Matters of Principle

Author: Gary Hart

U.S. CapitolMatters of Principle  

The Founders of the United States not only designed a system of government, they also established principles which bind and guide their successors at home and abroad.  To the degree we, their heirs, abide by these national principles we remain true to the vision of the republic they intended us to be and we earn the respect of those around the world who believe us to be a principled nation.

It is worthwhile periodically to remind ourselves what our guiding principles are.  We are committed to the principle that all people (they said “men”) are created equal.  We believe that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Our principles guarantee rights of speech and assembly and freedom of press and religion.  We are dedicated to the proposition that all are entitled to equal justice under the law, that justice requires due process, not arbitrary, application of the law, and that no magistrate can place us in custody without charges.  Our principles extend to the right of the individual, regardless of wealth or class, to be secure in his or her person and property from unwarranted search and seizure.  Our political systems are based on checks and balances to prevent concentration of power and the principle of taxation only carried out by those we freely elect to represent us.

All this would seem elementary civics except for this: we do not always live up to these principles, especially in our dealings with other nations and peoples.  There is a direct correlation between fear and our willingness to suspend our principles.  In wartime, both domestic and foreign, presidents have suspended the most crucial right of all, habeas corpus, that protects us from arbitrary arrest and that dates to the Magna Carta.  This was true during the Civil War, World War II, and the war on terrorism. 

And especially during the Cold War and the more recent war on terrorism our foreign policy has been based on the proposition that the enemy of our enemy, however dictatorial, undemocratic, and contrary to our principles it may be, is our friend.  Most often this friendship has amounted to large financial payments or weapons deliveries in exchange for military basing rights.

We pay for this in more ways than one.  Most often we pay for abandonment of our principles by the sacrifice of international respect.  It was a basic belief of those who founded the United States that we could remain strong and secure by resisting expediency and by standing like a rock on our principles.

11 Responses to “Matters of Principle”

  1. David Dreyer Says:

    A statement of first principles — and how they apply to the way we organize and govern ourselves domestically and how conduct our affairs globally — is deeply important especially now.

    We’ll get a reminder in a matter of days at the United Nations when the General Assembly debates U.S. policy towards Cuba and the global impact of the embargo.

    Thanks to a failure to act more promptly and boldly — along with his very odd decision to renew the Trading with the Enemy Act on which our sanctions are based — Obama now “owns” the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and he and our country will be soundly thrashed for it in the General Assembly. This condemnation has happened year after year since the early 1990s. Only, now the target is not some hopeless naif or ideologue. The subject of this global expression of scorn will be this President, who by birth and mentality, ought to be the first president of a post-Cold War Cuba policy era instead of joining the list of Cold Warriors who thought we in the U.S. had better idea than the inhabitants of their island about how its government should be run.

    Obama should take his chance to rise above the outdated politics of Florida, and equally outdated Cold War calculations, to reengage with Cuba, and to send a signal to Latin America and the world more broadly that the U.S. has more serious things to say and do than prattle on about the Cuban revolution now fifty years old.

    It was probably understandable that we wandered so far from first principles in the decade of the 60s. But that time — as the president himself likes to remind us — has long since past. He needs to make a decisive shift from this antiquated and useless policy; one can only hope that a reminder of first principles — his and ours — is the right place to start.

  2. Jim Ludes Says:

    Congratulations on the new site.

    I wonder, though, if most Americans understand or, in some cases, have even been exposed to the “elementary civics” you cite. America’s schools stopped teaching civics sometime in the last 30 years. I would wager that most Americans don’t know that we are a republic and that in a republic citizens have responsibilities.

    The coarsening of our politics, and as a result our policies, flows rappidly from ignorance of who we are, what our Constitution enshrines, and what our system requires of us all.

  3. J.D. Berlin Says:

    I quite agree — we as a nation boldly assert our patriotism and pride as Americans but too often sidestep the principles that underlie what it means to be American. Being true to ourselves as a country doesn’t mean maintaining the status quo. It means to keep innovating and asking questions, to keep diversifying intellectually and demographically. It means to go beyond thumping our chests as ‘leader of the free world’ and truly live by the founding values of our nation, constantly striving to make ours “a more perfect union”.

  4. Sam Scinta Says:

    I second Jim Ludes’ comments. One only need to note the Senator’s comment in his article on Afghanistan (regarding whether 40% in this country or other mature democracies would show up for an election if there was a threat of violence). Given that more than 2/3 of the American electorate failed to vote in 2008, one of the highest turn-outs in four decades, I think the Senator is on to something. It seems too many are willing to punt on the duties of being a citizen in a Republic, while gladly grabbing at the “rights” (which these days seem to inlcude the “right” to shout the loudest in a public forum, regardless of basis in fact).

  5. Billy Shore Says:

    Gary,
    Great to have this contribution to the national conversation. Those of us who worked on your Senate staff or presidential campaigns know that “matters of principle” is more than an intellectual undertaking – it was the touchstone for how you made decisions and the inspiration for an entire new generation of political leaders like Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Governor Martin O’Malley and now candidate Alan Khazei in Massachusetts.

    I’ll never forget committing the cardinal sin of once recommending you cast a vote on the Senate floor based on how other Democratic Senators were voting, and you glaring at me and quoting “conscience of the Senate” Phil Hart as saying you should cast every vote as if yours were the deciding vote. Needless to say it stuck with me, as I know “matters of principle” will too.

  6. C.D. Bartolf Says:

    Jim I think you’re too quick to lay the blame on the lack of education at schools. While the course Civics, may have dropped out of favor US Government is still quite common and I believe imparts many of the lessons Civics previously did. I’d agree with you that most Americans don’t know that we’re a republic…but then I’m not sure Americans going back several generations realized it, or the ramifications of it.

    Also, does the coarsening of our politics flow from ignorance of who we are? Or is it that the ignorance of who we are flows from the coarsening of our politics? Whose responsibility is it to keep the level of political debate high—the public , the media, politicians themselves?

  7. Tom Gee Says:

    This is wonderful (and so far no stupid comments as with most blogs!). This particular post, typical of all of the writings from the Sage of the Rockies, explains why Senator Hart was the bridge for me and so many others between President Kennedy and President Obama.

  8. Jeffrey Abelson Says:

    Building on several of the previous comments — when most of our citizens don’t know what America’s fundamental principles are, let alone insist they be honored in the public sphere — and when (according to all major studies) the vast majority of us, the people, are stunningly ignorant about the big issues that shape all our lives, and the way government works at even its most basic level — and are therefore thoroughly disengaged from the responsibility side of citizenship (beyond the simple act of voting) — then all the well-justified railing at abusers of power or principle will fall on deaf ears, regardless of who is president or which party controls Congress.

    When the cat’s away….

    If we truly want wise, effective, and accountable government, then we truly need wise, effective, and accountable citizens. Seems rather obvious for a self-governing society, but no one in the public spotlight ever talks about it out loud.

    Would love to know your view on the role of the citizen, Senator Hart, and how the alarming level of political ignorance and tuneout can be remedied. Increasing civic education is surely important, but we can’t wait 30 years for today’s students to grow up and assume control of the country. What about now?

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    I’ve spent a considerable number of years studying classical republican theory which, of course, dates from Athens. Scholarship reveals that four themes prevail in all republics: civic duty; popular sovereignty; resistance to corruption; and a sense of the commonwealth. Our Founders used classical republican language and ideas in creating this nation and we salute the flag of the United States “and the republic for which it stands.” We must secure our rights by performance of our duties. Our schools and other institutions have not been conveying this message. Thanks for asking, Mr. Abelson

  10. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    I am very pleased to see this new blog. I wish to comment on your statement that “[w]e are dedicated to the proposition that … no magistrate can place us in custody without charges.”

    On 13 September, the Washington Post reported that the Obama Administration would be allowing more than 600 prisoners in the Bagram military base in Afghanistan the right to challenge their indefinite detention and to call witnesses and present evidence in their defence (“US Gives New Rights to Afghan Prisoners”). In discussing this with others I found, unsurprisingly, that some were of the opinion that such rights ought only to be extended to American citizens, that our Constitution protects only Americans, and that this new policy would weaken our ability to fight terrorism overseas. This re-opens the debate as to whether the Constitution protects non-citizens from abuses of government power.

    I share your view that we tend to lose international respect when we hypocritically fail to hold ourselves to our own standards of fairness and justice. I would welcome your comments regarding this issue of whether the Constitution prohibits U.S. magistrates from placing non-citizens in custody without due process of law. Should it matter whether it takes place on foreign soil? Do we not appear even more hypocritical to other nations when we apply different standards to citizens and non-citizens in the execution of justice?

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