The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is symbolic of the slow death of democracy. She represented a model of public service set by the Founders, who in turn were inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans and their concept of civic virtue.
The word “virtue” sounds quaint now — and this indicates what’s gone wrong. But Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and their peers believed strongly that if a democratic republic were to survive, the people must choose virtuous leaders, in the Greek sense: leaders who were educated, excellent, and ethical. Washington was the contemporary model. He was called the American Cincinnatus, after the great Roman general and public servant.
In the time since, we’ve had other presidents who rose to that standard, like Lincoln or FDR, and most at least believed in it. But for a variety of reasons — including the poisonous legacy of slavery (tainting even Washington), the rejection by Andrew Jackson of the Founders’ republicanism in favor of “give the people what they want” populism, the rapacity of the westward expansion and the industrial Gilded Age, the ever-increasing influence of media and entertainment, and the postwar boom in prosperity and consumerism — the Founder’s classical ideal of civic virtue has been replaced by our modern religion of the self.
In place of a President Washington, we have a President Trump. We’ve gone from an American Cincinnatus to an American Nero.
And from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to whoever looks likely to help Trump’s re-election — in other words, to gratify his personal needs of the moment. That’s the standard that now, under Trump, rules over all others.