Many years ago as a university undergraduate, I took a course with noted political scientist Thomas R. Dye, who became a mentor to this erstwhile government major.
Dye was insightful and demanding, and I relished the challenge of combining quantitative analysis and political theory. (I was young!) An expert in state and local government, Dye had just published a new book on the subject.
Although I eventually turned to the study of history, Dye had a deep influence on my intellectual development. Four decades later I still remember the first line of that book. “The irony of democracy,” Dye wrote, “is that elites not the masses govern America.”
Though it turned my somewhat innocent worldview upside down, this telling observation is as relevant today as it was in the very early 1970s —perhaps more so.
We live in ironic times, times of paradox and possibilities. Our national myths and institutions are under assault by a class of politicians whose policies erode the common good in the name of freedom and opportunity.
From the courthouse to the White House, too many elected officials of both parties have forgotten that they were elected to serve and to preserve the noblest instincts of a democratic society. They hide from an electorate that is demoralized, and they are beholden to financial donors who have no interests beyond their own.
America has always been a contentious and at times fragile experiment in self-government — one long argument about enduring principles and benefits. However, notions of equality and human rights — to say nothing of “We the People” and “a more perfect Union” — have become partisan punchlines rather than sacred tenets of citizenship.
In the face of disinformation and “fake news” from the imagined “dark state,” words have lost their meaning in public discourse, and conspiracy theories abound. A 24-hour television news cycle and the shift from investigative journalism to “commentary” have made matters worse.
Self-styled populists who have no real understanding of history promote public policies more in tune with self-interest and self-aggrandizement than with national welfare. The vulnerable and the voiceless are further stigmatized and pushed to the margins. This is precisely what the real Populists, for all their flaws, warned against in the 1890s.
“ ‘Tough luck’ makes for lousy public policy,” someone said to me. It is also a shaky foundation upon which to build an American future.
Late in life, Mark Twain (a distant relative of mine) wrote scornfully of a lack of “moral courage” and the triumph of mediocrity in public life. Twain could be irascible, but he had a point. I would add, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”
In a political culture that extols the art of the deal, I would go so far as to say we need a new deal. Let’s call it a civic deal that has the courage to defend core principles of equal protection, liberty and human dignity, regardless of economic station, social identity or relative ability.
Founded on a web of mutuality and shared interest, the civic deal is the birthright of each citizen, enshrined in our most hallowed documents. A civic deal respects the voiceless and vulnerable as friends and neighbors, and does not treat them as strangers unworthy of our consideration.
Squaring these ideals with public policy, and holding elected officials accountable, can make for a more virtuous Union and improve on the ironic and dispirited nature of politics in our own times.
This is the job of every citizen and person of goodwill.
Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is a Manheim Township resident, professor of history at Millersville University and director of the university’s Honors College.