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Structure: Our Polity, Our Politics, Our Democracy

Let's refresh what we know about the distant origins of America's basic political framework.

In ancient Greece, a “polis” was a city, and amazingly enough, the term lives on, even today, tacked onto the names of American cities - Annapolis - Indianapolis - Thermopolis - Minneapolis. (And now we even have a Governor who's gotten into the act, Jared Polis, of Colorado.)

And if a “polis” was a city, by extension the people of that city were to be known as its “polity.”

And if a polity was the term by which the city's decision-makers were known, well, then, the word “politics” follows as the inevitable term for the give-and-take by which such a polity would typically arrive at its decisions.

Here in America, our polity was designed by our Constitutional Convention to be partly national and partly federal. Some kinds of decisions don’t need to be national and some do. Those that don’t need to be national can be conveniently left to the states.

(Or, as we have seen in 2020's frightening pandemic, a President as lazy as Donald Trump has no difficulty pretending that he bears no responsibility for national emergencies and dump onto the nation's governors the job of figuring out what to do. In Trump's mind, the pathogen apparently cares deeply about states' rights. And so if the nation's Governors fail to bring it under control, they'll get the blame for our broken national response, not the President.)

But for just a moment, let’s look at our long-standing quarrel between those who prefer nationalism and those who prefer federalism, and in doing so, let's use the aspirational lens of “systemic well-being.” When is it best for states to take the lead? And when is it best for our national government to take the lead?

Do public schools need to be set up and supervised by a single national body? Surely not. Who would want that? Federalism for public schools is plainly the more workable choice.

But what about the challenge of climate change? If the Earth's climate is endangered, as it is, the entire nation will need to work out its response. The decisions America makes about the future of its energy infrastructure will need to be led from the top and guided by a unity of purpose.

State-by-state federalism is hardly the wisest response to a crisis that threatens to make vast sectors of the Earth unlivable.

And what about the challenge of finance capitalism? In the era of Bush Two, America’s financial titans collectively initiated a money-making scheme that turned mortgage-based securities into an alluring but unstable investment opportunity. The White House went along with its "See No Evil" sign off. And then, as the inevitable wave of bankruptcies broke over the nation's financial sector, the whole scheme finally came apart and crashed the American economy.

And in its wake, it ought to have taught us a lesson that America's financial titans still don't want to hear:

Industry misbehaviors capable of imperiling the entire economy inherently require the deployment of preventive regulations on a national scale.

In other words, as Americans we embrace federalism when we can, but when we must we function as a nation and we deploy the powers of America’s national government to keep us safe and help us prosper. There are some protections and advances that only a national government can provide. To repeat Madison’s wise reminder, ours is a system that is partly federal and partly national.

Part of the point is that our dual identities - as members both of a larger whole and of its various individual pieces - ought to give us an extra edge. Shouldn't the fact that we have thousands of options for pursuing individual fulfillment be simultaneously a source of individual satisfaction, and also a source of strength for us collectively as a nation?

Yes. It should.

But that's not how things actually work out. We may be members both of the larger American whole and of different specific localities, which used to mean that our country made a point of extending the American Dream to nearly all its people.

But it turns out that the real rules of the game here in America aren't half as generous as our flag-waving holidays make them out to be.

On its surface, America presents itself as a bright and shiny nation. But its working parts have been accumulating grime and corruption for some time now. Yes, we have inherited our nation's democratic norms - yes, slavery has been outlawed; yes, women now have the right to vote; yes, voting is for everyone, not just for owners of property. But formal rights of themselves are no guarantee that America's blessings will be within reach for all its people.

And why is that?

Because our national culture lacks the norms it needs. It ought to direct our ambitions and our principles and our drives toward an America that's both more honorable and more prosperous. But it doesn't.

We don't understand the threats we face, we haven't developed the civilization-level wisdom we require, and we haven't developed the aspirational culture we need.

The task of steering an entire modern-day nation toward is higher and better future seems to be well over our heads. We aren't doing it because nowhere in our society do we have the high level leaders we require.

A nation whose very best still fall short - I'm referring to our own nation - won't do half as well as it should. It won't do half as well as it could.

And, alas, because we are a nation that has yet to acknowledge its deepest shortcomings, we still lack the sense of purpose that our present historical era absolutely requires from us as table stakes.

It's not enough just to be members of a democratic polity. If we cannot visualize the positive future that ought to be ours, we'll never even make the effort. And that would be the worst shame of all - the shame of having forfeited America's higher promise by not having been curious enough and imaginative enough to care.

Steven Howard Johnson

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