power ultimately rests with the people. A sense of the commonwealth involves an appreciation for all those assets and resources held by all the people—public properties and the public institutions that preserve them. Civic virtue means performance of the duties of citizenship to maintain the integrity of the republic and protect the rights it provides. And corruption historically meant placing narrow, special, or personal interests ahead of the common good in government.
By gauging the twenty-first-century American Republic against these standards, ones universally accepted by our founders, we can begin to understand where and how America today is falling short and why so many Americans feel something is missing, that something has gone wrong.
If America is not living up to its promise, it is important to know how and why.
The corruption feared by our founders is insidious. Once members of Congress lose sight of the common good and enter the never-ending realm of narrow interests and ensuring their own reelections, that narrow, self-interested view becomes apparent to all in government and permeates the administrative bureaucracy. As a leading New York Times columnist wrote in the fall of 2014: “Getting elected and raising money to get re-elected—instead of governing and compromising in the national interest—seems to be all that too many of our national politicians are interested in anymore.” He attributes laxness in the Secret Service and lackadaisical performance throughout government to the lack of performance and purpose among elected officials: “It actually looks as if they came to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected. That is, until they don’t get re-elected. Then, like the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multimillion-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.”
That is the current state of American politics in a nutshell. And it is not what America’s founders had in mind for this nation. The ancient fear of the corruption of the republic was caused by the knowledge that when self-interest replaced the common good and the national interest, a republic would no longer survive. And this is why it matters.
It would be illusory to believe that a large majority of Americans spend much time comparing our founding beliefs and ideals with our performance in the twenty-first century. But few would dispute that we are experiencing a moment in our history, like few others before, when we seem unmoored and adrift.
There are certainly economic discomforts and failures, dismal political performances, and constricting options in managing world affairs today. It will require the passage of time to be able to look back and properly analyze and describe the American experience during our current time. The purpose of this book is to explore the possibility that our disquiet is caused by a deep sense that we are becoming, or perhaps have become, a different kind of nation than we believe ourselves to be.
If this is so, even to a degree, then it is worth asking how and why. The thoughts offered here in response to these questions are a reflection of one American’s long life combining public service and private endeavor, learning and teaching in the academy, and, most of all, writing and thinking.
I can personally testify that American politics have taken a distinctly downward turn in the space of one mature lifetime. Many in my generation entered public service directly as a result of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to give part of our lives in service to our country. Whether he realized it or not, and I believe he did, this challenge had its roots in the republican ideal from ancient Athens. Republics rise or fall depending on the exercise of responsibility and duty by their citizens. We have not heard that challenge for more than half a century.
My reflections are those of a political fundamentalist, not an “originalist” of the judicial kind but a citizen who cannot help but take the ideas of those who founded this country seriously. I believe the founders meant what they said and wrote, and I believe they identified the character of our nation with the precepts, principles, systems, and ideals they laid down as our foundation. To depart measurably from them is to become a different nation.
My belief that our founders were pragmatists has been confirmed over and over again by scholars much more learned than I. Being pragmatists, the founders knew that change is the essence of human existence. Very little stays the same, and certainly almost nothing abides in the chaotic evolution, revolution, and upheaval in the human struggle to structure governments.
So the founders would be the first to advise that we adapt our systems and our policies to the realities of the current age. Though libraries could be filled with lists of the differences between the early twenty-first century and the late eighteenth, policies and programs, at home and abroad, must still flow from a system of value—in our case, values built upon notions of equality, fairness, duty, rights, and the common good that do not change.
Thus, it matters whether we have sacrificed those values to expediency, the corner cutting brought on by urgency, immediacy, shortsightedness, and impatience. New realities require new economic ideas, new defense structures, new technologies, new ways of dealing with other nations. But new realities do not require a nation founded on ancient ideals of the republic to become a different kind of nation. We call people who remake themselves for the moment chameleons. Like individuals, nations can sacrifice their core identity out of false information, rigid ideology, expediency, a desire to demonstrate power, and even greed. This is why serious consideration of our present-day performance against the backdrop of our historic values is a necessary undertaking.
There is an additional argument for reviewing our present condition. The founders intended that the republic they were creating have a life beyond them. They drafted and adopted a Constitution whose very preamble makes it clear they were establishing a nation “to ourselves and our posterity.” To a crucial degree, the republic they bequeathed to future generations can perpetuate itself only by the adherence of their posterity to the principles and ideals built into its governing documents, structures, and institutions.
Even as we pay tribute to the system of government bequeathed to us by our founders, we acknowledge that the nation they created was far from perfect. Slavery, foremost, but also equal rights for women, voting rights, and many other shortcomings had to be confronted—often in conflict—and overcome. But our nation’s successful struggles to resolve these shortcomings are reasons for encouragement.
Much of our nation’s nobility has to do with the relationship of the citizen to his or her government and the opportunities for practical participation in government our founding system provides. Despite civil wars and bitter social and political struggles, all conducted before a global public, Americans can be proud of hard-won progress in achieving our ...
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