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A Dutiful Citizen

Gary Hart's quest for a more participatory democracy

Associated Press

Gary Hart, the Democratic presidential candidate I worked for in 1984 and would have supported again in 1988, has been back in the news. The Front Runner, a film that presumes to explain the murky sex scandal that forced him from his presidential run in 1987, came out in late November. Prior to that, James Fallows, like me a longtime admirer of Gary, wrote a piece in The Atlantic speculating—on the basis of a supposed deathbed confession by the unscrupulous Republican operative Lee Atwater—that the initial stage of the imbroglio may have been a setup that Atwater himself engineered.

The renewed attention to these unhappy events should not obscure the important contributions Hart has made over the past 30 years to American government and—even more significant—to American political discourse. He has participated in a panoply of councils and commissions. Most notably, he was co-chair, along with former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, which predicted massive terrorist attacks on American soil, possibly involving airplanes, shortly before 9/11. Such activities—in which he has served the government in his capacity as a private citizen—are very much in keeping with the ethos of civic republicanism, the political-philosophical tradition that, after shuttering his campaign, Hart came to embrace as his own.

The overarching goal of his intellectual journey, he told me recently, was to establish a connection between democracy and citizen participation. His quest led him early on to the work of American historian Gordon S. Wood, who in his writings elaborated on the decisive influence that the republican tradition had on America’s founders. (A review by Wood appears on page 46 of this issue.) Reading the historian, Hart said, “A light went off in my head: Democracy is about rights, republicanism is about duties.” The realization transformed his thinking. “My mantra became, we must protect and secure our rights by the performance of our duties—meaning participation in self-government.” Hart also discovered Jefferson’s concept of the “ward,” or “elementary republic,” as the forum for citizen participation, a unit small enough to mimic the Greek assemblies that governed ancient Athens, where both democracy and the republican tradition were born.

In the early 2000s, Hart repaired to Oxford University, where he earned a D.Phil. in Politics, at the age of 64, with a thesis entitled “Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st Century America.” In calm, measured tones befitting a doctoral dissertation, the work queried whether the United States could still be legitimately classified as a republic. Fourteen years later, Hart presented a more acerbic version of his views on the subject with the 2015 book The Republic of Conscience. Explaining the definition, according to classical republicanism, of “corruption”—government officials putting their own personal interests ahead of those of the general public and the common good—Hart describes the American government as “massively corrupt,” detailing a “permanent political class” consisting of “a network of lobbying, campaign fund-raising, and access to policy makers in administrations and lawmakers in Congress ... based purely and simply on special and narrow interests.”

The examiners of Hart’s Oxford thesis had written, “Hart clearly believes that the Jeffersonian picture is one of increasing relevance to the United States, and the thesis is at times a powerful piece of advocacy for that picture.” What, exactly, is the “Jeffersonian picture”? Historically, successful republics had always been small in size, but the Founding Fathers were establishing a republic they hoped would eventually stretch sea to sea. To address the problem of size, they borrowed Montesquieu’s concept of a federated republic, which they combined with a system of electoral representation, a relatively new political concept at the time. Jefferson, however, criticized this plan for not creating any public space for direct citizen participation in government, and later he advocated for very small townships— his “ward” republics—in which citizens could debate and settle issues specific to their area alone, such as those involving local public schools.

Enter, again, James Fallows. He and his wife, Deborah, published an important book this year, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The Fallows sought out, in towns and smaller cities across the country, examples of people working across ideological lines to accomplish projects of benefit to the whole community. “Overwhelmingly,” the couple observe, “the focus in successful towns was ... on practical problems a community could address. The more often national politics came into local discussions, the worse shape the town was likely to be in.” And the most successful towns, they concluded, were those with the most distinctive, innovative schools—the kind, one may hazard to guess, a ward republic might be wont to create.