Is Everything Our Fault?
Over 2,000 years ago, a man named Aristotle wrote a work called the Nichomachean Ethics. In that work, Aristotle described the purpose, or the end, of political life and decision-making. To Aristotle, the end and purpose of politics is to “engender a certain character in the citizens” and “make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.” In the United States, in 2022, there could hardly be a way of describing politics that is more foreign to our common understanding and experience. Not many citizens go to the polls with the honest hope that the person they are electing will pass legislation that leaves them more “disposed to perform noble actions.” At best, we are probably choosing someone we believe to be simply less dangerous to our society and common wellbeing than the alternative candidate. That realization of general dissatisfaction with political life is a horrifying warning sign.
If we take the philosophical acumen of Aristotle seriously, the dysfunction in our country is indeed simply a symptom of an even more serious and fundamental dysfunction within the citizens of our country. Aristotle understood the greatness of a political community in a very simple way: “the virtue of the state is of course caused by the citizens who share in its government being virtuous; and in our state all the citizens share in the government.” (Politics 1332a34) In other words, a country is only as good as the citizens that make the decisions on the direction that the country is going in. In a place like the United States, that’s you and me – the people.
In no way does that excuse leaders who deceive the public or misconstrue the facts to serve interests that are not those of their constituents. Leaders who shoulder the responsibility of public service and translate it into private gain have no doubt had an outsized influence on trust in government. In 2021, only 39% of polled Americans expressed having a fair amount of trust in the way the federal government handles either domestic or international problems. Of all the branches, the legislative branch, supposedly the most representative of all branches of government, had the lowest trust rating at only 37%. This is clearly not solely the fault of the constituents. But at the same time, who makes up the elected officials in a democratic republic like the United States? It is not some shadowy elite class that is born into aristocratic destiny for office, appointed by the decision of an unknown group of people. Shockingly, there are major cities in our country that have had local elections with a voter turnout of less than 7% of eligible voters, with the national median ages of local election voters being in their 60s
At the very heart of the American project is the reality that everyday people govern themselves, elected by their own community. It is our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters that end up in office – either through luck, skill, or knowing the right people at the right time. By no means does this mean every single citizen in reality has the ability to run for office, but this does mean that every one of us has a direct impact on who is in place to make our cities, our counties, our states, and our country a place more in line with the idea that Aristotle had for political life – a virtuous politics for the common good of the people.