“There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
– Edmund Burke
The above quote is from Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” published in 1790.
Burke’s been on my mind a lot lately as I reflect on politics at the national, state and local levels.
I’ll be quoting the 18th-century Irish statesman-philosopher heavily in this column because frankly, his works are not widely appreciated nor are they generally taught in the classrooms of most colleges and universities even though his genius and eloquence rivals that of Aristotle and Cicero.
In these turbulent times filled with divisive rhetoric and an armed-camp mentality, Burke’s insight is particularly relevant and valuable.
Politics has been, and always will be, a battlefield where people duke it out with words and ideas in the hopes of influencing the direction of communities and countries.
That’s a good and healthy thing because a free society should be a marketplace where various philosophies constantly compete for supporters and votes.
How boring, oppressive and dangerous it would be if we lived in a place where there was only one official ideology and one official party to implement it. We have only to look to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and North Korea for horrifying examples.
Although I may not like the way our current political parties are run or how they conduct themselves, you will never hear me say that we need to abolish them.
Is the current two-party system in desperate need of significant reform? Absolutely.
Do we need to encourage the growth of more political parties to challenge the duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans? Absolutely.
Should we have no political parties whatsoever? Absolutely not.
In his 1770 “Thoughts on the Present State of the Nation,” Burke observed, “Party divisions, whether on the whole operating for good or evil, are things inseparable from free government.”
I’d rather live in a free society where flawed political parties vie for power than the alternative where bullets, bombs and camps encircled by concertina wire determine who’s in charge.
But having political parties does not mean we need to constantly be at each other’s throats like we are these days.
We all need to start listening to each other more, finding common ground wherever we can and stop demonizing people based simply on their political beliefs. That goes for everyone on the Left, Right and in-between.
Instead of seeing fellow citizens with different opinions on the issues of the day as just that, we’re so quick to immediately label them as crooks, traitors, racists and sexists, then demand they be silenced and deprived of their liberty, property and position for deviating from our beliefs.
The net effect of this has created the toxic atmosphere that we’re choking on. We need only to look in the mirror if we want to know how and why things have gotten so bad.
In his 1777 “Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol,” Burke summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “By teaching us to consider our fellow citizens in a hostile light, the whole body of our nation becomes gradually less dear to us. The very names of affection and kindred, which were the bond of charity whilst we agreed, become new incentives to hatred and rage when the communion of our country is dissolved.”
Certainly we can discuss and vigorously debate our differences openly and honestly, but we should not dwell on the things that divide us to the point where all we see are enemies instead of neighbors, friends and fellow countrymen.
We should get to know each other better. We should explore the things we agree on. We should strive to understand each other and why we believe what we believe.
We need to stop viewing others through the polarizing lenses of the things we see on FOX News, CNN and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Try to view those on the other side with your own mind and heart.
Most importantly, we need stop arguing over social media and start talking face-to-face. Social media and anonymous online commentary makes many people a lot bolder and nastier than they would normally be if they were forced to look a person in the eye. It’s harder to insult someone when there’s a person in front of you instead of a screen.
In his 1779 letter to Patrick Bowie, Burke gave some sage advice in this area – “I am satisfied that there is so much good in mankind at large, that one of the main causes of the mutual hatred in parties, is our mutual ignorance of each other. Let us take care, on our part, that our speaking so ill of our adversaries does not give them occasion to conceive ill of ourselves.”
We also need to stop viewing compromise as a dirty word. The ability to compromise is not a vice, it’s a virtue. The willingness to compromise is not a weakness, it’s a strength.
It’s good to have strong convictions, but not to the point where it prevents people from working together and getting things done.
Burke, in his 1775 “Speech on Conciliation with America,” reminds us, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.”
This nation was literally founded on compromise. It was the Founding Fathers’ willingness to balance competing interests and make concessions that led to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights.
The Great Debate between the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, and Anti-Federalists, who favored states’ rights, led to the framework of government we’ve lived under for more than two centuries. It was the combination of the Founding Fathers’ differences that allowed them to forge a strong, new nation.
Burke might as well have been referring to the Founding Fathers when he wrote, “Political arrangement, as it is a work for social ends, is to be only wrought by social means. There mind must conspire with mind. Time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all the good we aim at. Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
Well, thanks for indulging my philosophical ramblings this week. Hopefully, some folks will take what I’ve written to heart as they move forward in 2019.
At the very least, I hope some of you will be encouraged to explore Burke’s writings and speeches. His wisdom is desperately needed in these tumultuous times.