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 first in a two-part series.
Why do we recall [the] choices throughout our history that reflect the “better angels of our nature”? Certainly not to indulge some vain triumphalism or self-satisfied exceptionalism. Nor out of some naively optimistic notion of human perfectibility or democratic inevitability.
Indeed, the opposite should be our purpose.
In spite of our modern minds, we must apprehend the existence of an evil that still stalks the land like a lion. It still has the power to astonish us with brutality and cruelty and the capacity, even propensity, of human beings to oppress and harm other human beings. We do not understand it. And what shocks us most is the realization that this evil is not some alien affliction, a tyrant’s or terrorist’s malevolence that we can fend off through fortification or force of arms. The truly astonishing thing is that this potential — the potential for good and evil, the presence of good with evil — lurks within every human breast.
Yet, in this astonishment lies our hope, because it lifts us from our lethargy. It makes us cry out that things are not as they should be. And it sends us on a search for meaning and purpose. It sends us to the lessons of history, to the examples of people who chose well. And it makes us look within, and beyond, at the faith we hold and the character we bring to bear as we choose. We do not know why God gives us the freedom to choose and, in so empowering us, licenses both the good and evil consequences of our choices. But we know the burden of choosing falls on each of us, and we can choose now to choose well.
There is no problem in America today that is beyond the ken of good people striving to make good choices.
There is no politics so dysfunctional that it cannot be remedied through goodwill rooted in good purpose.
The laments about the contemporary state of our politics are exhaustingly familiar: the erosion of the American center and the rise of extremes; the inability to find common ground and compromise for the common good; the prevalence of self-seeking politicians who put partisan ambition first; the dominance of remote and unaccountable bureaucracies; the virulence of ideological news organs and online enclaves that stoke anger and alienation; the easy foothold that falsehood gains through our separation into self-reinforcing enclaves of likeminded opinion and perpetual grievance; the loss of civic knowledge and civic spirit and the collective memory necessary to preserve republican principles and a republican culture; the relentless meanness, pettiness, and coarseness of it all.
What must we do?
I will tell you what I believe. There are four things.
First, we must renew the American narrative.
Without a story that enables us to make sense of our lives, that gives us hope amid our struggles and lifts our sights, people see only devils.
Our story — America’s story — the stories I have told today and a million others — are the story of a shining city on a hill. That city is not our present reality, but it can be our earnest pursuit. And, here, two things matter most.
First, ours is a city forged, not from identity but from ideals — from timeless principles, the cornerstone of which is Freedom. Our foundational belief that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our conviction that all persons, of every race, place, gender, and creed deserve the chance to pursue their dreams, to go as far as their God-given talents and their character, hard work, and perseverance will take them.
And, second, our city is a caring community. We stand not only for timeless ideals grounded in Freedom but for authentic relationships rooted in Love. We seek to live by the Golden Rule, and we help others, not because a government commands it, nor because our reputations compel it, nor because a guilty conscience insists on it. We help others because we are grateful for the ways God has blessed us, and we choose to be a blessing to others: faith expressing itself through love.
These are not hostile ideologies — individualism versus communitarianism. They are essential parts of the balanced American narrative that we must recover. Not self-reliance or caring communities, but self-reliance and caring communities. Not liberty or justice but liberty and justice. Not Freedom or Love, but Freedom and Love.
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, “but I don’t think I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it…. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
Let us see it that way, too, and let us not be embarrassed to say so. For if we declare this creed, if we write it on our hearts and teach it to our young people, if we impart not only civic tactics but civic values, then soon we will find that we are living out this ideal more and more, day by day. And with God’s help it will heal our land.
So that is number-one: renew the American narrative.
But, closely related to renewing the narrative is stopping the destruction. We cannot hope to build up if we keep tearing down. So the second thing we must do is stop tearing down each other, and stop tearing down our country.
This is a choice that belongs to each of us. We can each resolve that we will not answer offense with offense; that we will not turn our opponents into enemies; that being shunned or shouted at, we will not seek to win by out-shunning or out-shouting others; that being objects of hate, we will not give hate’s corrosive powers an opening to compromise our own core.
Fundamentally, in principle and practice, we must firmly resolve this one thing: that we will not seek to overcome evil with evil, but will seek to overcome evil with good.
That is true in our relationships with each other, and hear me on this: it must also be true of our relationship with our country.
Our founders made no claim that they had framed a perfect nation. They handed us instead the ever-unfinished business of forging a “more perfect union.”
Sure, they had grievances and gave voice to them — in fact, the Declaration of Independence contains a long litany of them. But they did not wallow in their complaints—they set about putting things right. They were imperfect, as are we all, so there is still more work to do. Yet in that work lies the hope-filled, redemptive part of the American story.
Teaching our country’s flaws and failures without teaching this striving for renewal is telling only half the story. It is like teaching the culprit’s crime but not his repentance, the parents’ discipline but not their love, the child’s struggles but not his hopes … her discovery but not her wonder.