Declare your independence from groupthink

This Fourth of July celebrate your freedoms by embracing your right to the contents of your own mind and conscience.  The Founders themselves knew that passions and factions would always run high, but the alternative to a free society would be far worse.  Their legacy is your right to say no to groupthink.

The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday.  The United States is the most consequential country in the history of the known universe, and honoring her birth seems an absolute necessity in today’s polarized age.  The official declaration of independence from Great Britain, however, is only part of America’s story and heritage.  The Founders, in words immortalized by Thomas Jefferson, had a larger goal in mind:  The independence of the individual from the arbitrary tyranny of the state, unlocking the potential and opportunity in each of us around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  In two simple, readily accessible and easy to read sentences, the Founders completely inverted the rationale of every government in the known world at the time, perhaps every government that had ever existed.  No longer would government exist to control the people; government would instead be constituted to protect the individual rights of each and every person.  Further, governments are only legitimate because of the powers citizens impart to them.

To say this was a radical, untested idea is an understatement on par with the overstatement that the Battle of Lexington and Concord was started with the “shot heard around the world.”  Simply put, no collection of politicians had ever said the like, and it’s even more amazing when you consider that the Founders themselves weren’t entirely sure what it meant at the time.  Several colonies had written or proposed systems for the consent of the governed and the protection of rights, but even there the pickings were slim.  In fact, the majority of state Constitutions for the thirteen colonies were ratified after Independence was declared.  Pennsylvania and Delaware in 1776, others following later like South Carolina in 1778.  Nor were these Constitutions without criticisms of their own.  None other than John Adams described the Pennsylvania Constitution “so democratical that it must produce confusion and every evil work.”

In short, no one, not even the Founders themselves truly understood what translating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence to the day-to-day governance of a growing populace across a huge landmass actually looked like, much less how to win the war against Britain in the first place.  The Constitution, the longest serving governing document in the history of the world, would not be ratified for another 12 years, not until June 21, 1788, eight years of which were devoted to fighting the war.  In the interim, the revolutionary movement had only the creaky, antiquated Articles of Confederation and the steadfast belief in their idea of a free society.

Even after the Constitution was fully ratified, when the colonies were finally bound together in a national government by New Hampshire becoming the ninth state to sign on, many were still dissatisfied that natural, inalienable rights were fully protected. It would be another 3 years before the Bill of Rights was enacted, the first ten and most famous amendments to the new Constitution.  The first and most well known of those bears repeating here.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  Again, the language is simple and straightforward, easy to understand even for those not schooled in government speak.  The implications were no less profound than the words of the Declaration itself:  The Founders declared that, in this new country, this magnificent, radical experiment, people had a fundamental right to their own minds and conscience.

Step back and think about that for just a moment.  Human society is generally believed to have begun in Mesopotamia in 4,000 BCE, but it took almost 6,000 years for a government to accept that citizens have a right to their own minds and the Founders went even further than that.  The fledgling government didn’t merely accept this idea, grudgingly.  The government itself was built on the very concept that certain freedoms were guaranteed and must be protected no matter what, forever changing the relationship between citizen and state, and ultimately inspiring the rest of the world to follow suit, however haltingly.  Democracy and democratic values are the norm now in Europe and many other regions, and the aspiration of the remainder of the world that still lives in tyranny more than two centuries later.

Of course, as we are reminded almost daily, the democratic republic forged at the time of the Founding was imperfect and the freedoms enshrined didn’t include everyone.  My purpose today is not to debate those points, as this ground has been well covered.  Instead, I want to discuss how these freedoms are imperfect in another, more subtle way because humans are imperfect creatures and our minds are not purely rational, number crunching machines.

In particular, we all suffer from unconscious bias to some degree, your humble, wannabe author included.  It is a defect in the human mind to presume we are correct even when we’re not and we consume information through the prism of our existing beliefs.  This has the unfortunate, but unavoidable effect of leading to groupthink and ultimately tribalism.  Whether we’re talking sports, politics, leisure activities, even cars, games, clothes, and just about everything else, the great majority of us pick a team and stick with it.  We are more prone to believe the ideas espoused by our team and to discount those espoused by others.  We see ourselves and thus our team as the heroes in our story and the competing teams as the villains, even as we are aware this behavior isn’t entirely rational.

The Founders themselves were acutely aware of this phenomenon.  Even as they embarked on their experiment in republican governance, they feared both passions and factions.  For example, James Madison wrote, “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to humans passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for the common good.”  Does that sound familiar?  At the same time, Mr. Madison believed these effects could be mitigated and that the alternative was much worse.  Writing in Federalist Number 10, “There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.  It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease.”

They addressed these related problems in two unrelated ways, one practical and one taken largely on faith.  On the practical side, they placed limits on the powers of the government to restrict basic freedoms regardless of who is in power.  Even if a political movement achieved a majority, there were certain things they simply cannot accomplish.  Further, they placed supermajorities and even greater requirements on certain functions of government, impeaching a President, ratifying a treaty, and amending the Constitution itself.  This, of course, runs counter to a direct democratic principle where a single additional vote grants almost limitless power.  Putting this another way, 50.0000001% of the populace cannot vote to take away your rights. As Madison put it, “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”

On faith, they trusted the wisdom of the crowd, that is that any individual person might be incorrect, but thousands of people making decisions in their interest and the interest of the public good would ultimately arrive at the right answer, or at least reduce the passions and factions.   Turning to Madison in Federalist Number 10 again, “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended…Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

What does that mean to us today when it seems we are more polarized than ever (even though we’re not) and it’s all faction, all the time?

First, we should question ourselves and our “team” as much as we question the opposing side.  This shouldn’t imply that we can free ourselves from unconscious bias, but we can all make a concerted effort, especially in an age with endless information at our fingertips, to seek and consider alternative points of view, and to acknowledge that many of the people we strenuously disagree with are reaching their conclusions in as good a faith as we are.  Just as we are quite convinced we’re right, so are they.

Second, I think we should all consider that we have more common interests than it may seem on the surface.  We have differences of opinion on the best means to achieve the American ideal, but I believe the ideal itself is far more widely shared than otherwise.  A huge majority in this country wants people to live free from discrimination, to have access to opportunity, and the chance to build a better life.  In short, they want America to be great.

No one can convince me otherwise, and that is something to celebrate.  So, declare your independence from groupthink this Fourth of July.  There’s nothing wrong with being on a “team,” but use the rights we inherited from our Founders to think for yourself and make up your own mind at all times.

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