The great French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu, who may have had more influence on the framers of our Constitution than any other one thinker, wrote famously of three basic kinds of government:
1. Despotism (rule by force)
2. Aristocracy (rule by the few), and
3. Republican Government (rule by the people).
He suggested that each of these forms of government has a principle which supports it and which must be active for it to thrive.
Despotisms, or dictatorships, operate on the principle of fear, with recourse to the use of physical coercion to get what they want.
Aristocracies, or monarchies, operate on the principle of honor, with status or rank being of paramount importance to their subjects.
Republics, or democracies, operate on the principle of virtue, with each citizen demonstrating (through voting or other forms of civic engagement such as forming a group of like-minded people) concern for the interests of his or her fellow-citizens.
These points made a strong impression on me when I first encountered them. It amazed me how Montesquieu was able to take a step back and study our systems of self-rule from the vantage-point of a scientist. (Alexis de Tocqueville is another Frenchman who followed in this approach.) In some chapters of his most influential book, The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu even discusses ways in which different types of soil or climate may determine which form of government that prevails in a given country.
When you read The Spirit of the Laws you can't help but ask how well the form of government prevalent in your own country is functioning.
He makes political science seem so clinical, as if we are merely examining the health of our respiratory system by listening to our breathing in a few standardized places. Just a regular check-up.
But when we perform this check-up on ourselves, we find there are some worrying wheezes and rumbles going on in there. This passage from The Spirit of the Laws particularly chilled me when I first read it back in 1994 (and it does even more today, seven years into the Bush administration's cronyism and ceaseless talk of "tax relief"):
"When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigour; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear. Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice. Formerly the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure; but now this has become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the licence of many."
Yikes. To think this was written some 260 years ago.
I bring up an 18th Century French Enlightenment philosopher now, partly for its own interest, but also because it strikes me as a useful way of reflecting on our approaches to parenting too.
Tolstoy may have opened Anna Karenina with his assertion that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But the truth is that we have to look more closely at the structures of authority, the system of self-rule, adopted in each family, if we want to determine the particular ways it is happy or unhappy.
We don't have elections in my family, thank god. But I would like to think that the active principle supporting our family is virtue -- concern for one another. So I guess I would like to imagine that my own family has the form of a Republic.
My thought is that perhaps family values really do guide people in their politics, beyond the media's focus on the "hot-button" issues gay marriage, abortion, or sex education. Family values are actually based on deeper understandings within each family.
Those who live in a state of fear at home (with the threat of physical punishment) may vote more willingly for a strong executive, a big military build-up, a government which emphasizes security. Giuliani has postitioned himself as the star of this "father knows best" role. The columnist Jimmy Breslin described him as a "small man in search of a balcony," which says it all.
Those who live under extreme strictures of place and status at home ("because I said so!") may vote more willingly for a government run by oligarchs, see corporate influence as a boon, and embrace big tent parties. I would say that Clinton and Romney are vying for this role. Clinton with her obfuscations on the campaign trail, so as to preserve her lattitude once she is our Inevitable Leader, and Romney with his sense of giddy excitement about bringing big business into the center of American life.
Those who live in families which value the views of all members may be more willing to vote for those who emphasize these open, democratic (some would say "socialist") values in public life, in the form of progressive taxation, universal health care, public education, and absolute freedom of speech. I would say that Kucinich lives up to this role the best; though Obama, Edwards, Biden, Richardson, Dodd, and even McCain all make claims to it.
Anyway, I think it's useful to take Montesquieu's approach to look at our own families, and examine both the outward show of our family's interactions, as well as the principle which holds it together.
Every family would no doubt insist that love is what holds them together, but it is more interesting to take a more fine-grained approach and ask what motivates our most common, every-day interactions.
When a father takes it as granted that he "knows best," what does that teach that father's child about his or her role in the world at large?