For all they achieved, the Founders and the U.S. Constitution failed to create a permanent space where citizens could participate in political freedom by expressing, discussing, and deciding issues relevant to their lives and communities. (In their defense, the eighteenth-century Founders could count on a vibrant local political life among citizens in local townships and meeting halls.) The people were excluded from the very experience that had led to the Revolution in the first place, namely, that of robust political discourse and activity among the revolutionaries Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Paine, Franklin. Instead of instituting or founding a permanent place for this local political activity, the people were given the “opportunity” to vote every two or four years (“with the exception of the American primaries,” as Arendt duly notes).
Arendt analyzed the history of revolutions. Whether we call them Jefferson’s “elementary republics,” Paris communes, German Räte, or Russian soviets, all refer to what Arendt terms the council system: namely, those groups of citizens that have arisen spontaneously in every revolution from the eighteenth century through the twenty-first, which were ignored by the revolutionary party leaders and the state or else regarded as temporary, transitional movements. They are rather, as Hannah Arendt described them in On Revolution, an entirely new form and organ of government, with a new public space for freedom, which was constituted and organized during the course of the revolution itself.
Jefferson realized this late in life, along with the remedy, and said of these “elementary republics” or “citizen councils”: “The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable, and well-administered republic.”
Because the twentieth century blindly accepted the nineteenth-century ideology’s belief that scientific knowledge and its technological application held the answer to all human problems, we abandoned our heritage of revolutionary freedom through political action. As Arendt defines it, “political freedom, in general, means the right to participate in government, or it means nothing.” To achieve and maintain this kind of freedom, to participate in government, must mean more than simply rubber-stamping preselected candidates every two or four years—preselected according to economic, professional, religious, scientific, social or artistic criteria—chosen, that is, by every standard imaginable except the only one that could matter: the political. Authority, equality, freedom, and justice are all intrinsically political in nature, not economic, scientific, social … The trust in and reliance upon a heritage of revolutionary freedom through the joint action of citizens who recognize their shared moral and political equality—and not our destiny or religious persuasions, our military might or our influence—is the whole of our uniqueness. This is what we have lost. We lost it by the end of the nineteenth century, if not before. This is what Arendt called “the lost treasure of the revolutions.”
There is an additional benefit to conducting our political life according to Arendtian standards shaped by moral equality, which Arendt describes in On Revolution as a freedom “unknown to Rome or Athens and which is politically perhaps the most relevant part of our Christian heritage.”
If we conduct the political life of our local communities according to the principle of equality in our shared moral dignity, and select our leaders for their political virtues, chosen not from above by technocrats, parliaments, or corporate entities, nor from below by a grassroots, populist, “base,” but by their peers, then only those who have demonstrated that they care for more than their private happiness and are concerned about the state of the world would have the right to be heard in the conduct of the business of the republic. However, this exclusion from politics should not be derogatory, since a political élite is by no means identical with a social or cultural élite. The exclusion, moreover, would not depend upon an outside body; if those who belong are self-chosen, those who do not belong are self-excluded. And such self-exclusion, far from being arbitrary discrimination, would in fact give substance and reality to one of the most important negative liberties we have enjoyed since the end of the ancient world, namely, freedom from politics.