By IHE Director of the Program on the Constitution and Catholic Social Doctrine Emmett McGroarty, J.D., and theologian Brendan McGroarty, Ph.D.
This is a great time to be alive, because we have cause to defend the American Experiment against those who would discard it forever. Although big, national issues are important as always, that’s not where this fight will be won or lost. Rather, the outcome will depend on our day-to-day decisions.
This is a cultural battle, and it so because, as government became more centralized, “political” has come to mean the care of our country by someone else — something that is outside our day-to-day lives. Perhaps, like a gentleman farmer, we dabble in it for curiosity or to challenge on one or two issues. But we do not care for it as a whole, and we do not act as if it were the lifeblood of our liberty. The fashionable man even proudly proclaims that he does not pay attention to politics.
Nonetheless, as a practical matter the American Experiment rests on the idea that the everyman will affirm and build on it every day. This means accepting the description of the individual in the Declaration of Independence and its sourcing of our freedom, equal to all, in the Creator. That notion of freedom is akin to biblical teachings and can be said to flow partly from them. The charge to exercise dominion over the earth challenges man to recognize freedom in others, and to imitate the Creator by doing so. Thus, to freely bring order to the world, one must recognize others’ equal freedom and create associative bonds with them. When acting in this way, the person constantly creates in two respects: the products, services, discussions, and decisions made and the bonds formed among the parties. Those dynamics undergird a cohesive, well-functioning society.
In this regard, one of the framers’ great achievements was American federalism, which at its core preserved the space for people to shape their lives and communities. That decentralized system fosters an appreciation for reaching out to others to discuss, deliberate, and chart the course of one’s community. It constantly draws the citizen away from radical individualism and toward the appreciation of others and the common good. Through it, he experiences the peaceful use of freedom, develops empathy, and gains confidence in the overall system of government. Unfortunately, this feature of American government — the constant care of our society and, with that, of our founding — is in terrible disrepair, and the consequences are alarming.
During the 70s and 80s, in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., we witnessed the beauty of such constant care. To be sure, the neighborhood did not have the benefit of robust local power that Alexis de Tocqueville championed. But that’s the point. The people still had the full force of the spirit of constant care. Perhaps that was because they were steadfastly intent on forming a good environment for their children. Perhaps it was because they held such activity precious due to local history. At that point, the Nation’s Capital had only recently shed the chains of segregation. Furthermore, city residents did not have the power to elect their own mayor and city council until 1974, made possible when the Home Rule Act was passed by Congress and ratified by the residents.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this corner of Washington, D.C., Brookland sits adjacent to The Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Back then it was a modest, aesthetically pleasing neighborhood of family homes, a few inconspicuous apartment buildings, numerous Catholic religious institutions, and a vibrant array of Protestant churches. It had a quaint shopping area, referred to as “Twelfth Street,” replete with a bakery, deli, “five and dime,” and short-order restaurant. The adults were employed in a diverse assortment of jobs, some white-collar and some blue-collar.
The most striking thing about the Brookland of that era was the adults’ passion for caring for their families and their neighborhood. That meant undertaking the usual tasks of teaching the faith and minding the schoolwork. It meant addressing the business of society, and in those days that included the mundane as well as the tragic. Rev. King and Bobby Kennedy had recently been assassinated. The wounds of the Vietnam war lingered, as siblings of classmates and sons of neighbors had been engulfed in it. Turmoil spilled into the streets of Washington. A curfew was imposed. The pall of drugs descended on the city. And the federal government tried to pave a freeway through the neighborhood.
On issue after issue, the neighborhood residents took care of the business of building society. They organized community meetings, met with police, city officials, and their Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (the commissions were established to bring people closer to government and the government closer to the people). They respectfully discussed the issues before them and figured out their responses. Regardless of background, they stepped forward to lend their equal share of moral and strategic authority to their community. Through that process they esteemed each other, a phenomenon especially significant to the children. Their deeds strengthened community solidarity and formed individual bonds among the participants. They were making things better, creating hope for the future, and modeling the best of America. They were statesmen of the highest order.
Their example is of particular significance these days. Over the last century, as centralized bureaucracy has been given more power, citizens have been pushed out of the business of building society. That was as planned. In the late 1800s, structural progressives began advocating for a robust bureaucracy staffed with experts trained in the new science of administration. Such experts, it was contended, could better manage society if they had sufficient authority. To accomplish this, vast swaths of power would have to be transferred from the states to the federal government, from the legislature to the bureaucracy and, once there, insulated in varying degrees from political accountability. Writing in Philanthropy magazine in 1996, Richard Cornuelle decried this centralization as a radical change to the citizen’s role. Echoing Tocqueville, he argued that it is, “the real root cause of the evident loss of the feeling of cohesion and solidarity.”
Given all this, it is not surprising that America stands on the precipice. We have abandoned the day-to-day care of our culture. We have failed to protect the practice and right of free speech, which Frederick Douglass argued was “the dread of tyrants” and “the great moral renovator of society and government.” We have ignored education content and acquiesced in the disconnection of children from their culture. We fail to acknowledge the majesty in which the American Experiment holds each person. We are failing in, as Abraham Lincoln termed it, our duty to transmit to succeeding generations “a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” Our government cannot last if that continues.
We cannot assume that we will fix government in time to save our country. But the people of yesteryear’s Brookland show us the way forward. We have to rise above the forces that shunt us to the shadows and intimidate us into withdrawing from the business of society. Despite the disincentives of centralization, we have to turn away from radical individualization and re-engage in the care of our culture. We must do it personally and everywhere, and not just on one or two national matters. In our conversations, we must voice disapproval of political intolerance and violence, and we must champion the virtues of free, rational discourse. We must constantly attend to education content, and so much more. We must do these things continually and directly, not just during an election. Harkening Winston Churchill, we must prove ourselves once again able to defend the American Experiment, to ride out the storm of intolerance and indifference, and to outlive the menaces of political violence, if necessary for years. We must go on to the end.
Emmett McGroarty, J.D., is Director of the Program on the Constitution and Catholic Social Doctrine at The Institute for Human Ecology. His brother, Brendan McGroarty, has a Ph.D. in theology from Catholic University and is a hospice chaplain.