Virtue Deficit

One thing I have repeatedly thought during the current political season is that this scenario is largely of our own making, natural and logical outcomes of attitudes, choices, and priorities of common citizens and politicians that we have chosen.

George Wiegel of First Things wishes he could give each delegate to the national political conventions a copy of James Traub’s John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.   He explains:

Traub grabs your attention quickly, seven sentences in: “[Adams] did not aim to please, and he largely succeeded.” Why? Because “he lived according to principles he considered self-evident. Others of his contemporaries did so as well, of course; what set Adams apart was that his principles were so inviolable that he eagerly sacrificed his self-interest to them. As president he accomplished very little of his ambitious agenda in part because he refused to do anything to reward his friends or punish his enemies. Such inflexibility is a dubious virtue for a politician.”

….what struck me in pondering his long life, during which he served in more great offices, to greater effect, than perhaps any other American, was Adams’s constant determination to live virtuously. He believed that there were moral truths built into the world and into us; that we can know those truths by reason; that knowing those truths, we know our obligations; and that, with this knowledge, we find the measure of how we should behave.                                                                                                                       His commitment to being a man of virtue went hand-in-glove with an abiding concern about the fragility of democracy—another recurring theme in Adams’s long life in the arena. Nor was he alone in his determination and concern. James Madison may have drafted the Constitution knowing that he was not crafting an instrument of governance for angels. But Madison and the other Founders and Framers—be they Anglicans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, Baptists, Calvinists, or the occasional Catholic—were convinced that only a virtuous people could sustain an experiment in democratic self-governance over time, and they worried, rightly, that a virtue-deficit, especially one that expressed itself in what they called “faction,” could unravel the new republic. Similar concerns about republican fragility are probably not high on the worry-list of most convention delegates heading for Cleveland or Philadelphia this month. But they should be. The machinery of our democracy is not working very well right now. Authoritarian winds are blowing at both ends of the ideological spectrum. Political correctness is rotting our political culture, in a debauchery exacerbated by vulgar reactions to the “P.C.” police. “Faction,” in the form of gender, racial, or ethnic tribalism, is everywhere. How many 2016 convention delegates suspect that the national discontent has something to do with a virtue-deficit in our national political culture? How many public officials, and how many of those who seek to lead us, know, like John Quincy Adams, the line they will not cross, if principle demands “Stop here”?

You can read the rest here.


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