Shortly after Donald J. Trump took the oath of office, one of this country’s most treasured celebrities posted a new status update. I’m talking about George Takei. He told us we had to “remind ourselves that good government is a good thing,” and added a warning that,” Without this belief, we are lost.” He navigated the Star Trek universe so Takei’s lead is a good one to follow.
This belief in good government helps us make sense of our past and think through the citizen’s role today. It helps us parse the words of elected representatives who understand who we are and those who would make us something else. When you address the American people, you should remember that we’re a people who believe good government is a good thing.
Understanding our History and Ourselves
Yes, it started with a rebellion, but we are a people who were founded in the pursuit of good government. We might champion our insurgency and make a spectacular showcase of our independence every July 4th, but the fight in 1776 was a fight for good government. Look at the Declaration, the document that announced our intentions. Immediately after “the right of the People to alter or abolish” government there is the right “to institute new Government, laying its foundation” on the principles of equality, inalienable rights and the consent of the governed. This list is the stuff of good government. The principles embedded in the logic of that founding document reappear throughout our history as a test, how we know good government from bad.
In the Jefferson’s next move in 1776, he sketched an image of absolute tyranny through negligent government. Those complaints, however, also add as the American people’s repeated appeals for good government.
Good government requires laws, “the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
Good government requires laws to address issues of “immediate and pressing importance” without conditions requiring the governed to compromise their right to representation.
Good government requires legislative decision-making free of harassment for opposing “invasions on the rights of the people.”
Good government requires an independent judiciary.
Coming into view on the world stage for the first time, the American people introduced themselves as a people who would pursue good government while resisting designs “to reduce them under absolute despotism.”
In lobbying for the new Constitution in 1787, James Madison shared how those despotic designs might appear among the people themselves. In Federalist №10, he points to “complaints everywhere heard” that “our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties,” and that these conflicts are too often decided by “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Madison suggested that “unsteadiness and injustice” marked a government with a “factious spirit.”
In Federalist №14, he pleads that his readers resist the “unnatural voice” that suggests disunion and threatens to poison the “kindred blood” of the American people. Madison’s fellow-citizens had to “excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals and enemies.” Unstable, unreasonable and self-interested government dominated by the passion of a majority rather than the reasoned pursuit of the public good would have only one result: “rendering us in pieces.”
Thinking Through the Citizen’s Role
Madison countered this dismal picture of a faction-riddled government with the strength of the American people who persisted in their pursuit of good government. He wrote that the American people were a people who had used the “suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation and the lessons of their own experience” to protect “private rights and public happiness.” In adopting the new Constitution, the American people were fulfilling their duty to “improve and perpetuate” the work of the previous generation. The American project is designed to use the work that has come before us to pursue the principles that have animated that work all along.
This iterative logic is central to understanding our role as citizens. Our support and opposition, both formal and informal, guide a sometimes clunky process of attaining the principles embedded in our original programming. When we refuse to let go of the idea that good government is worth pursuing, we also align to an even larger project: the work of understanding human experience.
A hopeful note appeared in The Guardian a month after Trump won the election. Rebecca Solnit initiated the essay with an understanding about the relationship between hope and taking action toward a cause:
It is the belief that liberation might be possible that motivates you to make it more possible, and pursuing hope even when it doesn’t lead to the ultimate goal can generate changes that matter along the way, including in yourself.
The explainer at the top of the article assures us that the “American people will stand up for ideals of humanity, from lawyers to tech workers to the California Senate.” And that’s how George Takei knows we would be lost without our willingness to believe in good government. The world knows who we have professed to be and has heard our appeals for good government echo throughout history in places distant from us. They have cited our example when making their own appeals.
In acting up to pursue a cause that matters to us, we serve our country, upholding its founding principles and helping to navigate complex questions or difficult controversies. We stand up for those principles, refusing to let them be whittled down to something less than what has guided us through our tumultuous past. When we persist in standing up for these principles, we realize the hopes of those who have gone before us and make hope possible for all people who seek freedom, equal treatment and self-determination.
George Takei can see the way forward. We are a people who believe good government is a good thing. We won’t recognize ourselves and the world won’t know who we are if we allow the challenge of the moment to take that away.