A Republic, If You Can Keep It

For the Want of a Nail

by Ralph Benko

This piece was originally published in Issue #2 of The Transpartisan Review.

Ralph Benko is a counselor to nonprofit civic groups, the president of the Alinsky Center (www.alinskycenter.com), and an internationally published weekly columnist based in Washington, DC. He is also a principal of Living Room Conversations (www.livingroomconversations.org) and a member of the Advisory Board of The Transpartisan Review.


‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.’

I’m by disposition an optimist, and in practice a realist. America’s ‘battle for the kingdom’ — the effort to keep our liberal republic — appears more likely to be lost than won, and all for the want of a “horseshoe nail,” a tiny expenditure upon which all else depends.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, ‘a lady [one Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia] asked Dr. Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got a republic, or a monarchy?” — “A republic”, replied the Doctor, “if you can keep it”.’

We got a republic. Can we keep it?

America had a great run. We really made an impact on shifting the world order from thousands of years of the imperial to a republican order.

In 1910, the year my father was born, something like 80 percent of the world’s population lived under an emperor. That ancien régime had endured for millennia. By July 24, 1923 four of the five great empires — the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the Russian, and the Chinese — had fallen. The fifth and least autocratic, the British, was in terminal decline.

Tyranny followed Empire. America entered and won World War II and implanted liberal republican principles in Western Europe and Japan. Then we prosecuted, and won, the Cold War, enabling liberal republican principles to emerge in Eastern Europe and, to an extent, Russia and China (which works on a much longer timeline than we impetuous Americans do).

The magnitude of this world political transformation is so massive as to be mostly ignored. It was the Big Bang of our contemporary political universe.

Jefferson had called for an ‘empire of Liberty’. We got that. Can we keep it?

There is no way to predict whether the liberal republican world order America inspired and built will, absent a liberal republican America, continue to build, or sustain itself, or dissipate. Let us hope that a near-future historian won’t be writing a six-volume ‘Decline and Fall of the American Republic’. That said, we are in decline and such a fall looks likely.

Follow along. If our historian writes such a work, she is likely to conclude that the decline and fall was all for the want of a ‘horseshoe nail’, a relatively trivial (but unexpended) sum necessary to keep the republic. The cost of keeping the republic would be less than 1 percent (per year) of the cost of the 2016 US election cycle. It would be 0.0000025 of our GDP. It would be about fifteen cents per capita.

And we are unlikely to spend it.

What is needed to keep the republic (and the “empire of Liberty,” practically speaking) is the constitution, sustenance, and mobilization of a national citizens’ league of around 100,000 people. One hundred thousand is a little less than one third of one percent of the American population. Not an extravagant sum, yet the resources to do it — the “horseshoe nail” — are nowhere on the horizon.

The requisite $50 million a year is out of reach of regular people. No philanthropist has shown the slightest interest in making such an investment. Yet that is what is needed. No more. No less.

If such a league’s members were consistently and proficiently to engage with their elected Representatives, many of our political morbidities — including hyper-partisanship — would organically resolve. More participants, of course, would be better.

The evidence suggests that around 200 people (of diverse, or no, partisan affiliation and no nationally-directed agenda), consistently acting in each of the 435 congressional districts, would represent a very powerful force indeed. That would be larger than the active membership of many, perhaps most, Democratic or Republican Party county committees within a given congressional district. Concerned Women for America achieved disproportionate influence with many fewer than that.

Civic force trumps partisan force.

Deploying a civic force would effectively project ‘soft power’ to dramatically improve both the quality and the legitimacy of our governance. As Margaret Mead (perhaps) said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ This claim is axiomatic.

Such a league, however, would not confer partisan or political advantage on any of the warring camps. Thus, it is almost certain not to occur. Politics is about gaining power, not serving the general welfare (except insofar making and delivering promises proves useful in gaining and keeping power).

Let’s go back, for a moment, to first principles.

Merriam-Webster defines ‘partisan’ as ‘a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially:  one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance, political partisans who see only one side of the problem.’ (emphasis added)

Let us turn, for a moment, to a good old word: ‘civic’. Merriam-Webster defines ‘civic’ as ‘of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs, civic duty, civic pride, civic leaders’ (emphasis added). It is my contention that, in a context of strong civic engagement, partisanship is a healthy thing. Properly done, partisanship is a way for those who seek office to compete for votes by offering competing policies — conjoined with capability — to better serve the general interest. Inject the common sense of consistently and proficiently engaged citizens and — ‘game on’.

The republican form of government — representative democracy — is imperfect. To quote Churchill’s observation of November 11, 1947:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

So, while stipulating to the flaws of representative democracy, including those latent in partisanship, let us also recognize its virtue. Unhealthy partisanship — ‘one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance’ — represents a mere species of dogmatism. Dogmatism, not partisanship, is the real enemy. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic. Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice. Those who enshrine the poor or Have-Nots are as guilty as other dogmatists and just as dangerous. To diminish the danger that ideology will deteriorate into dogma, and to protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare’.

Dogma is much less likely to prevail in the context of the common sense that can be provided only by consistent citizen civic engagement. If a small fraction of our citizens were to engage on a purely civic, rather than partisan, basis there would be a strong counterweight to partisan factionalism. Toxic partisanship is merely a symptom of the atrophy of civic engagement. Treating symptoms — fighting dogmatic factionalism — will not cure the underlying malady. That malady is citizen disengagement. Engage the citizens and the symptoms will resolve.

I have worked in the nation’s capital for over 30 years, in or with executive branch agencies, as a junior White House official, and for a while quite closely with congressional offices. Let me now reveal an open secret. I believe it contains a hidden key.
The House of Representatives was designed to be, and is, the central organ of the federal government. It is the first of the three bodies constituted by the Constitution and the closest to the people.

Successful elected officials in the House of Representatives — the ‘People’s House’ — have a very special gift. They are good at representing. Successful Congressmen and Congresswomen are observant souls who are very good at weighing who cares, how much, and about what — or they don’t last long.

Legislators are almost invariably ‘people’ people rather than intellectuals or policy wonks (they hire policy wonks). This is not a criticism. Their reliance on solid cognitive heuristics, rather than naked logic, is a kind of genius. Cold logic often misleads because human nature is not strictly logical. It is more wonderful than that.

Our representatives, observed up close, spend most of their time communicating with their peers, party leadership, ‘interest groups’ affected by proposed legislation, pressure groups, media, donors, and — last, but most powerful — their constituents. Representatives covet the good opinion of their constituents above all things.

Their constituents are their root. Second to that they covet acceptance by their (party) peers and leadership. That’s their branch. Donors, media, and ‘special interest’ and pressure groups are mostly relevant insofar as they have the potential to have an impact on constituents. Constituents rule.

The words, ‘What I’m hearing from the folks back home…’ — meaning the opinion of constituents — is usually a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ with party leadership when such leaders are pushing for them to vote another way on a piece of legislation. (Party leaders do not long remain party leaders if they are pushing their rank-and-file members to vote in ways that could cost them re-election.)

And yet our representatives generally hear least from those whose good opinion is the most coveted: us. We have enormous power at our disposal. We, the people, deploy that power all too rarely, and rather capriciously.

Our own neglect of our elected representatives, an abdication of power, is the root of our current political affliction. In Shakespeare’s words, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’

Let’s put aside for now the matter of the United States Senate. The Senate was invented by the Founders to stymie bad legislation emerging from the House of Representatives. While the Senate sometimes stops good legislation as well, on balance it does a fine job in its designated role as goalie. And the White House tends to pick up and amplify ideas coming out of the House of Representatives, only rarely generating important legislation itself. Significant legislative initiatives come, almost exclusively, from the House. These could, and sometimes do, come from us. Too rarely.

Recently, my impressions were confirmed, emphatically, by a very astute article in the March 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz’s What Calling Congress Achieves:

Of all the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the most underrated by far is the one that gives us the right to complain to our elected officials. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly: all of these are far more widely known, legislated, and litigated than the right to—as the founders rather tactfully put it—‘petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’

There are a great many ways to petition the government, including with actual petitions, but, short of showing up in person, the one reputed to be the most effective is picking up the phone and calling your congressional representatives.

Schulz sorts out the signal from the noise very adeptly. She observes:

[M]ost communications to Congress fall into one of two categories. …The second category…might be called constituent demands: someone calls and expresses a political preference to anyone who answers the phone and hopes that his or her legislator will act on it. It is a curious thing about Americans that we simultaneously believe nothing gets done in Congress and have faith that this strategy works.

Actually, this strategy does work in a surprising number of cases, though probably not the ones that you’re thinking of. If you ask your senator to co-sponsor a bill on mud-flap dimensions or to propose a change to the bottling requirements for apple cider or to vote in favor of increased funding for a rare childhood disease, you stand a decent chance of succeeding. This is not a trivial point, since such requests make up the majority of those raised by constituents. (They also represent the underappreciated but crucial role that average citizens play in the legislative process. ‘I’ve written bills that became law because people called to complain about a particular issue I was unaware of’, Akin, of Senator Wyden’s office, said. It was constituents, for instance, who educated Congress about America’s opioid crisis and got members to dedicate funds and draft health legislation to begin dealing with it.)

If, however, you want a member of Congress to vote your way on a matter of intense partisan fervor—immigration, education, entitlement programs, health insurance, climate change, gun control, abortion—your odds of success are, to understate matters, considerably slimmer.

Kristina Miler, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and the author of the book Constituency Representation in Congress, has argued that activism works in part simply by making previously hidden segments of the population more visible to legislators. Tasked with representing anywhere from seven hundred and fifty thousand people to tens of millions of them, most lawmakers are familiar with only a tiny fraction of their district or state. But, in a series of surveys and experiments, Miler found that hearing from citizens changed lawmakers’ mental maps and, in doing so, altered how they legislate. (The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a good example of this. Before it failed, Members of Congress considering an intellectual-property bill were most likely to think about its potential impact on major copyright holders like the Walt Disney Corporation. Today, no one can contemplate such legislation without remembering other constituents, from librarians to the tech community, and adjusting plans and votes accordingly.)

In other words, the system is working pretty much as it is designed to do.

Except for us. We’re AWOL.

We, the people, have abdicated most—or at any rate, too much—of our power. Notwithstanding our fulminations against our elected officials, we ourselves are the missing ingredient. We are the key ingredient. Reclaiming and exercising our power would be a straightforward matter and would work miracles.

Civic force trumps partisan force.

As noted above, if around 200 people in each of the 435 Congressional Districts would civically organize, and consistently and proficiently engage with their elected Representatives, much of our political morbidity would resolve. Of course, the consistency and proficiency of such civic action is at least equally important as the number of people engaging. The civic dynamic would give disproportionate, yet healthy, power to proficient citizens committed to bettering many of our political and policy outcomes. A MoveOn.org or Change.org petition pales, in power, by comparison.

What might that look like? Representatives are accustomed to short-lived emotional bursts from their constituents. They know that most of these are, as Britain’s Lord Chancellor Thurlow nicely termed it, ‘a tempest in a teapot’.

Our venting to (or on) our elected officials, while emotionally satisfying, isn’t of the essence of good governance. Consistency is key to demonstrating seriousness of purpose and sustainability. Proficiency also is key.

Our effectiveness depends as well on our focusing on important matters. There is a great story about President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1954 visited Northwestern University, where he delivered an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He said:

Now, my friends of this convocation, there is another thing we can hope to learn from your being with us. I illustrate it by quoting the statement of a former college president, and I can understand the reason for his speaking as he did. I am sure President Miller can. This president said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Now this, I think, represents a dilemma of modern man. Your being here can help place the important before us, and perhaps even give the important the touch of urgency. And you can strengthen our faith that men of goodwill, working together, can solve the problems confronting them.

If the ‘folks back home’ — us — focus, consistently, on the important rather than the urgent, we will have influence. Recall the staff person in Senator Wyden’s office who said, ‘I’ve written bills that became law because people called to complain about a particular issue I was unaware of…’

Of course, this is less true for high-profile, contentious issues. These represent a tiny fraction of what Congress addresses. Leave those to our elected Representatives.

As Edmund Burke observed in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Good news: Organizing and sustaining a national citizens’ league — a group that is self-defined, and disciplined to act, as a civic rather than partisan body — is straightforward. Even better news: It’s pretty easy to organize such a group.

The bad news? It is laborious and takes dedicated effort by an organizer. There is little evidence that such a body can be sustained on valor and public spirit on an amateur basis. It needs professional — meaning paid — staff to manage the process in the Congressional District and a national office to hire, train, and manage the field organizers who would, in turn, manage the district directors.

The cost of maintaining each district organizer would be, on average, around $100,000/year. Multiply that by the 435 Congressional Districts: $43,500,000/year. Round that up to $50 million to support robust national and field offices.

$50 million? Sound expensive?

Well. Let’s put it in perspective. The figure the White House used in 2009 as the average cost of maintaining one troop in the field in Afghanistan was $1 million a year. $50 million is equivalent to the cost of keeping merely 50 troops in the field. The White House was then looking to field 40 thousand more troops. Do the math.

To put this into a political perspective, the 2016 elections — both presidential and otherwise — was estimated to run close to $7 billion. For the cost of one (presidential) election cycle we could sustain such a citizens’ league for over a century.

To put this into a philanthropic perspective, $50 million is less than 1 percent of the 2015 expenditure of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

To put this into a governance perspective, the 2017 federal outlay will be something like $3.65 trillion. That’s more than 50,000 times the cost of sustaining such a citizens’ league.

To put this into the perspective of America’s national income, $18.56 trillion in 2016, it averages (far, far) less than a penny per person per year. On a per capita basis, it’s about fifteen cents. Curiously, fifteen cents is the price of two… horseshoe nails.

Our physical infrastructure of bridges, roads, and airports visibly decay. We have also let the infrastructure of a republican form of government invisibly decay.

To paraphrase Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper: Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribunes.

Call it neglect.

Call it negligence.

Just don’t point fingers. ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.

There appears to be no philanthropic or civic interest in underwriting such a project. There is no apparent interest even in doing a demonstration project (at one-tenth the cost, or less) in a representative number of congressional districts.

So here we are. There is a pretty obvious mechanism by which government effectiveness, in accord with the legitimizing ‘consent of the governed,’ can be re-established.

A citizens’ league wouldn’t solve everything. Yet it would organically resolve much of the political morbidity that plagues America.

Civic force trumps partisan force.

A citizens’ league is the essential, yet missing, ingredient in the recipe for saving the republic. It would cost each American about as much as two horseshoe nails.

‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.’

‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’

This piece was originally published in Issue #2 of The Transpartisan Review alongside several articles exploring how broad ideas and social forces are shaping our political institutions and our choice of leaders, including President Donald Trump.

This issue also contains a more detailed introspection of how we, and our colleagues & contributors, see the forces behind the daily events we write about each week.

Read or Download: Transpartisan Review, Issue #2

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