What is honored in a country will be cultivated there. 

—Plato

Plato’s quote opened the book The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner, which describes Weiner’s travels to cities around the world where genius flourished at certain times in history. This quote has special significance as we watch our country enter another U.S. presidential race. But, as we know all too well, this is not just any other presidential race. Over 350 million people live in the longest democratic experiment in history and the top two contenders for the most powerful position in the world are two of the most disliked presidential candidates in election history. The language used during the campaign by each candidate and their supporters range from childish, to vitriolic, to, at times, even threatening. As a person with a degree in political science, I am fascinated with the machinations of this election, however, as a citizen of the United States I am extremely frustrated and disappointed. 

Does it have to be this way? Can we do better? 

Our Founding Fathers made it very clear what characteristics were needed for self-governance. Joshua Charles, in his recent book Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders, skillfully provides the words of our Founders to describe what is needed for a democratic society, then and now. They knew human nature leans toward self-interest rather than the good of society and human history is fraught with destruction. Therefore, the Founders believed the two most important attributes needed for self-government and the protection of liberty are virtue and knowledge. In the words of Samuel Adams, “If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.” 

Virtue, for self-government to be effective, is the concept that each individual provides the moral standards by which a free society is governed. A democratic society must be led by a people who understand and live within morality and reason. A democracy can flourish if the citizenry accept the responsibility for “oneself and one’s fellow man.” For the Founders, their belief in a higher power such as “laws of nature and nature’s God” made the difference for a self-governed society. This concept of virtuous society and a belief in a higher power, certain Founders opined, was the reason why the American Revolution succeeded and the French Revolution did not.

Knowledge, based on the writings of the Founders, was acquired through a quality education. As an educator, it is disconcerting that the idea of defunding education has gained traction across the political aisle. An educated citizenry is crucial to the notion of self-government and liberty. We seem to have lost the fortitude to invest in education for our future. Surface knowledge is not enough. We need to be willing to delve deeper into issues to discover the nuances and subtleties that lead to compromise and understanding. Sadly, our political decisions are made on the basis of tweets, memes and soundbites. 

Back to Plato…. what are we honoring as a country?

We should honor a society made of citizens who value virtue and knowledge. We should cultivate a citizenry that does not demonize political rivals, which makes it impossible to do the work of political compromise so essential to moving the country forward. We need to discern our individual responsibility to governing ourselves. We need to honor and cultivate that responsibility for the good of our democracy. If not, we do so at our peril. As the French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, so eloquently warned our Founders, “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.”