01/02/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Grading "We the People" on Self-Government

A new year has dawned on this once-and-future great nation, and We the People need to take stock of the state of our shared responsibility for self-governance. The best rubric for this assessment is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In spite of some opinions that suggest the Constitution has outlived its usefulness, it's still the best framework we have for the world's longest-running experiment in democracy. Let's consider these plain words that define the purpose of our exercise in self-government:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (Preamble, U.S. Constitution)

How are we doing, People? Let's grade ourselves on the elements of good government:

A More Perfect Union: Our elected representatives in Congress have earned the dubious distinction of being the least productive Congress in decades. The inability of our representatives to work together led us all to the edge of the "fiscal cliff" --- now forestalled for a few months due to last-minute legislation, but a threat that remains quite serious for the nation because of the deeply divisive fault lines running through the legislature and body politic.

Meanwhile, unable to forge a permanent solution to the economy, the response of thousands of Americans to mass shooting has been to buy out all of the gun shops in sight. As a national mood barometer, the almost 89 percent guns-per-capita rate (the highest in the world by a wide margin) reveals a nation more poised to kill than to compromise. Our union is fractured among many fault lines. We are, increasingly, known by what divides us rather than what unites us.

Grade: "D" on the "more perfect union" idea. We need to work a lot harder on the ability to compromise, to cooperate, to work toward peaceful co-existence. We need to stop fetishizing unyielding political positions and start extolling the art of compromise as the only way to run a nation of 300 million-plus diverse citizens. And we have to confront the increasingly real threat of vigilantism that will could truly shatter our fragile current union.

Establish Justice: What is "Justice" in 21st-century America? In a nation where more than one-third of the children living in sight of the Capitol dome go to bed hungry, very rich people now have unfettered rights to spend billions on efforts to purchase the seats of government that should belong to all the people, not just the wealthy. One percent of the population has grown significantly wealthier in recent years while joblessness, homelessness and poverty rise among the rest of the population.

"Justice" in this moment of our nation's life is, too often, about "getting mine, too" in which individuals find themselves pitted against each other, and against more powerful monied interests, rather than having equal opportunity to share in the blessings of liberty. The frontier notion of "Justice" as retribution for real or perceived dangers or even slights leads citizens to arm themselves at an alarming rate. The moral idea of Justice as an ethical principle of fairness that undergirds the good society is not widely understood or embraced in the popular culture.

Grade: "D" on the "Justice" concept. We need to think a lot harder about how to help those in need and a lot less about how to grab all the goodies for ourselves.

Provide for the Common Defence: The United States has spent more than $4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. That's not counting the cost of Homeland Security, the TSA, and other agencies spawned in the wake of 9/11. How effective is this investment? So far, we have not had any further terrorist attacks in the U.S., and many have been thwarted by the increased vigilance. However, the effectiveness of the wars is dubious.

Grade: "C" for "Common Defence." The grade could have been higher if the Taliban and al-Qaeda really were vanquished, but we leave Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of their own citizens dead or wounded, tens of thousands of our own military personnel dead or wounded, treasures of antiquity destroyed and some of the most intractable problems of terrorism unresolved.

Promote the General Welfare: Somewhere along the line, the citizens who claim some kind of heritage with the original Boston Tea Party skipped their history classes. Otherwise, they would have realized that the original Tea Partiers were not about debilitating the federal government or ending taxation, but rather, about the ability to elect their own representatives to make prudent decisions on behalf of the people. The original representatives did just that, and recognized that promotion of the "general welfare" was in fact, one of the main purposes of government.

Since the idealistic days of the late 18th century, the word "welfare" has taken on a thoroughly disreputable meaning, implying laziness and dependency on handouts. That's not at all what it means. But "welfare" does mean caring for the general health and well being of all citizens, and combined with the concept of justice, extending additional help to those who need it so that everyone can participate effectively in the society. A government that works to "promote the general welfare" is working to ensure a functional, effective nation. A government that truly promotes the general welfare will also protect its citizens from wanton harm by outlaws armed with powerful weapons. Controlling weapons is part of government's responsibility to promote the general welfare, which is also about promoting a culture of peace, nonviolence and solidarity for all citizens. And, surely, a government that promotes the general welfare would find a way to help the victims of a devastating hurricane.

Grade: "F" for "General Welfare." When children and firefighters lie dead at the hands of people in possession of appalling weapons, and when the prevalent response in some places is for people to buy more weapons, we have reached a cultural nadir and national crisis of self-government. The dystopian vision of a pervasive culture of "good guys with guns v. bad guys with guns" is as bleak a view of this nation as any Cormac McCarthy novel (see The Road).

The paralysis of government on the issue of gun control is a national shame. Additionally, the nation is witnessing an astonishing wave of civil passive aggression and selfishness in the actions of governors and employers who seem determined to undermine health care reform. A nation that arms itself to the teeth while refusing access to healthcare for millions is breaching the most fundamental obligations of self-government.

Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity: Our obligations as citizens of this nation include ensuring that the best of our society can survive any given political season. Freedom does not mean just living for ourselves in this moment. The price of our freedom is the responsibility to make sure that all inhabitants of this society have equal opportunity to enjoy the advantages and comforts of the richest, most well-educated nation in history. Our most precious stewardship is to ensure that our children live long enough, are educated well-enough, and are sufficiently secure to be able to transmit the values of our culture to their children and succeeding generations.

Grade: "C" on "securing liberty for our posterity." For many Americans, we've done pretty well for ourselves to this point, though millions remain on the margins. But we now face the grim prospect of a future society that is more fearful, more violent, less generous of resources and spirit, perhaps less innovative and, therefore, less generative of the historic strengths of large vision, deep resilience, broad idealism and noble purpose that once made America great.

That's a pretty ugly report card as we start this new year. Hopeless? No. There's still time for the People to pull out of this "senior slump" and improve those grades. In fact, there's no choice -- we must resolve to find the strength, the fortitude and the common willpower to do it, just as the contentious and bitterly divided citizens and leaders of 1789 managed to set aside so many differences to establish the original Constitution of the United States.

It's not just up to President Obama, or leaders of the House and Senate, or governors or mayors. Ultimately, the health and future of this nation are up to the real deciders -- We the People. We can decide to stay in a protracted state of combat and dysfunction, or we can lay aside the weapons of violence and irreconcilable conflicts to work together to rebuild that "more perfect union" and its essential elements: justice, defense, welfare, liberty not only for ourselves but truly for our posterity.