Editor’s note: Richmond attorney Frank B. Atkinson’s latest book, “The Lion’s Den: A Story of American Renewal,” tackles the subject of our ailing democracy and how best to get the patient on the road to recovery. The prescription comes through the voice of Atkinson’s main character, an exemplary political figure in a fictional contemporary Virginia. With the real-life election season largely behind us and our politics as polarized as ever, we thought now would be a good time to share Atkinson’s practical insights.”The Lion’s Den: A Story of American Renewal,” a political novel, was published in partnership with the University of Virginia Center for Politics and was recently reviewed in The Times-Dispatch by RTD columnist Jeff E. Schapiro. The following excerpt is the second in a two-part series. The first part was published on Jan. 1.
For too long, our learned elites have been building themselves up by tearing our institutions and ideals down. In the process, they have raised smug non-belief to an art form while generating precious little new for us to admire. They have rarely given … only taken away.
Now, when we can see the fruits of this fragmentation in the collapse of our communities and the degeneration of our discourse and the endangerment of our democracy, we all must reckon with the reality. And in this reckoning, it would be a really great thing if those who have long been the biggest beneficiaries of the liberal order — those in the academy, in the media, in business, and in government — would become part of the solution instead of the problem.
Having looked into the abyss that is the antithesis of ordered liberty and principled republicanism — having gotten a glimpse of individualism that tends toward narcissism, and diversity that tends toward relativism, and populism that tends toward authoritarianism — having seen the malignancies of nativism and socialism begin to spread anew — maybe it is time to say that America, land of the free and the home of the brave, is not such a bad idea after all.
Maybe it is time to say that ours is a republic worth keeping, with values worth teaching.
Maybe it is time to say that we have amplified well enough our differences. Now let us celebrate the bright tapestry that has been woven from our wonderfully diverse threads. Let us celebrate the ties of freedom and love that bind us. E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one.
This is the challenge of our time for all of our leaders, the duly elected and the self-appointed, on college and corporate campuses, in the fourth estate, in the corridors of power and politics, in whatever positions of influence we may find ourselves. To paraphrase JFK: Ask not what you can criticize about your country; ask what you can do to improve it.
Third, as we renew the American narrative and labor to build up rather than tear down, let us rediscover the brilliant insights of [our Constitution’s chief architect, James] Madison, and put them to work, as he did, in intensely practical and productive ways.
If Madison could stare human nature, the most intractable of all problems, in the face and not wring his hands … if he instead could take the landscape as he found it, roll up his sleeves, and build on it … then surely we can do better in our time than sit around like lumps lamenting today’s dysfunction and division.
If he were here today, I imagine the man from Montpelier would have some very pointed things to say.
I think he would begin by reminding us that we don’t have it so bad. At least, there are no bayonets at our bellies, no hangman’s noose or firing squad awaiting us for defying the king. So we really have no excuse for sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.
Second, he’d remind us that human beings are not born with an understanding of republican principles and practice. Good citizenship is a learned behavior — the product of education and the cultivation of civic habits, including informed and respectful contention, collaboration, and compromise. If we want to be a virtuous self-governing community that exhibits these habits, we must work at instilling them.
Next, Madison would remind us that the American system is predicated on the competition of ideas, so if you do not agree with the agenda of the political factions on the far Right or far Left, then you should join or form your own faction and engage in the great contest.
Don’t be bullied by the decibels and deceits, the self-worship of passion over reason. Use the tools of your times to outsmart and outwork your opponents.
He’d be too modest to cite his own example — outworking and outsmarting the mesmerizing Patrick Henry to win a great victory for the Constitution [in the ratification debates] — but there is a lesson there for us all.
Finally, Madison would challenge each of us to get to work in our personal spheres of influence and opportunity, helping our neighbor and our community flourish in freedom.
Here, after all, was a comfortable young man from the backwoods of Virginia who sensibly could have left the deep thought and hard work to more established figures. Instead, he closeted himself in his little library with all the collected wisdom he could lay his hands on and went about the process of preparing a plan.
Somewhere along the way he gained the insight that good governance is about achieving balance, a healthy tension that not only forestalls excess but fosters reasoned deliberation and productive compromise. He made the pursuit of that balance his life’s work, and, in so doing, he offered a prescription for ours.
Madison’s particular project was balancing the shifting excesses and exigencies of federal and state power — vital work that continues today. As with any such dynamic arrangement, times change, and so do the demands. There was a time not so long ago, for example, when strong federal power was needed to right the civil wrongs in the states where essential liberties and equal justice were denied.
In our day, the balance of national and local power has tilted heavily in favor of Washington, D.C., and the massive bureaucratic and regulatory state ensconced there, producing a distance and detachment that threaten to undermine personal and community responsibility. Our political discourse suffers, too, because civility and self-restraint arise from personal relationships — from friendships, and caring, engaged communities. And these essential elements of republican life are eroded when decisions are made in remote and unaccountable chambers and when debates occur in angry anonymity over the Internet.
If we mean to restore a vibrant republicanism, we must get engaged in the work that is within our reach. For most of us, that means working for the improvement of our neighborhoods and communities, our workplaces, and the people right around us. And because some of the solutions will be public rather than private, we must insist on the return of government decisions to a level within our productive influence.
The theoretical word for it is “federalism,” but the point is simply this: the Madisonian vision of balance today requires that we bring freedom home.
So we must renew the American narrative, resolve to build up rather than tear down, and exercise our freedom practically and productively in the manner of Madison. But there is one other thing we must do to keep and renew our Republic.
In “The Irony of American History,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
This forgiveness is why, in the American story — indeed, the human story — Freedom and Love are inseparable.
We cannot live in Freedom without making choices. We cannot make choices without committing errors. We cannot overcome our errors without forgiveness. And we cannot find forgiveness without Love.
This is the astonishing freedom story written by the divine Author … the amazing reconciliation modeled by the divine Mediator … the incredible love poured into every human heart by the divine Spirit.
We will never transcend these truths, no matter how much pride and presumption our modern minds bring to the business of self-government. And, try as we might, we will not keep this Republic if we do not affirm these truths for ourselves, practice them in our dealings with others, and pass them along to those who will follow us.