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When Our Republic Goes to School

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There has been no lack of comment and analysis in response to the rare, even unique experience of the U.S. House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry and open hearings.

The interplay of competing narratives, the contrasts between the perspectives of career government professionals and those of some elected officials, and the drama of the evolving picture of a political operation would be pure entertainment if the stakes weren’t so high and the consequences so dire.

Some of the best analytical thinking and I’m afraid some of the worst have been on display as the testimony of various witnesses has been reviewed and summarized; it would probably be the height of presumption for a political layperson to try to offer additional analytical insights to what is already on the table.

There may be no cure for the effect of having spent a lifetime in the world of education, so perhaps I can be forgiven for wanting to ask the question, “What lessons about who we are as a people and about the governmental structures within which we live are being illustrated in this lab session in our ongoing civics course?”

Aside from cheering for whichever side of the partisan divide, which has defined the tone of much of these proceedings, there may be a larger question that has pertinence for our long-term response to our situation: “How is our constitutional framework for governing ourselves holding up under the stress of the present challenge?”

This question is essentially an educational one. Is our current situation, with all of its stress and messiness, a breakdown of our governmental system, or is it a demonstration of how valuable our system really is for dealing with the problems that can arise within its framework?

Two analogies have occurred to me as I have thought about this.

One is the experience of a class that contains both theoretical concepts studied in a classroom and the application of those concepts in a laboratory setting.

Studying a topic provides cognitive knowledge of it, while seeing it actually work in a lab adds a deeper level of understanding.

The other analogy grows out of early experience doing tune-ups on cars (back when an amateur could do such things).

The test of a well-tuned engine was not how it performed on a level avenue or freeway, but how it worked in an acceleration lane, on a steep grade or a challenging mountain road.

If it worked under the stress of a load, then it could be counted on.

Thomas Jefferson’s famous point that the key to the success of a democratic form of government is an informed/educated citizenry may be seeing our course in citizenship in the lab stage.

And, if our system works under the stress of its present challenges, it can be counted on to serve us well in other times as well.

Watching the current national drama through an educational lens has changed my initial response to it from “What a mess!” to a more reflective “What a lesson!”

Just what are some of the points of this lesson?

  1. We are seeing the difference between disciplined professionalism of committed public service and the scheming opportunism that can exploit the system for private advantage. The founders anticipated this possibility and built into the Constitution provisions for protection against its distortions.
  2. We are seeing that the present crisis is not an isolated event but a consequence of a long process of the erosion of public trust and the spread of an apathy that has created a political vacuum into which misinformation and moneyed interests have rushed in a successful effort to take control.
  3. We are seeing the time-honored features of our system can withstand challenges to obstruct, distract and sabotage its function of protecting the integrity of our governing process.
  4. We are seeing the truth of one of the many points in Plato’s “Republic” that suggests that those who would be leaders in the community must be those whose philosophical perspective has been developed to the point that it seeks what he calls the “Good” (the Truth that lies beyond all concepts of what is true). Only those so educated are able to rise above the passions of ideological commitment to a vision of a common good for all of society.

The public conversation on the impeachment process will probably continue the kind of half-time/post-game analysis of the high and low points of the game, who the MVPs are and so on.

I am finding the “game” to be a helpful and hopeful demonstration of the genius of our system to preserve and facilitate the vision of what we all in our better moments aspire to be as a people.

The classroom of our national civics course over the years has taught us, “This Constitution thing really looks good.” Our lab session in recent weeks and months is teaching us, “This thing really works.”

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.