As you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National Character of America..., express Your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country.... (George Washington, 1783, rebuking the Revolutionary war generals who wanted him to lead a military coup to overthrow the inept Continental Congress.)
Once we see how vastly politics differs from government, we can begin to deploy political deliberations to manage our governments. At the very least, we can learn how to reveal the duplicity that leads to scandal, and the other corruptions that reveal terribly corrupt exercise of official authority. To begin grasping such possibilities inherent in politics, we must dive into the very democratic give and take of dialogue, and in the process open our hearts to learn of our own blind spots and self-defeating prejudices.
There has been no more profound example of this sort of dialogue for me than teaching my own children to challenge me when they felt I was doing or saying something wrong as a parent. Yet, wanting my children to grow into responsible citizens, I had little choice but to attempt teaching them this. For starters, I was compelled to admit there was a great deal of truth in certain old proverbs like 'actions speak louder than words,' and 'no man is above the law,' and so o
In other words, I had to place myself under the same moral and political harness of rules I was attempting to place upon my young daughters' shoulders. I learned very quickly that decorum is very important, but that it can also stifle spontaneity if too rigidly imposed. I learned that if I wanted my daughters to respect me and my parental authority I had to also respect their self-respect, their youth, their endless energy, their imaginations that were already vastly more capable than my own, and to let them lead our dining table discussions at every possible opportunity. I learned they would teach themselves much faster than I possible could, if I could sit back and listen, let them make mistakes, and help them gain dexterity in correcting one another's mistakes.
Of course, gaining that ground also unleashed some surprising jealousies and sibling rivalries. But these things also began to teach me about other weaknesses in my parenting skills. To see and overcome those weaknesses I had to be very patient with those rambunctious youngsters while I also had to increasingly focus upon my own self-discipline.
I remember once driving my daughters to school when my thirteen-year-old quietly looked at the speedometer just as we passed a "Speed Limit 35" sign. I also glanced down at that speedometer. There it was for all to see. I was, in traffic, going 45. The thirteen-year-old, however, was no content to let the obvious remain unsaid and do its work on my already uneasy mind.
"Daddy, what's the speed limit here?"
"How fast are we going, Daddy?"
"What happens when everybody breaks the rules?"
Here was my ten-year-old daughter teaching me to think more profoundly about politics than anything I was then learning in graduate school. It is a very important lesson about the value of parenting. We learn more from trying to teach the young to be respectful and respectable citizens than we will ever learn from books or from other teachers. For the young do have quick minds. They do want to learn hard truths. They do want to respect us. And they will, if we invite them, teach us how we are destroying our most important inheritances.
Of course, our society, following the lead of our current national and regional leaders, is rapidly drifting toward overturning all existing forms of authority, from parental authority to the Constitution. If we want to reverse that trend, right where we live, we will have to give more attention to parenting, to creating healthy families no matter what the society does, and to keeping a keen eye out for the potential leaders who will help us challenge any corruptions of authority wherever we can reveal it.
Few will be better at this than our own children, if we but listen to them. But we can gain reminders of just how challenging this work can get, and how we might handle difficult moments, by reading of those truly heroic moments in which George Washington insisted upon building an America ruled by laws instead of men. And we can require ourselves to remember that we are the final authority in American politics, or that authority has already collapsed.