Sunday, July 31, 2011
What Kind of Government Does the Constitution Give Us?
When the Founding Fathers hammered out the words of the U.S. Constitution it was not their first attempt to create “a more perfect union”. The first U.S. attempt – the Articles of Confederation – had proven a failure. Our forefathers were very likely less confident that they had succeeded in finding the ultimate formula for “a more perfect union” than they are portrayed as being by some in our society today. They were hopeful. They were also fearful. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of government the Constitution created, reputedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
There has been no end to the arguments, since Franklin’s time, about the nature of our government, both as it was conceived, and as it has evolved. We hear the terms “Republican” and “Democracy” flung about as synonyms at times, as complimentary systems at other times, and as irreconcilable opposites of each other at still other times. It is not altogether certain which, if any, of these concepts of “Republicanism” Franklin had in mind. He had so much to say about so many things that he often used both sides of his mouth to say it, leaving us uncertain which side spoke for his real beliefs. But he was certainly right to point out that, whatever it was that the Constitution created, it was not a foregone conclusion that it would succeed.
Ours is not the first era of U.S. history in which the success of our system seemed in dire jeopardy. However, I would argue that we are at a point where serious damage has been done, at least, to the principle that elected representatives can be trusted, in times of great need, to put aside partisanship, and work for the good of the nation as a whole.
We hear much these days about “the people” speaking, presumably through elections, and representatives feeling obliged to respond to what their constituents “said” at the last election. Compromise has become a dirty word for a significant portion of our elected officials. They would rather pull the house down on their own heads – and on the heads of all the rest of us – than move one inch off the position they took in their most recent election campaign.
There are a number of flaws in that kind of thinking. First, it assumes that the position they took at the most recent election cycle was wise and defensible. Second, it assumes that the people who voted for them did so because of the position they took on the particular issue about which they are refusing to compromise. Third, it assumes that those who did agree with them still do so in light of changing conditions. Fourth, it ignores the fact that almost no election reveals the “will of the people” on any one particular issue.
Lets look at that fourth flaw more closely: 1) most citizens decide upon a candidate either out of party loyalty, in which case their position on any issue is irrelevant, or based upon a range of issues, making it impossible to know what they “said” about the particular issue about which the representative is refusing to budge. 2) in almost all elections in the U.S. it is rare that more than fifty percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot, so even if a candidate received 100% of the vote, his/her election would hardly amount to a “mandate” from the people. 3) most elections are decided by a plurality of no more than 60%, more often about 50-52%, meaning that the candidate very likely was elected by about 25% of the eligible voters in his/her district. How then, can he/she claim that “the people have spoken”? Of course it is nonsense to say so.
If Franklin were asked today, what kind of government we have he would probably say, “a Democratic Republic if you can keep it.” The “democratic” part of the equation gives the greatest number of adults an opportunity to say who will represent them in the halls of government. The “republican” part of the equation should mean that those elected will represent the best interests of their constituents to the best of their ability. But only fools would assume that they can know what “the people said” based on the last election. Wise representatives will say, “I’ve been elected to do what is best for the nation and my district. If that means I must change my mind, or compromise, then that is what I must do.”
The path our politics is on is not sustainable. It is the folly of ideologues, egotists, and opportunists to believe that it is. We need men and women of principled wisdom, foresight, flexibility, humility, and selflessness. Does anyone know where we can find them?