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Losing our balance: The Uncivil War

As we observe the 150th-anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, we are again facing disunion and testing whether a nation, once the noble beacon of representative government, can survive.

The present-day unraveling of our democratic system of government is not territorial, nor is it based on states rights or slavery. Today’s “peculiar institution” is the combination of money and special interests that threatens our capacity to govern ourselves.

Are we witnessing the slow dissolution of this republic? Have the media so supercharged politics in this era of punditry and polls that conscientious deliberation is impossible as politicians bounce like pinballs from one sound bite to the next?

Has political survival replaced the common good as the guiding light in this century? The public’s disdain for Congress apparently is not enough to drive leaders from the swamp to the highlands.

Those young Americans who died at Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg did not make that sacrifice to see our nation founder on the rocks of discord and mistrust that today threaten those values that have motivated and sustained us since the birth of the republic?

The founding fathers anticipated that prudent men of good will would serve the republic by acting in the best interest – not of themselves – but of those they served even when such action might be contrary to the wishes of their constituents.

Are we culturally and ideologically capable of setting aside our differences in the interest of the common good; or are we again a “house divided,” this time by money, power, and class.
Is it no longer of the people, by the people, and for the people? Or are special interests in control? Representative government collapses when elected officials fail to understand whom and what they represent. Governance is undermined when bitterness and conflict supplant cooperation.

Too many believe they merit the advantages that secured them positions of power and influence. They no more deserve their status than the disadvantaged deserve to be born to poverty, neglect, disability, or ignorance. Fundamental fairness demands that those to whom much has been given look after the less fortunate, for none of us truly deserve what we possess.

It is absurd to suggest that representative government does not involve the redistribution of wealth. The issue is how that wealth is to be distributed: to whom and for what purpose? Such decisions require prudence, compassion, and compromise, and, above all, wisdom. They require the selfless application of the common good and the courage to accept the consequences.

The common good seeks balance. It tries to encourage productivity while assuring that all are entitled to basic human dignity. One cannot exercise the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without a decent place to live, food, health care, education, and opportunity.

The effort to achieve the proper balance is constant as the weight shifts. Perfect balance is unattainable; the goal is to have the wisdom to make those adjustments necessary to maintain sensible equilibrium. Those qualities are certainly not in evidence in Congress or thus far in the 2012 presidential campaign. Partisanship, petty bickering, and sheer nonsense have so distorted the process of enacting laws and electing our national leaders that they call into question whether our democratic process is still capable of wise governance.

Wisdom is sensibly applied knowledge. It assumes understanding, fortitude, restraint, and patience. It is to knowledge what the North Star was once to navigation -- a true course to a safe harbor. At the moment we are lost in a turbulent sea.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.