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Sunday, June 16, 2013
History ... Politics ...

I am not a Constitutional scholar like President Obama, but I did take a class in Constitutional Law while in law school (many years ago), and I mostly stayed awake in my high school and college American history classes when the Founding Fathers were discussed. Plus I’ve read a few things here and there about early American history, so I have a general sense of what the theory is behind the way that our government is shaped.

In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers liked the established local and state governments, and were quite worried about adding a third layer on top of this. But they knew that a federal government was needed, so they tried to design a system with “checks and balances”, as to avoid the bad, tyrannical things that an un-checked national leadership could do. Democracy was a key feature of this new federal system, as to maintain the buy-in of the common man (and yes, for the Founding Fathers it indeed was man, not woman; and white man, no Native Americans or slaves from Africa or elsewhere).

And yet, the common man could only have so much input. The Founders clearly did NOT want anything approaching pure democracy. They clearly felt that the big decisions need to be left to a small elite group of men (yes, once again, men, white men — it would take almost two centuries to fix that limitation). These elite men (the President, the Supreme Court, Senators, and to a lesser degree, Congressmen) would be answerable to the common man through regular elections; regular, but not TOO regular. Pure democracy laid an egg in ancient Greece (and in California, with its “proposition” voting system), and wasn’t going to rear its attractive but ultimately unmanageable head here in the New World.

The Founders tacked on a Bill of Rights as an additional layer against the new system getting away from “the people” and morphing into a self-interested dictatorship. This Bill limited what the federal government could do in charging and prosecuting citizens with crimes; dictatorships ancient and modern have made good use of criminal laws for their own tyrannical purposes. The government also couldn’t censure anyone’s public expression of opinion, nor choice and practice of religion; there wasn’t going to be a state ideology or religion that one strayed from at their peril.

And as to that Second Amendment thing . . . people still argue what it does or doesn’t mean. But to me it seems pretty simple. The Founders wanted to make sure that the subjects of the new federal government (the responsible white males, anyway) could keep guns, as to keep this potentially powerful form of government humble. The Second Amendment maintained a shadowy threat, that if the federal government ever got too uppity, too remote from the people’s interests, too self-centered and self-righteous, it would need to worry that armed insurrection could result. An out-of-control federal government still could not (according to the Bill of Rights) seize all guns from the populace, as this would take away an overarching right spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, i.e. that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”.

Back in the late 18th Century, having just survived a tough war of independence against the British monarchy, many Americans still took that idea seriously.

The US Constitution is a brilliant and celebrated document, one that has been flattered by imitation all over the world. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the federal government that has emerged under the Constitution’s guidance is going to remain viable into the future. Our nation is facing many crises today that go right to the heart of the question of just how do you successfully, justly, optimally and reliably govern a complex nation-state in the high-tech, internationally connected 21st Century world? Or even, CAN you successfully, justly, optimally and reliably govern a nation state in that world? Is there an optimal plan (as we thought our style of constitutional democracy was, and hopefully still is)? Or is it more a matter of luck, culture, local conditions, and immediate circumstances? All of these things have become VERY contingent and fast-changing in the modern world.

Our nation has been upset lately by a variety of actions on the part of the federal government. Several years ago, many people got upset that the federal government was acting too fast and too unfairly in implementing a health care reform mandate; that the national leadership took too many short-cuts as to get its way. This of course spawned the “Tea Party”; agree or disagree with it (I mostly disagree), you still have to give the people behind this movement credit for their concern with American history and the intentions of the Founders. More recently, reports have surfaced regarding use of federal powers and resources against certain members of the press, and the mis-use of discretionary powers by the nation’s taxation agency (the IRS), allegedly for political purposes.

And now we have the Edward Snowden revelations regarding Federal use of modern technology to access an incredibly wide swath of communications between citizens; not just a sample focused on recognized criminal or enemy suspects, but EVERYONE, EVERY DAY. This is claimed to be needed to keep us safe from the shadowy terrorist networks (or inspired individuals) supported by international groups holding rather strange (to us), un-American ideologies. After 9-11 and the Boston Marathon bombing (and the Detroit underware bomber and Major Hassan at Fort Hood), we know that this isn’t just a mater of paranoia; something is happening around and within our land that could quickly and unexpectedly kill or maim a large number of Americans who otherwise were just going about their daily business.

Oh, and as to that Second Amendment — don’t forget the big push following the Newtown, CT tragedy to vigorously expand Federal restrictions on firearms availability. Obviously this also struck a nerve amidst the populace, as the President’s proposals were rejected by Congress. Still, as with terrorism, there is a real problem regarding an increasingly diverse population that is less and less responsive to unspoken and agreed-to moral principals and community guidance. For a wide variety of reasons, there is a growing threat of “armed terrorism without a cause”, as witnessed in Newtown, Aurora, Virgina Tech, and other places. Gun control might help prevent or slow-down some of this — but with a huge trade-off in terms of central government expansion and power.

So, do we give up the Founder’s notion of keeping the central government humble through a potentially seditious citizenry, in order to insure our safety in an increasingly dangerous world that we don’t entirely understand? Do we compromise our protections against government interference with free expression and privacy (the latter is not specifically spelled out in the Bill of Rights and its Amendments, but has been widely discussed by our Supreme Court), as to keep safe in a highly internationalized United States, a land very different from the “protected by two oceans” nation of old?

And how do we deal with the fact that technology and commerce has given certain individuals incredible powers over political, social and economic affairs, powers that the Founders could not have dreamed of? And even worse, these forces of technology and commerce have empowered corporations far beyond what the Founders might have experienced or imagined, rivaling in power what most governments themselves can do? What chance does the average individual have in shaping her or his world against the intentions of huge, vastly rich and powerful international corporations? And why do we need two and only two behemoth political parties locked in an eternal death struggle for power and glory?

I wish that I had a good answer to these questions. For now, though, all I have are the questions. I would like to think that the “American center” will continue to hold, that our nation has gotten through some terrible situations in the past (such as slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction) and has come through mostly intact. But the world now is changing so fast . . . can our government and our political process keep up? Can ANY government or political leader keep up? And if so, can that government or leader still guarantee the personal freedoms that we have come to expect? And also the economic supports and guarantees that have accumulated over the past 100 years, e.g. Social Security, Medicare and now health insurance? Can we do all of this and be safe against our internal and external enemies? And also deal with the threat that global warming potentially presents to our well-being and security, and to our desire for world-wide justice and progress?

I don’t have an answer. I do have some worry that our Constitution and the associated political and social traditions (e.g., the “two party system”) that are supposed to guide our government are finally being overwhelmed, and something is going to have to give. The federal government is clearly attempting to strengthen itself, well beyond what the Founders would have intended. If Washington were to “go rogue” somehow (as many Republicans claim, falsely thus far), it could do incredible levels of damage with all of its current powers.

And yet, at the same time, all of the power that modern commerce and technology gives to certain individuals and corporations is moving us towards a purer democracy, with all the bad things that can happen when a (hopefully) well-intentioned elite charged with thinking in terms of the good of the whole cedes control to wealthy and powerful interests that want what they want, and demand them immediately. We all have a voice in a pure democracy, but the rich and powerful have the voices that are actually heard. At the same time, we have an increasingly powerful central government that has scary powers, powers greatly exceeding what Hitler or Stalin had at their fingertips.

Most of us have less and less of a say in how this government operates, fewer voices that our leaders would actually take seriously (especially in an age when elections are manageable via interest group collaboration and media technology). Should we continue to hope that the on-going fights between the gorillas, e.g. Fox News vs MSNBC, the DNC versus the GOP House Leadership, Google vs. Facebook, teachers unions vs. the Tea Party, Huffington vs. Drudge, will keep us safe from federal hyper-tyranny, will adequately express our concerns? Or will a modern-day Abraham Lincoln emerge from the tangle? I’m not sure an Honest Abe could survive modern media-driven politics; he was severely and unjustly criticized and demonized by both his own party and his opponents, but the slow nature of print media in his time limited the damage that could be done to him. Fox News or a bad televised debate could have whisked Lincoln from the scene in a flash, were it available in 1860. And as much as I admire Barack Obama and admit his good intentions, I get the feeling that he is being swept away by all of this, that he is not really in control. I’m starting to wonder if anyone even could be at this point.

In sum, there are contradictory processes at work amidst the federal government and the political institutions that develop and select our leadership. What they appear to be causing is chaos, gridlock, the inability to make decisions and do things that benefit the nation as a whole over the long term (while at the same time increasing the ability to immediately benefit certain special interests, the ones with the most power and influence).

Can someone tell me that I’m just imaging this, and that it’s all going to be all right?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:30 pm      

  1. Jim, I’d say a definite NO, you are not imagining things. I myself have been thinking lately of how much change our gov’t is going through. It’s set me to thinking about my 5th grade teacher, who had a great deal of influence on me and who, as I see her, was far ahead of her time. I remember her one day saying to us that “50 years from now” (she was off the mark on that by perhaps 25+ years, but let’s not fuss about that point) “democracy will mean communism and communism will mean democracy”. I find myself thinking lately that she was not good on the number of years, but she may have had the right idea about how our gov’t would change. (Don’t see much change in Russia, though; so maybe she was wrong on that point in addition to the “time” factor.)

    As to whether or not things will be “all right”: I doubt anyone can give an answer at this point.

    A couple of things more specifically: One “mistake” (if it can be called that) about the guns “thing” in the Second Amendment, is that the gov’t at the time of writing the Constitution did not say *how many* guns each person could have. Not being the constitutional scholar you are, I have been under the impression that the common man was allowed to keep his guns, not to keep the gov’t “in its place” but because there was no standing army at the time. Thus, when an army was required, the common man was expected to grab his gun and protect the country in lieu of a standing army. (I find myself wondering just how so many people who are so enamored of the 2nd Amendment would take to grabbing their guns and defending the country, actually putting their own lives on the line.) I have no clue if that is a correct interpretation of why guns were allowed the common man, but it’s one concept that makes sense to me. To tell the truth, and here, obviously, I’m no Constitutional scholar, somehow I find it difficult to believe that our Founding Fathers were willing to allow the common man guns so that they would be able to revolt should the gov’t get “out of hand” as the common man saw it. Seems to me the Founding Fathers didn’t quite have the respect for the *Common* Man that we have today. I’m willing to concede I misunderstand something here.

    I *still* think that a number given of how many guns a person may have would go a long way in helping some of the situations we have nowadays.

    Another thing I see as a problem (and that you mention) is that the Founding Fathers had no clue of what the future would bring in terms of technology. Can you imagine the Founding Fathers thinking that there would be any means of transportation other than the horse? Or satellites that could “capture” messages people sent to one another? Or that people would talk to others on a “phone” that had no visible connections to anything? (The list of things could go on, seemingly, forever.)

    It seems to me that these days we need some way to factor the technological changes (both present ones and future ones we can’t even begin to imagine, I am sure) into the Constitution. I have no clue how this might be done, but I find myself considering the question.

    And when it comes to technological changes, we come to the recent “Snowdon” (sp?) situation. I wonder where the constitutional scholars are who might be considering just how right my 5th grade teacher was. I ponder: *Will* the word “democracy” come to mean “communism” sooner rather than later? Might I even see it in my lifetime? Am I seeing it now? Again, I have no answers; but I wonder about questions.

    As to Obama: I heard an interesting comment on him lately. (I think by someone hawking his latest book; sorry I didn’t pay too much attention to *that* part of it; but I did note what he said about Obama.) His comment about Obama was that our president liked and was good at policy, the more intellectual approach to gov’t. He was *not* good at schmoozing with other politicians, a definite necessity if one is going to actually get things done in Congress. (And here I tho’t of the difference between Obama and Clinton.) Sounded quite right to me.

    Perhaps the problem with governments over the millennia (and ours in particular now) is that none of them made provisions in their Constitutions (or whatever ruling provisions they had for governance) for the inevitable change that would take place in the future.

    I would hope that somewhere there are Constitutional Scholars who are considering changes that both fit the Founding Fathers’ concept of how our country should be governed and fit the massive technological (and other kinds) changes taking place since the last century. MCS

    Comment by Mary — June 17, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

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