August 09, 2006

Reclaiming American Ideals

When I was in junior high school, I was already in love with the idea of being a citizen of the United States of America. After all, our country was one of the first countries that based citizenship on a few simple, yet powerful ideas. Not race, not ethnicity, not your place of birth, but on the idea that human beings could form a government based on reason and the rule of law that would work for the common good. I loved the idea that people from all over the world could come here and become citizens based on their allegiance to those ideals.

What an incredible and vibrant government bequeathed to us by those Founding Fathers. They created a living document called the Constitution that has shaped and defined the country for over 200 years. It wasn’t perfect – after all, what human created institutions are? – and it has taken patient prodding and sometimes forceful diligence to remove some of the worst flaws like the designation of slaves to be three-fives of a person for the purposes of defining the number of representatives a state would have and the lack of a vote for women. Yet, the structure of the government created by these people and the philosophy under girding this document were remarkable in how they conformed to some of what we now know is the most creative and robust methods humans have for coming up with systems that actually work.

Our form of government was built by thoughtful men educated in an era that valued reason and ideas embracing the rights of man. They came together having experienced living under a tyrant, with exposure to some Indian models of governance that were more responsive and accountable to those governed, and with the recognition that the Articles of Confederation had created a central government that was too weak and dispersed to be effective and they thought they could devise something better.

Through four long months they worked together, fleshing out the words and phrases that would shape our form of government. They agreed on some basic fundamental concepts: too much power in the hands of one individual or one group would lead inevitably to tyranny, the government would be based on the rule of law, not the arbitrary whim of individuals, that the government was to be in service to the people, and not viz versa, and that citizens have inalienable rights that government cannot take away. This last point was so important that to make it absolutely explicit these rights were enshrined in the Bill of Rights. These men brainstormed and collaborated; they listened to and considered the ideas and concerns of all participants. They built consensus by giving one vote to each state which required the representatives of each state to agree so that their vote would reflect their considered judgment. In other words, they used structured democratic methods to construct an agreement and a vision that would craft a government that would be a model for governance for freedom loving people all over the world.

They had keen insight and knowledge of people and the flaws of individuals so they devised a form of government where it would be extremely hard to consolidate power into the hands of one person or one group. They added checks that would put restraints on the majority so that the rights of the minority would not be trampled. They believed in and valued reason and believed that all citizens, including the president must follow the law. They wanted to have a government that was not ruled by passion and so they put in place a populist House balanced by a more measured and conservative Senate to create the laws. And they wanted public conversations for the big decisions: when the country goes to war, what the important rules are which govern our lives, how we spend our shared pool of money. So they placed the power to make those decisions in the people’s branch of the government.

Our founders wanted to create a government that would be somewhat “inefficient” yet resilient. They believed a representative democracy was a better model of governance than any other form. They knew that authoritarian rulers no matter how wise are blinded by the narrowness of their perspective and their belief that they have all the answers. After all, when decisions are made by small groups of people with too little input from those affected by the consequences of those decisions, the decisions made can be catastrophically flawed. They wanted a government that was accountable to the people governed.

Governments using democratic processes which engage the wisdom and knowledge of a broad group of people with diverse backgrounds to come to a decision make better decisions than individuals or small groups of people, no matter how smart or benevolent the individuals are. Our founding fathers actively engaged in that type of process, and they knew that what they created was better than what they individually brought to the table. So they put together a structure that would encourage that type of process. And they believed that divided power with strong checks and balances would restrain the propensity of individuals to overreach.

It was a marvelous invention and one that worked for a very long time. It saddens me that this invention – this gift from those wise men who had thought so deeply about power and government – has been distorted into something betrays their ideals. Today, we have a rubber-stamp Congress which has abdicated its responsibility to oversee and check the executive branch. We have a court system that anointed our current President despite the fact that the people actually voted for the other guy. And we have an executive that is as deeply irrational and as arbitrary as King George III. The results are a government that no longer works for most of those it governs and one that has created monumental problems which will be extremely difficult to overcome. This is a government that has wasted the treasure of the people, lied to the people to take us into a debilitating and unnecessary war, stripped the citizens of their rights as defined in the Bills of Rights and has darkened the future prospects for the majority of its people.

As citizens, it is up to us to hold this government accountable. And it will be up to us to restore and rebuild a government that works for us: one that spends our money wisely, one that once more respects our rights, one that does not go to war arbitrarily, and one that is rational enough to address the looming problem of global warming. It is time to take our country back from those who have betrayed their oath they took to protect defend the Constitution and the ideals that our forefathers bequeathed to us.

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the July 2006 issue.]

Posted by Mary at August 9, 2006 10:49 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |
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