Many of us are having the same conversations. Our country appears to be in a mess and we are being torn apart on many fronts. How do we get back to normal? These questions recall Benjamin Franklin’s admonition when asked what form of government Americans had framed. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
We want to keep it. The question is how.
Our country was founded on a common set of principles that require us to overcome fear, ideology and division to reach rational decisions based on facts.
This is referred to, broadly, as the Rule of Law. Dating back to early philosophers and the Magna Carta, the Rule of Law stands for due process, free speech and assembly and equal justice. It is a commitment that no one is above the law, and everyone is entitled to the same protections under the law.
The core concept of due process — that everyone is entitled to a fair hearing and equal treatment — is deeply embedded in the Rule of Law. These principles protect all of us, and our democracy.
But when societies are in the grip of division or fear, it is easy to sacrifice such principles for short-term gains. History is replete with examples of societies that discarded fairness and due process to achieve specific results. Typically, the vulnerable suffer most when the Rule of Law is set aside.
As we stare into the current abyss of the partisan divide and deep-seated distrust, we should call on our basic democratic principles to lead us out. By reinforcing the ideals presented by the Rule of Law, we can reclaim our shared values and take a stand for decency.
So how does that apply in daily life?
Today, it is very easy to retreat to our preconceived notions and ideological bubbles when controversy arises. Think about how this works.
We learn about an accusation, often over the internet. Within minutes, we are bombarded with analysis about which “side” benefits, and who believes the accusation to be true. Talking heads begin to dissect the issue and quickly advance theories about how it can affect the political left or right.
All before we actually know anything.
The Rule of Law challenges us to push back on this kind of rush to judgment. Indeed, the principle of due process mandates that we treat everyone involved fairly — from the accuser to the accused to all others involved — in determining what occurred. The Rule of Law requires that we set aside our social and political beliefs and engage in critical analysis of the facts.
A fair process that slows down our judgment as we engage in critical thinking protects us all.
But you have to work at this. Due process is easy when you can relate to the accused. The challenge comes when allegations are made against someone with whom you disagree. It is then that we are most compelled to demand fairness and process.
Each of us can resist the impulse to judge before knowing. And we can demand that our leaders and commentators do the same.
This principle is not conservative, or liberal. It does not serve one side of our political or social divide or the other. It exists to protect us all.
The alternative, quite simply, is mob rule. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln warned against a “mobocratic spirit” that preyed on the most vulnerable. Lincoln’s warning was ignored most prominently during the dark days of McCarthyism, when mere allegations ruined lives and set friend against friend.
More recently, I witnessed firsthand how a rush to judgment leads people to ignore facts to reach a result. As United States attorney, I oversaw investigations into highly controversial matters and interacted with people who had vested interests in the outcomes.
Many were well-intentioned, but they often wanted a result that fit their preconceived notions.
Someone I respected once expressed the concern that an investigation would end with the “wrong result.” I was surprised. There is no “wrong result,” I said, if we uncover the truth. Sadly, this seemed like a foreign concept.
If we do not follow this fundamental tenet, we risk falling deeper into the abyss, judging people by who they are, not by what they actually did.
A group of Minnesotans have begun discussing how to incorporate the Rule of Law in our daily lives and our public discourse. Tentatively called the Minnesota Rule of Law Project, we cover the political spectrum, but share a common desire for fairness and justice in how our country addresses difficult questions. Join us (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Each of us can stand up for these principles in our lives. Each of us can demand that all involved in any controversy be treated with fairness and dignity. In this way, each of us can contribute to solving at least some of what ails us at this precarious time.
Some credit Joseph Welch, an attorney for the Army, with breaking the spell of McCarthyism. At a Senate hearing, Welch famously challenged McCarthy by saying: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
We could use a Joseph Welch moment now. Let us recommit to the Rule of Law, and demand decency and fairness in our public discourse.
Andrew M. Luger, of Minneapolis, is a partner at the Jones Day law firm and former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.