As a commissioner on the Frederick Charter Review Commission, I was focused on Frederick’s governing institutions, working to recommend improvements to our young charter government by making it more dynamic, responsive and accountable.
Institutions matter. Governing institutions are more than the organizations, departments and agencies that make up the government. They are the rules of the game and the norms through which that game is played. They define our local republic.
The American system (or the social contract that binds it) is a collection of democratic republics at the state and local level: one made of many. These republics are held together by citizen participation. Government responsiveness, transparency and accountability facilitate that participation: the consent of the governed. Without this combination, the republic loses legitimacy. Maintaining the institutions and norms that are the foundation of this republic is how we keep it healthy.
But institutions are vulnerable. By their very nature, they are designed by and made up of people. They require tending and continued renewal from those people. As such, our republic is subject to the whims, character and buy-in of two groups. One is the actors and stakeholders that operate within this system: politicians, government officials, etc. Second is the public, or the governed.
Institutions matter, but people matter more.
Government actors who operate without principle and virtue can erode even the best-designed institution. We cede a lot to our political leaders. Processes that assure accountability, responsiveness and transparency are require to check our leaders, but even these can be subverted. We need virtuous leaders to ensure the principles we hold dear stay true.
This lesson redounded throughout many of our commission meetings. I was perpetually worried about the “worst case scenario,” in which actors might not act in good faith, trust might break down and institutions decay. However, any institution will always be vulnerable to such possibilities.
People matter. As long as we’re picking individuals to represent us in government, that will remain constant. Part of the nature of our republic is that we rely on individuals to engage in politics. Most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. It would be a tragedy of our democratic republic if elections didn’t have consequences. Our political leaders can either invest in the institutions that bind our way of life or degrade and manipulate them.
It doesn’t begin with our political leaders. In our system, political leaders are end products, not prime movers. They are symptoms of our society. We, the people, are both the illness and the cure. Citizens define our leaders and our leaders define our institutions.
One might think that in this era of moral relativism, virtue would be a quaint concept of the past. But citizens acting virtuous in our everyday lives and demanding similar behavior of our leaders is paramount. Virtue is like a muscle. Left unused, it will devitalize. If citizens do not act with virtue, they will be unprepared when it is most needed. Our leaders and institutions are ultimately a reflection of us.
It’s up to us to demand virtue in our leaders and express virtue in our community. Only by improving our political culture can we strengthen our institutions and our republic. This starts at an individual level. It is how we treat each other, in person or in the morass of social media. It starts by being active and respecting others opinions. We can’t be bogged down in the gripes and protestations of past grievances. We must treat our neighbors as neighbors and not enemies.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking from a pious perch. I haven’t been perfect. But all we can ask of ourselves is to do better. It’s a change that’s possible. We are the ultimate bulwark against the erosion of institutions that are critical for the health of our republic.
The Charter Commission has provided its recommendations to the County Council. Wherever one stands on those recommendations or the existence of the Charter at all, it is imperative that those who govern and those who are governed to maintain a virtuous political culture that can elevate the institutions that define our republic in Frederick.
**Dylan Diggs was recently a commissioner to the 2019-2020 Frederick County Charter Review Commission. They will present their recommendations to the County Council on March 10 at 5:30 PM**