Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Crisis of Civility and Representation

Timothy Sherratt


August 19, 2011
by Timothy Sherratt

Although we connect the constitutional phrase, “during good behavior” (Article III, Section 1) exclusively with the terms of Supreme Court judges, it reflects a broader intention on the part of the framers, who understood republican virtues as of equivalent importance to the separation of powers. To secure republican government it was not enough merely to thwart the concentration of political power. Indeed, the framers debated earnestly whether long terms and term limits or short terms and re-election offered the better inducement to good behavior from office holders. These deliberations resulted in different incentives to good behavior being tendered to Members of Congress, Senators, Presidents and Justices.

But whatever the best incentives may have been, exactly what does this good republican behavior consist of? The framers did not explain it in any detail, but experience suggests some basic requirements. The American political system works to its fullest potential when relations within and between the branches are characterized by prudence, humility, compromise and patience. The Constitution provides ample protection for occupational, belief-driven and regional interests. Republican virtues come alongside these liberties and direct them towards the public good.

At this point, the reader might expect an expression of disappointment that the public civility implied by these republican virtues has fallen on hard times and that naked self-interest reigns unchecked. The framers may have sought good behavior but their design is defective. James Madison, it seems, was overly optimistic in thinking that the multiplication of interests would simultaneously protect organized expression of these interests while checking their potential to subvert the public good. Perhaps good behavior was a pipe dream reflective of the same enthusiasm for classical republicanism that flowered briefly during the Constitutional period, populating the republic with Roman titles but leaving no other lasting legacy.

But the debt and debt-ceiling crises also expose a failure of representation.

The decentralized American system resists the emergence of new political organizations whatever their philosophical stripe, because these organizations must overcome the separation of powers and federalism. Few succeed. The counter-incentives are many, among them the single-member-district plurality system of representation. This design has been shown to favor a two party system, for unless a party’s appeal, be it religious, ethnic, or philosophical, is also geographically concentrated, it can poll well in terms of a national vote share yet still win no seats. 

For all practical purposes, citizens’ political options in the United States come down to social democracy and free-market conservatism. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but the defects of both are serious, especially when viewed from a Christian perspective.

An entire civil society lies between the state idolized by the former and the market idolized by the latter. Civil society is reducible to neither. Citizens have multiple responsibilities, to themselves and to the state, of course, but they are also raising children, doing works of charity, worshipping in churches, and making or patronizing the arts.

Where in American public discourse can citizens consider an approach to government that combines, rather than opposes, safety nets with free markets, or commits itself to reconciliation between management and labor as a guiding norm?

This is the idiom of Christian Democracy, little known and poorly understood on this side of the North Atlantic. And it is the perspective embraced by the Center for Public Justice.

The United States faces a debilitating dilemma. Already spending less than average among democracies on education and infrastructure, it must consider deep cuts to right its financial ship. But, as a wry observation in Der Spiegel had it last week, “If a state that is already skinny is told to go on a diet, it can easily succumb to anorexia.”

As the new bipartisan committee on the deficit gets down to work, its deliberations would be more bipartisan and less shrill, less ideologically rigid and more constructive were it encouraged to think in these terms. The behavior of its elected officials might improve as well!

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”