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What Sort of Government Have We?
Americans love our country deeply, and when told we’re losing it, nothing can stop us from fighting. But there seems to be a lot of confusion these days about the mission. What exactly did the Founders establish? What is now at risk, and what must be done to preserve the Republic?
Our Founders created a constitutional government that would protect and promote a free and diverse society. This secular system was based on the emerging political philosophy known as “classical liberalism,” which advocated individual liberty, private property, and representative democracy. This philosophy was shared by the American revolutionaries, conservatives and liberals alike. During the drafting and debates, vigorous attempts were made to skew the Constitution left or right, but they were defeated. Those who argue otherwise are misleading you intentionally or are ignorant of historical facts.
In 1789, when these men gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, two groups fought vigorously to dominate the convention. Conservatives wanted another England. Alexander Hamilton argued for a monarch and a House of Lords. They believed in a strong central government ruled by the elite. The liberals feared control by an American aristocracy. They were quite radical in their struggle to limit such power. Benjamin Franklin wanted a single House of Representatives with members elected every year and argued against the presidency, preferring an executive council. The conservatives sought economic growth and civil order. The liberals wanted individual liberty and real assurance that average citizens would have a strong voice in the nation’s affairs. Each side believed passionately in the righteousness of its position and greatly mistrusted the opposition.
The Constitution that emerged from this convention became known as James Madison’s Grand Compromise, a triumph of visionary wisdom over partisan self-interest. Neither the conservatives nor the liberals gave up their beliefs about the best way to lead the nation. What they abandoned was the chance to rig the game, and in return, they accepted a neutral playing field and the chance to compete fairly in the marketplace of ideas. Their political theories would be tested in the public arena and would face a referendum at the ballot box every two, four, or six years. Win or lose, power would transfer peacefully, and the work of governing would continue. If unhappy with the results, citizens could change course in the next election.
To call this system neutral is not quite accurate: Actually, it promoted competition by design. Knowing the dangers of direct democracy and how quickly an impassioned majority can impose its will, both conservatives and liberals wanted a representative democracy. But even an elected majority would be constrained by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. These documents create multiple checks and balances across three branches of government, including presidential vetoes, congressional overrides, a complex amendment process, and independent judicial review, all designed to temper power and ensure that minority voices would be heard. Interestingly, the wealthy conservatives were adamant about this. Already outnumbered, they feared that Thomas Jefferson’s common man, the general population, might seek to suppress their interests.
On the day our Constitution was adopted, Franklin addressed the Convention, saying, “If every one of us in returning to our constituents were to report the objections he has had to it… we might prevent its being generally received and thereby lose all.”1 But the Framers realized that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and their crowning achievement was to make a vigorous democratic process, not partisan ideology, our constitutional mandate.
Our first political parties emerged before the ink was dry on this noble document, and the race was on to reframe its mandate and institutionalize partisan advantage. That our system survives, relatively intact, is a testament to the power of our democratic ideals and the willingness of the American people, generation after generation, to defend them above special interests and partisan beliefs. Without the push-pull of ideas between liberals and conservatives, our nation would be a very different place, one I suggest neither side would like. Unchecked conservatism becomes authoritarian and tyrannical, allowing a small group of the powerful elite to govern with few checks on their actions. Extreme liberalism moves toward socialism, even communism, and delivers control to a different group, government bureaucrats, but still arrives at the same place—tyranny. Pure liberty leads to anarchy, and guess what that vacuum invites? Might makes right, and that equals tyranny.
Political parties attract like minds, and from their earliest moments, our conservative and liberal factions have exhibited rather consistent personalities. My point about the need for balance is made clear if you imagine what happens if a somewhat controlling, authoritarian father has no counterbalance in the mother. He may help a scattered family focus on specific goals but fail to see the drawbacks to his single-mindedness. He will act quickly when threatened, but he can go off half-cocked, refusing to take much-needed advice. Confident that his views are the right ones, he doesn’t tolerate debate or dissent, preferring that his wards march to a single tune. To him, securing the family is more important than promoting the community’s welfare, so in troubled times, he will grab up resources, leaving others to fend for themselves. The mother seeks to balance interests. She cannot be narrowly focused, as the long-term well-being of the family is her goal. She wants each member to be happy and tolerates their unique choices, loving them no matter what. She sees that a healthy community makes her own kids safer when they venture out, so she expands her mission beyond the family circle. But at times, she might listen too long to competing voices and try too hard to make everyone happy. Important missions might be neglected as she tolerates too much input or chaotic behavior. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but at their core, conservatives seek order and liberals pursue freedom. Maintaining a balance produces the healthiest, most productive results over the long run.
Conservative icon Friedrich A. von Hayek was lauded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as one of the intellectuals most responsible for their own political philosophies. His most recognized work is likely The Road to Serfdom. One article they may have missed is entitled Why I Am Not a Conservative. In it, he discusses how political philosophy and personality coincide and the dangers this presents to a real democracy.
Hayek could not come up with a name for his own political philosophy. Writing in 1960 and knowing that the terms “liberal” and “progressive” had been hijacked from their classical meaning, he wasn’t sure what to call himself. But he adamantly rejected the conservative label for several reasons. His observations, objections, and descriptions of what he believed were true American principles are right on target today.
Hayek applauded the Founders’ “courage and confidence, [their] preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” Our first political leaders were progressives in the true sense of the word—designing a future, not clinging to the past. He was frustrated that modern conservatives defend an imaginary status quo despite the inevitability of change. He objected to their tendency to put the brakes on progress without offering a different course. “The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. The critical question for any American is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move, for move we will.”
Hayek noted similarities between modern conservatives and socialists (not liberals): Both groups are content to expand government as long as they are in control. “The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules… he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them… like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds on other people.”
While possessed of strong moral principles, he found that many conservatives do not hold strong democratic convictions. Our system requires healthy debate, willingness to work with political opponents, and respect for our system of government even when that system thwarts certain conservative objectives. Every American should defend theses principles above partisan advantage.
These comments by Hayek were not addressing policy issues—what sort of taxes or regulations we should have or whether an international crisis calls for military intervention. Instead, he was talking about the tendency of conservatives to challenge or ignore our most fundamental constitutional principles when they block certain goals or permit outcomes the group opposes.
Hayek said, “I believe that the conservatives deceive themselves when they blame the evils of our time on democracy. The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power.” That power could reside in an overreaching bureaucracy, or, even worse, might be handed to a single president by congressional decree. Hayek concluded that “it is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.”
He did not address the pros or cons of American liberals; but notably, socialists were his counterpoint to conservatives—the progressives were somewhere in the middle. His criticisms were targeted, but the observations create an essential checklist for a healthy democracy.
In recent years, the partisan attack on our system of government has been relentless. After 9/11, the Bush administration took actions that far exceeded executive authority, building what is now known as a “unitary presidency.” Throughout Bush’s tenure, the Republican-led Congress and Department of Justice served as a rubber stamp, willingly abdicating their power to the executive branch as Americans were spied on, civil and legal rights were curtailed, and martial law was expanded, to list just a few of the questionable, even unconstitutional measures of that time.
There is nothing patriotic about granting such powers to leaders simply because we agree with their positions. There is nothing American about abusing the rule of law or ignoring the Constitution when “our side” is in control. Just as FDR’s Democratic Congress would not let him pack the Supreme Court, and the Republican Party led the push for Nixon’s resignation, true patriots will oppose actions by either party that seek to thwart the democratic process or secure power that exceeds constitutional authority.
Today, many conservatives claim that President Obama is overreaching on health care or stimulus spending, while liberals say the same about his use of military and security powers. If these claims are true, both sides should look in the mirror for the real culprits. Congress cannot claim surprise when succeeding administrations use the power it gave up when it was politically expedient to do so.
International threats and tough economic times always increase social tensions, and the call to restrict freedoms is a predictable response. The battle is twofold; the curtailing of our liberty in the name of security is one concern, but so is the targeting of particular groups within our population. Virtually every ethnic and racial group—the French, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans and others—has been demonized at some point in our history. Most of us would laugh at the notion that a Catholic president might turn over our government to the pope, yet this was a serious concern when John F. Kennedy campaigned in 1960. Today, Hispanics and Muslims are in the crosshairs.
A dramatic shift in our demographics is underway, with Hispanics on target to become a majority in the United States by 2050, and illegal immigration is a major economic and security issue. Since 9/11, global terrorism has dominated our foreign policy, and now, incidents have sparked concern over the rise of homegrown terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalists. These issues should be at the top of our political agenda, but the manner in which they are being addressed is of great concern.
Many politicians play on our fear and anger to score points with their base, while certain commentators do it for ratings, promoting draconian measures and severe crackdowns to demonstrate they are tough on these problems. The prospect of gutting our constitutional protections does not disturb them. Nor is truth an obstacle, as they weave fantastic renderings of our history and produce data from thin air to justify their positions.
A fair number of Republicans now believe that President Obama is a Muslim (he is not), and conservative state legislatures across the country are scrambling to stop an imagined spread of Sharia law. In March 2011, Republican Congressman Peter King launched hearings to investigate the nation’s entire Muslim American community based on its Islamic faith, rejecting efforts to limit his inquiry to radical elements that might actually threaten our security.
Glenn Beck told his Fox News viewers that radical fundamentalists were behind the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and then made extraordinary leaps to tie terrorists to the American left, claiming that our unions are in cahoots with Egyptian radicals. On air, Beck professes to be a student of history and politics as he manufactures evidence to justify outrageous theories and proposals. Yet when interviewed in Forbes magazine in April 2010, Beck was surprisingly candid, saying, “I could give a flying crap about the political process. We’re an entertainment company.” Sadly, many followers, including some Republican officeholders, recite his imaginings as truth. Meanwhile, Beck is laughing all the way to the bank.
It has taken several years for thoughtful conservatives to realize just how destructive a small group of reactionary pundits and politicians can be to their party. It’s the old adage about riding the tiger—sooner or later, you’re going to get eaten. By the spring of 2011, George Will and other respected voices on the right began challenging the credentials of people like Beck, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin as they realized the damage these people were doing to true conservatism and to our constitutional system of government.
I am all for those who challenge entrenched interests on their own side of the aisle while vigorously debating the political opposition. Both political parties are failing the American people and need strong members to shake things up. I do not agree with some of Congressman Ron Paul’s positions, but he uses intelligent, reasoned arguments to defend even unconventional proposals. He has no problem taking on his Republican leaders or challenging entrenched interests that ignore the needs of the American people. His is an important voice in our political debate. But when mavericks choose the easy path—divisive rhetoric, historical falsehoods, and unconstitutional remedies—then they should be marginalized, along with their theories.
In these incendiary times, we should all remember our history. John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts, FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt from Hollywood to the halls of Congress are just a few of the moments that Americans now view with shame. An attack on our pluralistic democracy and constitutional government for short-term political gain is unworthy of any real patriot.
In many nations, elections are revolutionary moments. Heads roll, governments topple, and wars break out. In the United States, we celebrate our peaceful transitions. The Founders believed that free people could debate their differences, cast their ballots, and then work together for the good of the nation. The losing side may despise the victors, but if the rules have been followed, true patriots defend this outcome even as they disagree about policy or philosophy. An attack on the legitimacy of the winners is an attack on democracy itself.
In 2009, before he got into a nasty primary campaign for his Arizona Senate seat, John McCain said wisely, “Elections have consequences.” This was the reason that Al Gore conceded the election in 2000 despite pleas for him to continue the recount fight. He thought it better for the nation to rally behind George Bush, a man whose philosophy he fiercely opposed, than to risk undercutting the government’s legitimacy. This was the same reason that in April 2010, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma challenged a rowdy home crowd to stop demonizing the Democrats. To catcalls, he said his opponents were good people and challenged his own party to win on the issues, not through personal attacks on the opposition. To label a large portion of the nation and their representatives “un-American” as a campaign strategy is as unpatriotic as it gets.
In this country, we defend the right of citizens to hold opposing views and accept that our favored positions will not always win out. Our elected officials must be willing to share power and govern with people who see things very differently. This is not a matter of civility; it is a democratic mandate. Look at Iraq. People voted, officials took office, but then they refused to engage. To date, their government is a democracy in name only. Here at home, too many politicians proclaim “my way or the highway” and wear obstruction like a badge of honor; reaching across the aisle can earn them a primary opponent. I am not suggesting wholesale compromise for the sake of comity, but without meaningful debate and bipartisan cooperation, the system dies. True patriots should denounce such conduct, not applaud it.
Finally, both parties are willfully ignoring the greatest threat to our democratic process, further exacerbated by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, a ruling that legitimizes the corporate takeover of American political campaigns. In private, our leaders know how corrupting big money is, but they refuse to reform our campaign finance laws for fear of losing influence and advantage. The same is true of our congressional redistricting laws. What should be nonpartisan is instead a battle between the parties to rig elections in their favor. All Americans must realize that these issues are critical to the health of our democracy. It is the people who lose out when special interests or tiny partisan groups control the outcome of our elections. To suggest that our elected officials should promote a healthy system is not naïve—our Republic was founded on ideals—but without a public uprising, these critical reforms will never occur.
All in all, this new Republic was a rather radical experiment. Despite their differences, our Founders were united in their role as guerilla fighters, insurgents in a revolution. When the dust settled, these men did not enshrine partisan beliefs or powers in our founding documents. Instead, the Framers gave us a strong but flexible system based on universal principles and ideals.
I have strong beliefs about the direction in which our nation should go, and I will make those arguments based not on modern political ideology but on our founding principles, constitutional government, and the lessons learned as the nation has evolved. Some positions will seem conservative and some rather progressive, but all, I believe, are consistent with the ideals at the core of our magnificent system.
Whether you agree with my proposals is not the most important thing. I welcome an honest debate; such is the essence of democracy. But as a patriot, I believe that our founding principles and system of governing are not negotiable. We must recognize the difference between honest debate over policies and philosophy and those measures that skew or upend our extraordinary system for partisan advantage. Such tactics may produce short-term gains, but in the end, everyone loses.
© 2011 Catherine Crier