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A Missing Word Vital to Freedom

Raphael-Plato-and-AristotleThere is a word missing from our modern vocabulary. It is in the dictionary, but it is hardly ever used anymore.

The word is “polity,” and it carries with it a whole worldview that has been lost since the American founding.

The word comes from Aristotle, who said there are six main types of government. Three of these are monarchy, aristocracy and polity, and these are good governments because the leaders have to follow the same laws as the people.

The three bad kinds of government are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy, because in such systems the top leaders get away with a different set of laws that gives them special perks and benefits.

Over time, Aristotle taught, all societies follow a predictable pattern: they start out as monarchies, then become tyrannies, then aristocracies, then oligarchies, then polities, then democracies, and then back again to monarchies. Depending on the nation, some of these stages pass very quickly, others last a long time.

The American founders left tyranny and passed through the stages of aristocracy and oligarchy (mainly at the state level) to create a polity.

By the way, some translators have translated Aristotle’s word “polity” as either “constitutional” or “republic.”

A constitutional government is one run by its constituents, the people.

Likewise, a republic is made up of the “res publica,” meaning that the public is the king/ruler. Both of these have connotations of government by the people, but polity adds several layers of meaning that were important in the American founding.

First, a polity exists where the constitution mixes the strengths of monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy into one government.

In the American model, the executive branch is monarchial, the Senate is aristocratic, the Court is oligarchic, and the House, states and rule by the people is democratic.

Note that the framers made three branches of government democratic while the other three styles only have one branch each.

Second, in a polity the regular people, the citizens, are actively involved in governing the nation. If the people stop paying attention to everyday governance, the society stops being a polity.

Third, finally, a polity is only a polity if the overall goal of the people and the society as a whole is to be good — and to do good. When any other priority rules (such as getting ahead materially, becoming stronger than other nations, etc.) the society stops being a polity.

This third meaning of polity is important. For example, it was once normal to say the following in a sentence: “Do we want our nation to be a polity?”

This meant, “Do we want our nation to be ruled by the people, set up as a mixed government with separate powers and checks and balances, and is our main goal to be a good people and do good in the world?”

To infuse all three meanings of polity into the word republic, one would need to use qualifiers like “under God,” “liberty and justice for all,” “in God we trust,” “insure domestic tranquility,” “constitutional federal democratic republic,” and so on.

A number of people have become concerned in recent decades that Americans have stopped calling their nation a republic and increasingly referred to it as a democracy. This is a valid concern, but the damage was already done when we lost the widespread understanding of polity.

For example, while a democracy can use the masses to promote all kinds of bad policies that hurt the people — simply by convincing the masses of untruths and creating a mob mentality — a republic is less likely to be easily swayed.

A republic denotes a representative democratic structure where the leaders are usually wiser than the masses, but the masses have the choice of who the leaders will be (see Federalist Papers 10,14,39).

But only republics that are polities have proven better than other kinds of democracies or monarchies.

For example, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or the People’s Republic of China were/are republics but not polities. Likewise the Republic of Cuba or the Republic of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Thus, the founding generation established the United States as a republic, but the kind of republic was a polity.

In other words, a democracy exists where the people rule, rather than some group of elites. A republic occurs where the people rule through their freely-chosen representatives.

A polity exists where the people rule through their freely-chosen representatives with a constitution that separates, checks and balances government powers, and have an overarching national focus on being moral, good people and maintaining a transparent, open, moral, virtuous government.

The loss of this ideal, even the concept of how it should be, has cost us a great deal. A nation whose government spies on its own people, uses drones and many other technologies to watch its people, and claims that national security requires it to do such things, is not a polity.

In such a system, the people don’t need to worry about being moral, and they won’t hold their government to moral standards. Such a society is in decline, pure and simple.

Freedom is steadily declining. And most people have no idea what the alternative could be. They haven’t even heard of a polity.

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A Missing Word Vital to Freedom